Is technology to blame for our sleeping problems?

Posted on 18 February 2017

Growing bodies of research have drawn correlations between the increase in incidents of people suffering from various sleep issues, and the presence of artificial blue light in our environments. Mediclinic Morningside specialist opthalmologist and developer of the SleepSpec, Dr Rob Daniel, explains the link.

Human beings are diurnal – we wake during the day and sleep at night. We operate on a circadian rhythm, a 24-hour or one-day cycle, which facilitates a series of essential biological processes in our bodies. Sleep, for the average adult, should make up at least 7-9 hours of that cycle.

According to Dr Rob Daniel, whose areas of training include human physiology and neuroscience, the brain uses a minimum of 20% of the body’s energy at any given time. That energy consumption produces by-products, which are toxic to the brain. ‘When you are deprived of [adequate] sleep over a period of time, those by-products build up.’

In the short term, the symptoms of sleep deprivation include anxiety, bowel irregularities, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and weight gain. ‘In the long term, that slow and steady damage to the brain reduces its ability to function,’ warns Dr Daniel.

Scientists at University of California, Berkeley’s, Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab conducted a study and discovered evidence that missing out on deep non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep may leave the brain more vulnerable to memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study found that beta-amyloid – a protein pegged as a catalyst in Alzheimer’s – amasses in higher concentrations in the brains of people who experience poor sleep consistently. As deposits of the protein grow, it continues to disrupt sleep ability, feeding a cycle that may lead to dementia.

Technology and sleeping problems

Dr Daniel reports that a few years ago they discovered a third receptor in the eye, called the melanocytic cell, that’s specifically stimulated by 460 nanometer blue light. That wavelength of blue is close to the colour of the blue sky. It’s also the wavelength of blue light being emitted from the screens of all of your digital devices, as well as your energy saving LED and fluorescent lights.

As long as the melanocytic cell is picking up blue light, even through eyelids – and for two hours afterward – it stops the pineal gland in the brain from producing melatonin (the sleep hormone).

‘Melatonin [is the hormone that] facilitates deep sleep which is required to clear the toxins from the brain,’ says Dr Daniel. ‘The trouble in our modern lives is that almost everything is a screen. So if you look at your cellphone before you go to bed, you’ve essentially wasted two hours of sleep.’

Dr Daniel also believes that screens are contributing to difficulty concentrating in children. ‘A primary school child needs about 13-14 hours’ sleep per night – 12 minimum. If the parents let the child play on their iPad until 21h00 at night, it’s like that child is actually going to bed at 23h00 because of the two hour delay. From 23h00 to 06h00 in the morning is only seven hours.’

Tips for better sleep

Dr Daniel, with the use of a spectrometer, has developed a non-medicated solution to the problem of artificial blue light called the SleepSpec. The glasses have amber lenses that eliminate blue light. When worn for two hours before bedtime, they allow melatonin to be produced so the body is able to prepare for sleep, whether you’re on Facebook or not.

The glasses have helped people who battle to ‘wind down’ at night and were also used by the Lions Super Rugby Team when they travelled to Japan and New Zealand last year to manage jet lag and speed up recovery time. Team physician, Dr Rob Collins, reported a marked improvement in the team’s recovery time as well as their mood, and a decreased reliance on sleeping medication.

Dr Daniel reports that SleepSpec addresses our modern day life, but if you’re not using the SleepSpec, he advises the following to ensure you get the sleep your body needs:

  • Do not use any artificial light for two hours before bedtime.
  • Use incandescent lighting in the evening instead of LED and fluorescent lighting.
  • Get black out curtains to ensure your bedroom is very dark at night.
  • Cover any pilot lights on your TV, alarm pad, and other electronic appliances.
  • Children can easily become overstimulated by using devices. Read tips on sleep encouraging behaviour here.

 Please note: the link between blue light and sleep disruption is the topic of ongoing scientific studies.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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