Can’t Sleep? Blame Technology

You get home from a busy day at work, and after a nice dinner with your wife, you’re anxious to sit down to some mind-numbing entertainment. It’s been dark out since 6pm, but it’s hard to tell in your nicely lit home, with the 60-inch screen blasting bright images back at you and your wife on the couch.

Just as you start getting comfortable, you get an email from your boss regarding something ‘urgent’ that needs to be taken care of TONIGHT. You don’t want to leave your wife hanging, so you pull out your laptop and start working away in front of the TV.

Fast forward 2hrs, and you’re wrapping up the final email to your boss, before heading to bed. You’re feeling exhausted when you finally crawl under the covers and turn out the lights, but for some reason your brain is going a mile a minute. Instead of enjoying some hard-earned Z’s, you find yourself laying there, staring at the ceiling, wondering what tomorrow will bring.

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If this sounds like the story of your life, you are not alone. Insomnia is now more common than ever, and sleep medications have hit an all-time high.

Why?

Partly because work has become a 24-hour profession, and this exposes us to chronic and excessive amounts of stress hormones. But also because we’re exposed to too much light when it should be dark, and this throws of our natural circadian flow of sleep hormones.

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Melatonin helps us sleep, and is secreted when our brain receives the message that it’s night-time. The problem is, the brain relies on the eyes to send that message. So, if they’re still sensing light, there’s no secretion (1, 2, 3).

The reason melatonin is critical to sleep, is because it counteracts the stimulatory hormones from the adrenal glands (like cortisol). Meaning, without it we continue to operate in a wired state, when we should be in a tired state.

Melatonin also stimulates the release of a sleep neurotransmitter called GABA. That is often referred to as the brain’s ‘off switch.’ The interesting thing about GABA is that similar to melatonin, we require a certain amount to counteract the stimulation of the day. And unfortunately, with the overly-stimulating technologically driven evenings that are now common, this becomes a challenge.

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Electronics in the evening are a double whammy when it comes to sleep-disruption, because we’re not secreting melatonin when we should (because of the light), and we’re excessively stimulated by it. Inhibiting our ability to wind-down and produce GABA, and preventing the brain from switching to off.

Further, these electronics are exposing us to stress in the evenings. Making us release cortisol longer than usual, and overburdening any melatonin that we do manage to secrete once the lights go off.

The sad part being, that one bad night’s sleep can exacerbate this problem. As these hormone disruptions stay with us the next day, and the cycle continues unless it’s corrected.

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So, how do we fix it?

Well, it starts with trying to find a work-life balance. By self-prescribing constraints, like closing the laptop in the evening, blocking email after a certain time, and forcing yourself to ‘turn work off.’

From there, it’s being conscious of what brings you up or down and setting a schedule that matches the mid-day peak in cortisol and natural reduction throughout the day. This includes avoiding stimulants in the late afternoon or evening, like caffeine or exercise, and doing your best to match your light exposure to this cycle.  With sunlight being your best friend in the daytime (early morning), and blue light being your biggest enemy in the evening.

Though white light in our homes can also suppress melatonin, blue light appears to have the most significant impact (1, 2). Which is why decreasing your exposure to electronics, or actively reducing it with amber-tinted glasses or screen-dimming software (like f.lux) is recommended.

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If you’re already dealing with a sleep problem, avoiding suspenseful entertainment all together, and opting for a mind-calming activity like reading or writing is also encouraged (the less motivating the better).  Those really struggling, may also want to consider some supplemental assistance – with magnesium being the first intervention (to promote relaxation), and a GABA/melatonin producing supplement being the the next line of defense.

Stay Lean!

Coach Mike


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