Feature Archive

Power Down for Better Sleep

The key to good rest? Turn off all the gadgets and tune out.

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Michael J. Breus, PhD

Lynn Taylor has a bad habit of sending emails at all hours of the night ... at 11:45 p.m., then 12:29 a.m., and even as late as 2:23 a.m. When the rest of the world is checked out, Taylor is plugged in.

"I spend my day thinking of emails I need to send, and the only time I can catch up is after hours," says Taylor, 36, a government affairs executive in Washington, D.C.

Whether it's email, a video game, the Web, or TV, electronic devices and their offerings keep millions of Americans like Taylor connected 24/7. But the price for leading our fully wired lives is high: These diversions can keep us from both falling asleep and sleeping well.

"One of the most simple but important reasons technology affects our sleep is cognitive stimulation," says Mark Rosekind, PhD, former director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Program at the NASA Ames Research Center and president and chief scientist at the scientific consulting firm Alertness Solutions.

As your brain revs up, its electrical activity increases and neurons start to race -- the exact opposite of what should be happening before sleep. A second reason has to do with your body: The physical act of responding to a video game or even an email makes your body tense, explains Rosekind. As you get stressed, your body can go into a "fight or flight" response, and as a result, cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is released, creating a situation hardly conducive to sleep.

That "glow" from electronics is also at work against quality shuteye. The small amounts of light from these devices pass through the retina into a part of the hypothalamus (the area of the brain that controls several sleep activities) and delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.

All together, our wired way of winding down at night means we're sleeping less and less. "As you stay up later on a consistent basis, you readjust your internal clock, and delayed sleep phase syndrome sets in," says Rosekind. "Now, your body physically can't fall asleep until that new, set time, whether it's midnight or 2 a.m."

The No. 1 way to get better sleep: Turn off the technology, especially in the sanctity of your bedroom

Slumber, Unplugged

  • Unwind before bedtime. Have a transition period, about 15 to 30 minutes, of technology-free time before you go into your bedroom for sleep.
  • Shut down your bedroom. Make where you sleep an electronic-free zone. According to AOL's third annual "Email Addiction" survey, more than 40% of 4,000 respondents have checked email in the middle of the night. Put caps over your electric outlets to discourage plugging in for a recharge.
  • Disconnect your kids. A TV in your child's bedroom has a negative effect on sleep quality. Give him or her a relaxing book to read before bed instead of the remote.

Originally published in the January/February 2008 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

SOURCES: Lynn Taylor, Washington, D.C. Mark Rosekind, PhD, president, Alertness Solutions, Cupertino, Calif. News release, AOL. Owens, J. Pediatrics, September 1999; vol 104: pp e27.

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Last Editorial Review: 2/14/2008