How Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Sleep

You need to sleep well if you want to be alert, live for a while longer, and remember what you did today. Too bad the phone you're playing with disrupts the whole sleep thing.

Some people might say that sleep is wasted time. Clearly, they haven't heard that sleep is where you put your memories away for safe keeping, give your genes a chance to chill out, and give your brain a rinse.

That's why taking our phones to bed with us is such a problem. While they may seem innocent, the screens we lavish with our waking attention sully our slumber. They illuminate us in all the wrong ways.

“Light works as if it’s a drug, except it’s not a drug at all,” George Brainard, a neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told the New York Times.

This is because light has a relationship with two of our most dichotomous hormones: melatonin, which helps us drift off to sleep, and cortisol, which gets us ready for action. As io9 notes, evolution is at work here: we used to have a pretty regular rhythm of lots of light and little light, what with the movement between sunny days and starry nights. That light signaled to our bodies when to release melatonin and when to release cortisol, thus priming us for rest and activity.

But that is no more.

What if Van Gogh had an iPhone?

Now we have a whole host of well lit nighttime distractors, with most every device employing LEDs, which it turns out are absolutely terrible. More and more research shows that LEDs give off a blue wavelength of light, which is especially suited to suppressing your melatonin levels and thus not allowing you to nod off.

But it's not just that we stay awake longer thanks to our devices and the content therein. Once we get to sleep, we're getting worse rest: the unnaturally raised levels disrupt our sleep and mess with our body-fat and inflammation levels.

"But if our rooms are dark at night .. our bodies pump out the much needed melatonin," says George Dvorsky, writing for io9. "Moreover, our melatonin levels are regulated according to the amount of exposure we had to light during the previous day."

In this way, getting a solid night's rest is similar to staving off Seasonal Affective Disorder: you want to give yourself as much sunlight as possible as early as you can during the day, since that will provide a super strong signal to your hormones that you really do need to be awake. Then when it gets late enough, you'll really be able to sleep—so long as you keep your phone far from your pillow.

Hat tip: io9

[Image: Flickr user Faris Algosaibi]

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5 Comments

  • Brian Hoskins

    Phones and electronics are a problem, but an even bigger problem may be the artificial lights in our homes. As you point out in the article, LEDs and compact fluorescents have high levels of blue spectrum which is the worst for suppressing melatonin and has been linked to sleep issues as well as more serious concerns including obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

  • Rodney Brackins

    Before the era of the ipod,iphone,ipad, I drifted off to sleep every night with a book or two. Yeah, I do stay up longer now getting distracted with all kinds of apps and games and youtube videos and things. That being said, I think this a natural societal evolution.

  • Esteban Vargas

    How can an editor allow an article about this topic to be published without including research on current mobile apps (also Windows and MacOSX) that were created to help fix this. I ran into f.lux (just Google it) a couple days ago and found the concept fascinating and the app truly useful. I am waiting until they release an Android version or even a Beta.

  • Brian J. King

    Check out Bluelight Filter or Twilight for Android F.lux experience. You'll probably need to check out both to decide which you prefer for your mobile experience.

  • Beat me to the punch. I use F.lux on my jailbroken iPhone, my desktop, and really any other device I can install it on. It's crazy to see how much it does once you're used to staring at 2300K for a couple hours. The moment I change it to 6500K my eyes instantly squint, almost with pain.

    F.lux FTW: http://justgetflux.com/