Happy Dreams: Technology Can Both Ruin and Revitalize Sleep Habits

“Happy dreams, Mama.”

That’s the last thing my daughter says to me before bedtime. I like it because it seems more tangible and emotional than the standard, “Sweet dreams.” Also, it ensures I’m not kept awake because I have this classic Eurythmics song stuck in my head.

Eighties music aside, it seems many Americans aren’t dreaming much these days. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 to 70 million Americans have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.

Factors that contribute to sleep disturbances include medication, illness, and stress.  So do two things common to the health care industry – shift work (particularly night shift) and technology. Both are messing with our circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms are basically a human being’s internal clock. They run on a 24-hour cycle and tell us when it’s time to wake, sleep and release particular hormones like cortisol and melatonin.

The circadian biological clock is controlled by a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. When light travels to this group of cells, it’s signalling the body that it’s time to be awake. The other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or awake also kick in.

This is the perfect set-up for the day shift. When they get up in the morning to go to work, they are exposed to light and the brain sends signals to raise body temperature and produce hormones like cortisol. Unfortunately, the bright sunshiny day also greets the soon-to-be clocking out night shift. Even though they’ve been up all night, their body is jolted by the same shot of sunshine as the day shift. But here it is detrimental to their sleep habits. It’s telling them, “Get up! Get moving! It’s time to start the day,” when what they really need is sleep.

Light from technology is affecting users in the same way natural light affects night shift workers. The blue light emitted from your tablet as you play Angry Birds before bed is particularly powerful in suppressing melatonin production — the hormone needed to induce sleep. The blue light that most of our devices emit works on melatonin in the same way. Again our bodies are being told, “Get up! Get moving! It’s time to start the day!” even though it’s 11pm.

Sleep disturbances and sleep disorders can have serious impact on people’s health. According to research, working the night shift is going to kill us.  A 2003 review lists peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes as hazards of working nights. Shift work has also been linked to obesity and depression.

Some suggestions to help mitigate sleep disturbances are:

  • Try to be consistent
  • Nap before you work
  • Dont use caffeine
  • Dont take melatonin
  • Change your lights
  • Eat a healthful diet

Installing blackout curtains and wearing amber colored glasses when the sun sets can also help night shift workers.

There’s also some technology out there that claims to help with sleep disruption.

  • SleepTracker is a watch-like device that tracks and graphs your sleep patterns.
  • Sleepcycle is a smartphone app that tracks stages of sleep and will alarm to wake you when you are in your lightest phase of sleep.
  • SleepBot is a group of tools that allow users to track their sleep on a mobile app, set alarms and create auto-settings to get the most out of your sleep and view and share stats online.
  • Retimer is a pair of goggles that emit green light to simulate natural sunlight and influence your circadian rhythm.

If none of that technology works for you, you can always try the old fashioned remedies eliminating screen time two hours before bed, restorative yoga poses such as legs up on the wall, and meditation or relaxation.

What are your tips for working the night shift and/or breaking through insomnia?

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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