Let There (Not) Be Light! How Technology Can Help You Get Better Sleep

Let There (Not) Be Light! How Technology Can Help You Get Better Sleep
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CEO of Stack Labs, Inc.
5 min read
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We’ve all heard the expression, "There're not enough hours in the day.” And, if you’re like me and practically everyone else I know, you'll see that statement as describing long slogs of work after the sun has set -- a seeming requirement for more and more entrepreneurs these days.

Related: Why Entrepreneurs Should Never Feel Guilty for Sleeping (Infographic)

For us as business owners, in fact, our days are artificially longer, and our nights, shorter, leading to less sleep and the negative side effects that that entails.

I’m not just talking crabbiness. Sleep insufficiency is linked to motor vehicle crashes, occupational errors and chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The federal agency estimates that fully 50 to 70 million U.S. adults have sleep or wakefulness disorder.

That leads inevitably to a discussion about something called sleep hygiene. The CDC defines sleep hygiene as the promotion of good sleep habits: going to bed at the same time each night and avoiding large meals, caffeine or alcohol before bed. Sounds easy, right?

Sure, you can also stop checking emails at the exact same time each night, magically get the kids on to the perfect sleep schedule and, while you're at it, summon the will to never check Facebook or Instagram after 8 p.m. But there's seldom just one cause to the problem: “Sleep insufficiency," the CDC warns, "may be caused by broad-scale societal factors, such as round-the-clock access to technology and work schedules.”

Let there be light! But only the right kind.

Changing our routines or behavior isn’t impossible, it’s just not very realistic (e.g., how many times have you actually kept your New Year resolutions?). Besides, there are much easier things we can do to help get a better night’s sleep. I’m not talking about changing your dinner time, but working with one thing in particular that already helps us regulate sleep: light.

Studies on light, and how it affects our circadian rhythm -- or internal clock -- are becoming more common, given our dependence on technology that has us staring at bright computer and phone screens all day, before bedtime and sometimes all night.  

The problem is that the screens on our phones, tablets and computers emit blue light, which is on the same wavelength as the sun and tells our bodies that it’s daytime -- which keeps us alert. Blue light suppresses our body’s secretion of melatonin, a hormone that tells us it’s time to get sleepy. This artificially alters our circadian rhythm and impacts our mood, behavior, sleep patterns, even our bodily functions, down to the cellular level.

Related: Undiagnosed Sleep Apnea Might Be Why You're Drowsy All Day

It’s not only personal tech devices that are having this blue-light effect, but tech on a larger scale, such as LED street lights.

On the flip side, warmer lighting, on the amber spectrum, doesn’t impact our body the way blue lighting does and is what our body needs when it’s time to relax and fall asleep. Amber lighting emits warmer hues of light like that of a candle’s glow, allowing us to wind down and let our melatonin do its job.

When the bad guy turns good

Despite all of our sub-par sleep (thanks to our dependence on staying connected), continued research and innovation are helping us turn the tide and use technology-emitted light to our advantage. A great example is Apple’s recent addition of the Night Shift feature on iPhones. Turning on Night Shift lets you customize the color temperature that your screen emits at a time of your choosing; you can even align it with the rising and setting of the sun. Set it up and go: You don’t have to do anything but turn it on.

Another stellar tool is f.lux, a computer software that is very similar to Night Shift.  However, f.lux offers more customization options that let you change the color effects to "Darkroom," so the software emits only red light and let you set a "backwards alarm clock"; that way, you know how much sleep you’ll get if you go to bed at any given moment.

I use both Night Shift and f.lux, and they’re brilliant. As happens with anything new, skeptics aren't bashful about expressing their opinions, but sleep science still validates the need for apps and programs to help us keep our circadian rhythm in check. There has also been a revolution within the lighting industry to create light bulbs that change the color temperature they emit, either manually or through advancements in responsive sensor technology.

Related: Arianna Huffington: 'Sleep Deprivation Is the New Smoking'

With lights and lighting, then, we seem to be at a turning point when it comes to understanding how technology affects our bodies. Not only do we know more about how light impacts us, but we’re learning how to take advantage of the very medium that exacerbated the problem in the first place -- technology.

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