Fábregas: For restful night, put smartphone to sleep
A few nights ago while in bed, I opened my eyes and looked at the clock on the night stand. It was 2 a.m.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I kept looking at the red numbers on the clock for what seemed to be an eternity. My bedroom was dark, my pillow soft and warm, and I was tired. What could possibly be wrong? Could I be losing my ability to sleep because I’m getting older?
Much like everything else these days, I blamed my sleep troubles on getting dangerously close to 50. But when I spoke to Steven Albert, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health who studies aging, I got a wake-up call.
While half of Americans have a hard time snoozing, Albert told me the nation’s sleeping problem is increasing because we’re overly stimulated by technology. We’re just too plugged in.
“It may be getting worse, because we are in such a connected, electronic era. People can get an email at all hours; they can check their cellphones; they’ve got streaming television on all the time. There’s a lot of things going on that make sleeping a lot more challenging,” he said.
I should’ve known better. But how do you avoid checking your email before bed when we’re practically attached to our smartphones? It’s an incredibly bad habit that one study equaled to drinking two espressos.
Even worse, lots of us look at iPads and other tablets before we hit the hay. We surf the Web, check Facebook and Twitter, or just read. Researchers say the bright light coming from the screen mimics daylight. It suppresses production of melatonin, a brain chemical that helps us fall asleep.
The National Sleep Foundation says 41 percent of people report problems with tossing and turning at least a few times a week. It may sound trite, but sleep is considered important to public health because the lack of it has been linked to vehicle crashes, industrial disasters and medical errors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Albert did admit that sleeping gets trickier as we age. It’s more of a challenge, he said, because people start experiencing aches and pains.
“It’s normal to have poor sleep once in a while,” he said. “It’s not normal to have poor sleep all the time.”
Albert and experts worry that too many people are reaching for over-the-counter sleeping aids to solve their problems. That’s not a good idea, he said.
“Over the counter medications are this vast unknown in health care,” Albert said. “I call it the ‘Wild West’ of health care because it’s so underregulated. There’s no other aspect of health care where we expect people to diagnose themselves, walk to a place, find a product, decide when to start, decide when to stop.”
The problem with some of these sleeping aids, which I hope I never have to use, is that they can be easily misused.
The good news is that older people without medical conditions should be able to sleep as soundly as anyone else, Albert told me. We shouldn’t assume that because someone is old, their sleep must be terrible, he said.
Guess I’m not old. Just need to let my smartphone get sleep, too.
Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor.