In days gone by, it was easy to unwind of an evening after a hard shift at work: simply eat, relax, sleep, repeat.
Nowadays, as we find ourselves surrounded by technology, the temptation to check our emails, explore our social media channels and read some hopeless click baiting articles about crime fighting pensioners and celebrities with three nipples often proves too hard to resist.
You might think that there is nothing wrong with this as a viable way to pass the time – and that’s true, to an extent – but it does seem that timing is everything.
Research undertaken in the past few years has identified the threat of digital technologies to peoples’ health and wellbeing: principally our sleep patterns. The divertive nature of new tech has turned us into a generation of zombies; unable to get our eight hours in due to the disruptive influence on our circadian rhythms of smartphones, tablets and any other devices that emit artificial light.
The science bit
Sending a late night email or playing a few games of Candy Crush might seem like a harmless act, but it is the impact it has on our brains that ultimately affects our ability to nod off. Any form of cognitive stimulation can impede the time it takes for our body and mind to shut down - and yes, while many of us have fallen asleep in front of the TV in the past, you will find that nine times out of 10 those late night boxset gorges will lead to a lack of, and poorer quality, sleep.
The science behind it is simple: enhanced cognitive activity is a result of neurons whizzing around our grey matter as a consequence of receiving a stimulus; and this is in stark contrast to how our minds should be working prior to sleep, where a gradual tapering off of stimuli is the natural order.
Often a late night engagement can cause an emotional response - perhaps if we receive a frustrating email or see a distasteful post on social media, and this can activate the body’s fight or flight mode. This causes blood to flow quicker around the body, and the stress hormone cortisol is subsequently released. Even the most apathetic of us will struggle to get some decent shut eye in such a situation.
Instead, we should be producing melatonin, the hormone that essentially manages sleep and waking cycles. A lack of this - often evidenced due to an over-exposure to the artificial light sources found in phones, tablets, e-readers etc - affects our sleep patterns and can lead to more serious conditions too.
It is the glow factor that is the biggest demon here. Artificial light reduces melatonin production as discussed, and also passes into the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which is also chiefly responsible for slowing our bodies in preparation for sleep. Rather than helping us to nod off, browsing our phones or watching a film can actually promote wakefulness.
It is the hypothalamus that controls our circadian rhythms too, which are basically the body’s response to triggers of night and day. Upsetting these is the reason why we experience jet lag when crossing time zones; that powerless feeling of an unhelpful body clock.
While there are different kinds of light, the hypothalamus reacts with a waking state in daylight and a sense of sleepiness in the dark. So the light emitted from your tech is basically kick-starting the body’s engine for the day ahead; even if it is the dead of night.
According to Mark Rosekind, a former director of the Fatigue Countermeasures Programme at the NASA Ames Research Center, consistent melatonin mis-management can affect our long-term sleeping patterns. "As you stay up later on a consistent basis you readjust your internal clock, and delayed sleep phase syndrome sets in," he said. "Now, your body physically can’t fall asleep until that new, set time, whether it’s midnight or 2am."
Day time duties
The impact of a lack of sleep on our ability to operate successfully in the office the next day are obvious, and anybody who has engaged in some late night activities on a ‘school night’ will acknowledge how badly they underperform the next day. Albeit on a milder level, multiply this feeling ten-fold and you will be close to the damage caused by consistent sleep disruption as a result of late night tech usage.
There are numerous other physiological effects of sleep deprivation too. A good night’s kip is your boy’s way of repairing cells, fighting bacteria and replenishing energy, and neuro research has found that the Hippocampus, the knowledge store of the brain, also acts while we sleep to reinforce knowledge learnt during the day. This is why students and public speakers are recommended to study for exams or learn their lines just prior to sleeping.
So, in conclusion, to maintain a healthy body and mind - and promote knowledge retention - sleep is essential.
The great tech curfew
It would be easy to turn off all devices when the sun sets, but for many entrepreneurs it’s not as simple as that, as often their ‘off the clock’ activities are just as important as those conducted between nine to five.
But it is essential that all of us experience a period of relaxation immediately prior to sleep. This can be just 15 to 30 minutes of reading a book, listening to music or even just thinking about the day/week ahead in complete darkness. All of these activities will kick-start melatonin production... and now you know the rest.
We need to unlearn many of the behaviours that have simply become second nature to us in modern times to help aid our sleep. If we do, the benefits that will be experienced are obvious.