Shedding Light on Sleep Disturbance

by Nina First

The fine line separating going to bed and going to sleep is the LCD display you’re scrolling through every night. Whether you’re catching up on the news, a TV show or checking up on your social media accounts, the time you’re spending staring into your personal electronic device at night is detrimental to your sleep schedule.

Although the hours of sleep needed decreases as humans age, in adolescents, sleep proves to be crucial to the cardiovascular, central-nervous, immune, respiratory and digestive systems due to the stage of physical development after puberty.

Teenagers require a minimum of nine hours of sleep per night, while adults require seven to eight hours per night. With the heavy electronic usage that stretches into nighttime, a healthful dose of sleep is barely possible.

The human body has two systems that regulate sleep: the circadian rhythm and the sleep/wake homeostasis. The sleep/wake homeostasis alerts the body when a need for sleep has accrued. The circadian rhythm manages the timing of sleepiness and wakefulness phases throughout the day. During and after puberty, these two systems shift.

The body’s internal biological clock, the circadian rhythm, is controlled by the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN). The SCN contains light sensitive cells, and when light passes through the eye’s optic nerve, the clock is signaled. Until darkness, the SCN delays the pineal gland from releasing melatonin, a hormone that invites sleep and reduces attentiveness. Because of the post-puberty shift, for teenagers, it doesn’t release until much later in the night.

Teenagers naturally feel more awake and alert later in the night and rely on their electronic devices to complete homework assignments and alleviate boredom. Each one of their devices emits blue-light wavelengths, which during daylight hours are beneficial to boosting attention, reaction times and mood. When emitted during nighttime and in darkness, blue light has a negative effect on your health.

The human eye’s retina contains three photoreceptors: the rods, cones and intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). The rods help with night vision, motion detection and peripheral vision. The cones detect colors. The ipRGCs signal light changes.

The signals of transitions in lights alert the circadian clock, which then instructs the pineal gland to start and stop the discharge of melatonin. The ipRGCs are highly responsive to blue light and therefore delay the secretion of melatonin at the detection of electronic usage.

At Penn State Hershey Sleep Research and Treatment Center, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Julio Fernandez-Mendoza specializes in sleep medicine. Mendoza explains that sleep “is a part of one’s emotional life.” With a poor sleep schedule “a person’s mood worsens,” and their probability of “stress, depression, anger and anxiety increases.”

Because students are required to attend classes early in the morning, Mendoza describes the “brain’s inability to adapt to the school schedule.” With students falling asleep later and waking up earlier, the demanding school schedules are “at odds with biology.”

Mendoza treats sleep disorders with a variety of techniques. Because the blue wavelengths suppress the release of melatonin, red-tinted eye wear helps return the circadian clock to its natural rhythm.

“The red light spectrum doesn’t travel to the brain and doesn’t activate the hypothalamus,” which proves to help battle the body’s reaction to the bright blue light. By wearing red-tinted sunglasses four hours prior to bedtime, your brain thinks it is dark earlier.

A simple natural solution to sleep issues, according to Mendoza, would be “sleeping in complete darkness and waking up to light exposure.” But since “everyone has a different circadian clock,” seeking the right medical aid is important.

Regardless of your age or your habits, sleep deprivation can be dangerous. If you’re leaning on your electronics to entertain you until you tire, you will only delay your body’s natural cycle and encourage a new unhealthful sleep schedule. Many devices now contain “night shift,” a program that slowly draws out the blue color in the screen and emits a yellow/red tint to promote sleep. If these simple methods do not make a difference in your sleep, seek a specialist to help you enjoy sleep and all of its benefits.

This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine