Why is it so hard to disengage from our digital leashes? Believe me, I completely understand the need to be engaged with emails, social media, text messages and all our gadgets during our work day and to help support our social lives. All this convenience comes with a risk, however. Too often, we let our digital obsessions and all our connectivity carry us through the night, and we give it the power to disturb our sleep. My iPhone is on my nightstand to use as an alarm clock, but I always find myself spending time before bedtime checking Twitter, my emails, or reading any news updates. If I feel like reading, I now have more books on my iPad than I do hardcopy versions.
This is a relatively new phenomenon brought on by this age of digital hyper-connectivity. As we start 2014, reports of insomnia are worsening in our population while profits from products promising sound sleep are skyrocketing. In early 2012, the American Medical Association recognized that "exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders."
Therefore, exposure to electronic stimuli and disrupted sleep are scientifically linked, and sleep problems have many more negative consequences than many might realize. A lack of sleep has been clinically linked to weight gain, depression, increased anxiety, heart disease and a whole host of other medical problems. Sleep deprivation also has been documented as a cause of car accidents, work-site injuries and poor job performance. Sleep is sacred, and it is essential for health -- mind, body, and spirit.
If falling asleep or staying asleep is a problem, we need to unplug. The distractions of emails and social media are not the only problem preventing us from quieting our minds. Even the blue light emitted from our electronic equipment has been scientifically shown to disturb sleep by suppressing melatonin.
Melatonin levels naturally rise closer to bedtime to help promote sound sleep, but blue light drops these levels to make our brains think it is time to be awake and alert. While television also contains these blue lights, it is worse using our smartphones, tablet computers, and laptops because they are so close to our eyes.
How does this happen? Neuroscientists have discovered an area in the eyes that is specifically present to detect light -- novel light sensitive cells. These cells are different from the part of the eye we use for vision, and the novel light sensitive cells contain a photopigment called melanopsin that is particularly sensitive to blue light. Scientists believe this light-detecting mechanism connects to the brain to regulate our sense of night and day and time of year.
How can we disconnect to reconnect to sleep? It may need to start with a period of digital detox to power off our digitially inclined minds. Then let's think about other mindful activities that are relaxing to our minds, without using an electronic device. Try one of these mindful activities to connect you to a state of peace before you sleep:
1) Try reading from an actual book or a magazine.
2) Listen to music that makes you feel calm and relaxed.
3) Write in a journal.
4) If your mind has racing thoughts of tasks that you didn't complete yet, write down your to-do list for the next day.
4) Try meditation. Are you new to meditation? Try listening to a guided meditation intended for sleep.
5) Create a gratitude list for the day.
Romila "Dr. Romie" Mushtaq, MD is a neurologist with expertise in the field of mind-body medicine -- a branch of medicine that promotes the science behind mindfulness based techniques. She is also a hatha yoga and meditation teacher. Dr. Romie helps clients heal by teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques as a health and wellness coach at the Natural and Integrative Medical Center in Orlando, Florida.