My alone time, like many other Boston College students, comes at the end of an academically rigorous day. I lay down in my bed and then scroll through whatever social media I need to catch up on for the day or watch a mindless show to wind myself down.
After my social media hunger is satiated, I set my alarm, put my phone on my desk, and cuddle up under my covers to get ready for a good night’s rest. And then the curse begins.
Despite my exhaustion from the day, I simply cannot fade away into my silly dream land where I rule the world. It’s a travesty.
Truly though, and I know that this issue plagues my peers as well, evident in their semi-regular use of melatonin gummies. Unfortunately, this is a national issue—in the past 20 years there was a 500 percent increase in usage of melatonin gummies in the United States.
But melatonin gummies are more of a Band-Aid-on-a-bullet-wound type of solution to sleep struggles rather than a comprehensive solution that addresses the cause.
And, it is our bedtime routines that are the problem. Specifically—and here’s where I will start to sound like your mother—our ever-important screens are barring our way to quality sleep.
Our brains operate on a 24-hour cycle, called a circadian rhythm, that serves as our biological clock for waking and sleeping. It’s how our early ancestors, who most certainly did not set alarms on iPhones, managed to consistently sleep at night and forage during the day. This rhythm is powered by around 20,000 nerve cells clustered in the brain, and they obtain their information from the eyes. The rhythm’s ocular connection is why what you’re feeding your eyes in the hours before you go to sleep is so important. Out of all the factors that impact our circadian rhythms (those being social activity, exercise, and temperature), light is the most influential.
Now remember back to those melatonin gummies, because melatonin is one of the main characters in the delicate dance that is our circadian rhythms. Melatonin is termed the sleepy hormone, as it’s the one that begins to slow our bodies down to facilitate falling asleep. Our bodies, in following the progression of our innate clock, will naturally produce melatonin as night begins. This way, we begin sleep stages as it gets dark outside and will be asleep until the sun rises in the morning.
Seems simple enough. Our early, early ancestors actually got really good at this sleeping thing too. I was doing some personal research (just for fun and definitely not because I was wondering if I could physically do this), but our hominid predecessors may have actually hibernated. Fossils found in northern Spain suggest, based on disruptions in their bone development, that Neanderthals slowed down their metabolism and slept for months in a state of hibernation. These hominids did not have access to technology, and therefore their sleep cycles were influenced by the sun and not interrupted with phones.
Basically, my oh-so cherished, winding-down TikTok time is probably the worst thing I could be doing for my sleep. My phone, along with any other light-emitting screen, produces a type of light called blue light (bet what color it is). Blue light suppresses the production of our precious melatonin. It actually works as a counter to melatonin—it’s wired in a way that helps us stay awake and be alert. Artificial light challenges our circadian rhythm, and over time can change it.
So how do we fix this?
To start, expose yourself to the natural light and dark cycle that is our world. In case you’ve been hiding in the Mods for the last few months, I’ll tell you that the outdoors do indeed naturally get bright during the day and dark at night. Through my years of being a columnist for The Heights, I’ve found that going outside is a pretty good catch-all solution for almost all of our problems in a modern world, like inflammation, stress, and high blood pressure. In this case, spending time outside resets our circadian rhythm and aligns it with the natural light-dark cycles of the world. This results in more restful and intentional sleep when your head eventually does hit the pillow at the end of the day.
In terms of what you can do indoors, you have to be careful, because blue light is a bit sneaky in the sense that it is more pervasive than just phones and laptops. Household LED lights also emit blue light, so dimming overhead lights in the evening or using a duller bulb could help push along our circadian rhythms in a more routine manner.
There is still good news ahead for my wind down time though. And thank goodness for that.
Winding down with technology and still getting a good night’s rest is possible. We just need to integrate our technology in a more passive way at night time, especially in the hours leading up to sleep. Listening to music or a podcast with your eyes closed has been found to have less of an effect on sleep than more active uses of technology, like FaceTiming or playing video games.
Perhaps evolution is preventing us from hibernating (damn), but that doesn’t mean we still cannot get quality sleep every night. That also does not mean we cannot have alone time at the end of every day before we tuck in. We must be intentional with what we are doing in the hours leading up to rest. You wouldn’t walk up to the plate without a bat or a helmet and expect to hit a home run, so why would you expect to get good sleep after having spent the last two hours scrolling on your blue-light menace of a phone?
That being said, the activities you choose before bed are, as everything is, a free-will decision. It’s just if you’re looking for good sleep, maybe look away from the light.