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Artificial Light at Night is Bad for Health

Jun. 1, 2015|660 views
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Do you ever have problems sleeping? If so, you’ve got plenty of company. Insomnia—defined as trouble falling asleep at night, or staying asleep—is all too common in America. There’s nothing worse than struggling to fall asleep while an endless parade of thoughts and worries seem to chase their own tails around in your restless mind.

Insomnia is especially problematic as one gets older. Being tired is no guarantee you’ll be able to get the restorative sleep you need, either. On the contrary, for people struggling with insomnia, it can seem as if the more desperate they are to fall asleep, the more sleep eludes them.

There’s a huge market for sleep aids. But recent evidence suggests that over-the-counter remedies featuring the old antihistamine, diphenhydramine, are bad for your long term health. Drugs such as diphenhydramine, and other drugs in the anticholinergic class, have recently been linked to brain changes consistent with a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. So taking that drug is problematic. In fact, if you’re accustomed to taking Benadryl® or other forms of this over-the-counter drug, you should consider stopping. It’s not worth the risk of developing dementia.

Of course, there’s no shortage of prescription sleep aids, either. These are potent drugs that may help relieve chronic insomnia. But experts warn these drugs may have long-term use risks, too. I always prefer natural methods to achieve good health. Sleep is an essential component of good health for everyone, so it’s crucial to get the recommended amount of sleep every night. For most adults, that’s 7-9 hours.

Perhaps a better strategy is to focus on good sleep hygiene. I’ll talk more about that tomorrow, but today I thought I’d share one factor that’s often overlooked. It’s a growing problem: exposure to short-wavelength light at night. This is the type of light emitted by any number of common devices, including smart phones, televisions, computers, and e-readers.    

"It's become clear that typical lighting is affecting our physiology," says cancer epidemiologist, Richard Stevens, of the University of Connecticut. "But lighting can be improved. We're learning that better lighting can reduce these physiological effects. By that we mean dimmer and longer wavelengths in the evening, and avoiding the bright blue of e-readers, tablets and smart phones.”

So there you have it. If insomnia becomes a problem, consider weaning yourself from your devices in the hours before bedtime. And commit to never taking these devices to bed. Even before blue wavelength light became a big concern, sleep experts warned that the bedroom should be used for sleeping, intimacy—and nothing else. No work. No television. And certainly no electronic devices.

Do you have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night? I’d love to hear about your approach to coping with this common problem.

Gray SL1, Anderson ML, et al. Cumulative use of strong anticholinergics and incident dementia: a prospective cohort study. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar 1;175(3):401-7. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.7663.

R. G. Stevens, Y. Zhu. Electric light, particularly at night, disrupts human circadian rhythmicity: is that a problem? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2015; 370 (1667): 20140120 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0120


Tags:  prevention, health tips, chronic illness