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Using an iPad Before Bed May Be Wrecking Your Sleep and Your Health

02/19/2015 09:24 EST | Updated 04/21/2015 05:59 EDT

I've always been a bookworm, in fact my passionate enthusiasm for the collection of books might classify me as a borderline bibliomaniac. I grew up with a library of books that matured faster than I did, and I always found that the best way for me to fall into a deep sleep was not counting sheep, but rather reading a printed book.

A few years ago, when the Kindle App came out for my iPad, my bookshelves breathed a sigh of relief because with the convenience of my Kindle I could now have hundreds of books at my fingertips on a tiny on a 1.5 pound device! The phrase, "too good to be true" comes to mind when I think about situation because as wonderful as it was to have an entire library at my whim, I was in deep iDenial about how it was affecting my sleep.

As a scientist, I hold the merits of research in high esteem, and when I read the results of a recent study from researchers at Penn State University in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this bookworm could no longer bury her head in the sand. Findings from a well designed and executed study at Brigham and Women's Hospital (a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital) really hit home, and the results were clear: the glow from electronic devices that emit a higher concentration of blue light than natural light (like an iPad) has a biological effect that may impact both sleep and long-term health.

This two-week study was conducted with 12 volunteers -- each participant was randomly assigned to read from an iPad or a printed book before bedtime for five consecutive nights. After one week, the two groups swapped reading devices. Throughout the study, all participants chose their own leisure reading material that contained only text (no puzzles or images).

Findings revealed that participants who read on an iPad produced 55 per cent less melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that tends to increase in the evening to induce sleepiness and regulate sleep. It is also a strong anti-inflammatory known to suppress cancer cell growth. When melatonin levels decrease they can shift the body's circadian rhythm and make it difficult to fall asleep.

In addition to melatonin suppression, when compared to the book readers, iPad readers felt less sleepy at night, took an extra 10 minutes to fall asleep, had shorter REM sleep (the most restorative part of the sleep cycle), felt sleepier upon waking, and took much longer to feel alert the next day. The findings also extended into the next night as iPad readers began to feel tired an hour and a half later than normal due to the disruption in their circadian clocks from their exposure to the iPad previous night.

This study adds additional support to a growing body of research that has found that that screen time before sleep can alter sleep patterns and decrease melatonin levels. Chronic sleep deprivation can also be detrimental to overall health as it can suppress the immune system; impair cognition; and it has been linked to other health problems such as diabetes, obesity, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, this study demonstrated that given the magnitude of the body's circadian shift from iPad exposure even after one night, only a few nights of sleep disruption can significant effect the body's normal sleep routine.

The conclusion at the end of this study is clear: I know it is imperative for my health to avoid screens and read printed books before bed! That being said, I know that sometimes that isn't always possible, and so I found a few tools that can help mitigate my risk of becoming an iZombie. According to Kamal Patel, the Director of Examine.com, "if you have to use a tablet/laptop/phone at night, it may be helpful to dim the screen as low as possible, while still being able to read." Blue light blocking filters or glasses (while not super stylish) can help modulate the effects of the blue light, and F.lux, is a great free computer software can be downloaded to adjust the computers' display colour based on the time of day.

Literally, at the end of the day, the moral of the story is certain -- avoid screens before bed like your life depends on it... because it actually might.

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