It used to be that when you saw a person walking down the street, talking to themselves and gesturing with their hands, you’d give them a wide berth because you’d assume they were a little crazy.
Nowadays, you probably just think they’ve got their earbuds in and are talking on a cell phone.
But maybe they are a little off. Maybe they’re overdosing on technology -- and blue light.
Let me explain. In the past few years, the number of Americans who own a mobile phone has skyrocketed, with 88 percent of U.S. adults saying they own a cell phone, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And, as of 2012, about half of those are smartphones -- making it easier than ever to reach out and call someone or text them or shoot them an email.
Is that a good thing? Not necessarily. For some of us, constantly checking email, social media feeds, and news headlines feeds a need to be in the know and makes us feel wanted and popular. But constantly checking our smartphones may also be a form of addiction that can lead to higher levels of stress.
In one 2010 study, smartphone users checked their phones 34 times a day. Each one lasted less than 30 seconds. That’s a lot of little checks. What researchers found is that most people were checking in not because they needed to, but because it has become a compulsion. In addition to causing higher stress levels, those constant interruptions can be annoying and disruptive, distracting you from other tasks and lengthening the amount of time it takes to get anything done.
And that’s just using a smartphone. Between laptops, tablets and ebook readers, we are become more and more plugged in. And we’re using our devices at night, which is where things get dicey.
A May 2012 Harvard Medical School study gave me a wake up call. It found that people who use their devices at night are being exposed to too much ‘blue’ light -- the kind of light put out by the LED lights in our televisions, smartphones, tablets and PCs, as well as by the energy-efficient light bulbs many of us have adopted in our quest to be greener.
Now, blue light during the day isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it helps boost attention and reaction times, and can lift your mood.
But at night, it’s not so good. An excess of blue light may throw our circadian rhythms (our 24-hour biological clock) out of whack, interfering with sleep. Too much blue light may also contribute to cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Here’s the thing: We humans don’t do well with light at night. Before the invention of artificial lighting, the sun was our major source of light. People spent their nights in relative darkness. So the Harvard researchers studied people who work the night shift, and are exposed to light at a time when their biological clock isn’t expecting it. They found those people at much higher risk of several types of cancer (breast, prostate), diabetes, heart disease, depression and obesity.
The researchers say that excess light at night affects the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that in turn affects circadian rhythms, and the light may also cause an increase in blood sugar levels, increasing the risk of diabetes and obesity.
Now while any light at night can have adverse affects on your health, researchers found that blue light had a much more adverse affect than other kinds of light.
What to do? Well, if you need to work at night and you have to stare at an electronic device, wear a pair of special glasses that block out only the blue component in light (they cost about $80 and look like sunglasses). Or buy a blue light blocking filter for your TV or computer screen. Or, say the Harvard researchers, you can:
• Stop looking at your smartphone, tablet or PC two to three hours before you go to bed.
• Go outside a lot during the day, soaking up bright natural light. That will improve your mood, make you more alert and keep your biological clock on track, boosting your ability to sleep at night.
So do yourself a favor and step away from the gadgets during the day. Limit their use at night. Turning it off, even for a little while, may be just what you need. -- CG
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Image courtesy of flickr user Marcin Wichary