Suffering from Sleeplessness? Blame Your iPad for the Insomnia

The latest high-tech gadgets — and even old-fashioned reading ?before bedtime — can all contribute to insomnia?

Credit: Anna Gay

Bright light may be disrupting your melatonin production

If you’re prone to sleeplessness, think about the amount of bright light you’re exposed to before bedtime.

I confess to being a bit of a gadget freak and, yes, I’m one of those who plan to buy an iPad. But according to some experts, in the hope of freeing my bedside table from stacks of nighttime reading, I may be trading that extra space for a bout of insomnia.

Sleep experts at the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) say the bright light emitted by the iPad can affect the production of the melatonin in our brain, thereby disrupting our natural sleep/wake cycle.

Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate sleep, and the amount our bodies produce depends on the brightness or darkness of our surroundings. Increasing darkness produces more melatonin and prepares the body for sleep. Taking melatonin supplements can help induce sleep for shift workers and help travellers to recover from jet lag.

But the new iPad can have the opposite effect. Like other computer screens, it uses an LCD (liquid crystal display) that’s lit from behind to make the screen bright. Depending on its settings, the screen will become brighter with a decrease in the surrounding ambient light. This artificial light source beams directly into the light receptors in our eyes signalling the brain to suppress our natural melatonin production — thus keeping us awake.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, neurologist Dr. Alon Avidan of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center said, “Not only are you using more intense light, but the light is emitted at you toward the eyes, instead of from behind your head at the book.”

Why Blame the iPad?

So, why isn’t there a similar problem with other e-readers on the market? Products like the Kindle from Amazon actually do not give off any light. Rather, they use what’s called e-paper technology, which reflects light to simulate a real printed book. These devices also require an added light source, like a bedside lamp, to be used in a dark room.

The other concern is the amount of mental activity that can occur with an iPad. Similar to using a laptop in bed, you can play games, surf the ‘Net and answer e-mails, which experts say all add up to an increase in mental stimulation and stress that can make it difficult to fall asleep.

Still, according to Dr. Avidan, those who have no trouble falling asleep won’t have any problems using an iPad or laptop in bed. But if you’re the type who often needs to count sheep in order to drift off to sleep, it might be worth thinking about the amount of bright light you’re exposed to before bedtime.

And if you get hooked on the iPad, try lowering the screen brightness to see if it makes a difference. The way I see it, it’s just a grown-up version of using a flashlight under the sheets to read.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.