Want to sleep better without removing screens at bedtime? Make these tweaks

Experts weigh in on how to combat sleeplessness and insomnia

If you are habituated to screentime before sleeping, decrease the brightness levels and swap blue tones with yellow tones using eye comfort mode settings. Getty Images
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“Don't be afraid of your phone.” That is the rather unconventional advice Hannah Shore, a sleep expert at Silentnight Arabia, shares with The National ahead of World Sleep Day, which falls on Friday.

While the “wrong type of light at the wrong time” can have an impact on sleep, she explains that completely demonising mobile phones before bedtime is impractical and even counterintuitive these days. Mobile phones and other digital screens can be part of the problem why some people struggle to doze off, but Shore says this is certainly “not the case for all sleep problems”.

Exposure to blue light is thought to impact the circadian rhythm, or people’s internal body clock, but Shore says “our phones emit a much lower light level than what is naturally affecting our body's sleep-wake process. Also, most devices are now equipped with ‘eye-comfort mode’ settings, which swap harsh blue tones with subtle yellow tones. Brightness levels can be managed manually, too.”

Having said that, what’s more important is the type of content consumed before bed. Avoid content that raises the heart rate, a horror movie, for example. The same goes for content that is “too engaging”.

It is important to find out what works for you, and if that is watching re-runs of Friends, go for it
Hannah Shore, sleep expert, Silentnight Arabia

“If you find yourself regularly giving in to watch ‘just one more episode’, you will regularly stay up later,” says Shore. Even for those who read as part of their downtime, a page-turning book can have the same effect, whether it’s on Kindle or a paperback.

Content that promotes meditative thoughts or even one-note documentaries (not the ones about serial killers) are a much a better option for evening Netflix time.

“Some people need some sort of sound or imagery to switch off from the day. Others need silence, while some people meditate and others can’t. It is important to find out what works for you, and if that is watching re-runs of Friends, go for it,” says Shore.

A borecast is another quirky but effective type of content to check out. Essentially podcasts where narrators talk about themes that are deliberately boring, borecasts or sleepcasts are designed to bore people into slumber. One popular show is Boring Books for Bedtime, which includes an episode narrating a catalogue of agricultural tools.

Dr Rashi Agarwal, a psychiatrist, mental health expert, educator and content creator from India, says boring or not, listening to podcasts at the same time every day offers a "a sense of routine and can signal the body that it’s time to relax. Listening to audio books can also help people relax and take their mind off chaotic thoughts left over from the day. Many audio books have timers to automatically cut off after a specific time to induce sleep," Agarwal explains.

As Shore puts it: “If you are using your phones in a way that can help you sleep better, then they are perfectly fine being in the bedroom.”

Three sleep techniques to try

If light screentime or a boring podcast is not cutting it for you, maybe it’s time to do a full wind-down routine reset. Vinay Kumar Gurumath, a neurosurgery specialist at Aster Hospital Al Qusais, says there are different wind-down activities that can be performed to induce relaxation, such as light exercises and journaling.

If you struggle with visualisation, repeat the words 'don’t think' for 10 seconds
Louis Fourie, clinical psychologist, German Neuroscience Centre

“Recognise the triggers that make you reach out for your phone – if it's your anxiety or loneliness triggering you to scroll – then seek out alternatives such as reading books, working out or other relaxation techniques,” he explains. Here are three to trial.

1. 30-30-30 rule

Louis Fourie, a clinical psychologist at German Neuroscience Centre, Dubai, recommends the 30-30-30 rule for better sleep. “Firstly, disconnect from devices 30 minutes before bedtime, dedicate the next 30 minutes to personal hygiene, and spend the final 30 minutes in a sleep-friendly environment,” he says. Aside from dim lighting, the ideal environment includes a comfortable bedroom temperature.

2. Five-step military sleep method

Another relaxation strategy Fourie recommends is the five-step military sleep method, believed to have helped Second World War airmen fall asleep in 120 seconds. The technique, he explains, “incorporates proven relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and visualisation”.

It begins by closing the eyes and focusing on taking slow and deep breaths. Next, each muscle group should be relaxed from head to toe, starting with the face and moving downwards. After relaxing the body, the method calls for clearing the mind.

“You can achieve this through visualisation, picturing a relaxing scene like lying on a beach. Visualise what this scene would be like by thinking of what you might hear, feel or smell,” says Fourie. “If you struggle with visualisation, repeat the words 'don’t think' for 10 seconds. If other thoughts distract you, put them aside and bring your attention back to your visualisation or recitation.”

3. Nidra therapy

Dr Arun Aravind, the resident Ayurvedic expert at J Wellness Circle at Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, notes “stress is often a factor in disturbed sleep patterns. Ayurveda recommends subtle practices such as meditation, pranayama and yoga as effective means of resetting the nervous system and cultivating a healthier physiological response to stress.”

The Nidra (sleep in Sanskrit) massage is another way of doing this, says Aravind. The 120-minute treatment begins with a hot water shower to ease out stress. This is followed by a relaxing full body massage with long, soothing strokes using products that channel the scents of kewda (screw pine), frankincense and brahmi (water hyssop) infused in sandalwood and sesame.

The treatment ends with a dry scalp massage and a face massage focusing on the marma points. According to the Ayurveda school of thought, these points are located at the anatomical site where muscles, veins, ligaments, bones and joints meet, and massaging them can channel a sense of serenity.

Insomnia alert

When cultivating a new habit, Fourie says it's important to be patient and “kind to yourself” as people respond to sleep advice differently, and what works for one person may not work for another.

What is evident, though, is that the UAE is not sleeping enough. A survey conducted for World Sleep Day shows that more than 40 per cent of UAE residents are only clocking in six hours of sleep – an hour or two less than the expert-recommended time frame.

“Adults should aim for seven to nine hours of good quality sleep per night – six hours is on the lower end,” says Shore, who was part of the Silentnight Arabia survey commissioned in collaboration with hotel chain Premier Inn.

“We must allow our bodies the right amount of time in each stage of sleep to fully recover – five cycles of 90 minutes per night. Deep sleep repairs the body,” she explains.

A lack of quality sleep can be attributed to various issues, with the survey clocking stress as a major factor. It's simply difficult to end the day when its weight presses down on you at night. “We only sleep when we feel safe,” says Shore, who explains how stress “triggers elevated levels of cortisol, which disrupts the production of sleep hormones”.

Acute and chronic forms of insomnia, or the inability to sleep, are very common globally. Whether it's due to work problems or the big-picture uncertainties of life, quality sleep has seemingly become a luxury few can afford.

According to Shore, insomnia is a clinical issue and people should not be afraid of seeking professional help. “An insomniac is someone who struggles to fall sleep, stay asleep and wakes early, and the lack of sleep is having a significant impact on their daily life,” she explains. “If this happens more than three times a week and lasts for three months, you should seek medical help.”

Updated: March 19, 2024, 8:09 AM