The Sleeping Game

As an international airline pilot, getting consistent, quality sleep has been a challenge for many years.  In recent years, my involvement in two growing businesses has made that challenge all the more difficult.   Workload demands this year saw a concerning trend develop; when I wasn’t flying through the night, I was regularly waking at 3am and struggling to get back to sleep, often being awake for several hours and finally drifting back to sleep for an hour or two before getting up for the day.   

My involvement with SwitchDXB as one of the founding directors made me think very carefully about my sleep patterns.   As the “Switch” concept developed, I realised that for years I’d focused on the “Switch On” side of fitness, and hadn’t grasped the concept of “Switch Off”, especially as it pertained to how the quality of sleep affects your health and wellbeing.

So what was causing my poor sleep patterns?  The most obvious thing to look at was my use of electronic devices before sleep and when I lay awake in the middle of the night.  The last thing I did before sleeping was check my emails and social media. I was charging both my phones on the bedside table all night (no more than a metre from my head), and if I woke in the middle of the night, I’d turn my phones on and check for anything interesting.

I decided the easiest thing to do was get rid of all mobile phones, laptops, iPads etc from the bedroom overnight.  The results, I’ll discuss shortly.

Why is sleep so important to us, and how does the use of electronic devices, particularly mobile phones, affect sleep patterns? 

Benefits of sleep.

We hear so many people casually state “sleep is highly over-rated” or “you can sleep plenty when you’re dead”, but as research clearly shows, sleep is vital for health and wellbeing.   Studies over the past decade show the benefits of quality sleep include:

- Assists in fat loss.  Studies show dieters who are well rested lose more fat than those who are sleep deprived, who lose more muscle mass.   Dieters also feel hungrier when they get less sleep.

- Lowers stress.   Stress and lack of sleep go hand in hand.   Both can affect cardiovascular health. 

- Avoid accidents. Fatigue due to lack of sleep is the leading cause of fatal single car crashes.   Driving, (or operating any form of machinery for that matter) while tired affects your reaction times and decision making in the same way as being intoxicated.

- Avoid depression.  A lack of sleep can contribute to depression.   A good night’s sleep can help a moody person decrease their anxiety.

- Sharpen Attention. Children react differently than adults from a lack of sleep.  Whereas adults get drowsy, children tend to get hyperactive, and exhibit ADHD-like symptoms.  Children or young adults who suffer from any form of sleep disorder invariably have significant functional impairment; studies show those who don’t get enough sleep have worse grades than those who do.

- Improve Memory and creativity.  You need quality sleep after learning a new mental or physical skill to aid a brain function called “consolidation” which assists in the longer term retention of that memory.   In addition to consolidating memories, better sleep also appears to reorganise and restructure those memories, potentially resulting in more creativity.

- Athletic prowess.   Want to be a winner?   Sleep.   Better sleep means better physical performance, with less daytime fatigue and more stamina.

- Live Longer.  Live Better.   Too little sleep (and even too much sleep), is associated with a shorter lifespan.   Lack of sleep also affects your quality of life for all the reasons given above. And isn’t living better and living longer what we’re all trying to achieve? 

Electronics and their effect on sleep. 

Photoreceptors in the retina sense light and dark, sending signals to the brain to produce the hormone cortisone when exposed to light to keep you awake, and melatonin a few hours after exposed to dark to make you drowsy and ready for sleep.   This controls the natural circadian body rhythm that regulates your sleep patterns. 

Electronic devices, be it smartphones, tablets, laptops or televisions, produce sufficient bright light to miscue the brain into inhibiting the production of melatonin, making sleep much more difficult. 

Studies also show that exposure to any form of power frequency electromagnetic force (EMF) and radio frequency radiation in close proximity to the body will inhibit the production of melatonin, thereby affecting the body’s circadian rhythm.   Any electronic device in the bedroom such as an electronic alarm clock, a switched on cell-phone, or even a cell-phone switched off but charging, will affect the body’s ability to create sleep inducing melatonin. 

Achieving better sleep

Knowing what we now know about how electronics play havoc with our sleep patterns, here’s some simple rules for achieving better sleep.

- Avoid the use of electronic items in the hour before bedtime.   

- Make your bedroom an electronic free zone.    Get a battery powered alarm clock.  Turn your cell-phone off, and don’t charge it in the bedroom. 

Leaving the cell-phone in another room aids in resisting the temptation to turn it on for that quick check of social media in the middle of the night.

If you need to have a cell-phone on for communications, turn the volume up and put it as far away from the bed as possible.   Another room preferably.  

Set strict rules for the children; they’re even more affected than adults from a lack of sleep.   As adults, we’re ultimately responsible for ensuring our children get a good night’s sleep. 

Routines such as a regular bedtime of course help, but as an airline pilot that’s often not an option for me.   However, I can control the effect of electronics on my sleep patterns.

So, back to the results of an electronic free sleep?   I now try to avoid the use of electronic devices within an hour of bedtime.   My phones are charged in the office, well away from the bedroom.   No laptops, no iPads, no TV in the bedroom.  No temptation if I wake in the middle of the night to turn on a mobile.    The result?   An almost instantaneous improvement in sleep quality.   Rarely now do I wake in the middle of the night, and my fractured five to six hours of sleep has now become a regular, sound, eight hours sleep a night.   I have much more energy throughout the day to cope with my busy schedule.

I can’t stress enough how important a good night’s sleep is to improve all aspects of your health and fitness.  

Live better, live longer.  Start with a good night’s sleep. 


Author: Graeme Perry

References: Credit to and for various references in this article.

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  Graeme Perry is a Check and Training Captain flying the Boeing 777 with Emirates Airlines, and is a director and co-owner of SwitchDXB and Limitless Supplements (New Zealand).

Graeme Perry is a Check and Training Captain flying the Boeing 777 with Emirates Airlines, and is a director and co-owner of SwitchDXB and Limitless Supplements (New Zealand).

Gary Blowers