- Functional Medicine -

How Screen Time Messes With Your Sleep: Q&A With Tiffany Lester, MD

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Tiffany Lester

The medical director of Parsley Health shares her tips on developing a healthy relationship with digital devices — and reclaiming your sleep.

Experience Life | Parsley Health has reported seeing patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with chronic insomnia, brain fog, and short-term memory loss. Is this a new trend?

Tiffany Lester | This is not a new trend, but it has definitely grown over the last 10 years. Practitioners are becoming more aware of these symptoms and therefore diagnosing at an increased rate. Insomnia has been a documented condition for decades. What has changed is the invention of the Internet, smartphones, and social media. People are glued to their devices from morning until night, and we are starting to see the negative effects on their health on a grand scale.

EL | Phone addiction has become a big media topic lately. What are some of the behaviors or symptoms of phone addiction?

TL | Phone-addiction behaviors include responding to the constant barrage of notifications or refreshing your email every five minutes. It increases dopamine in our brains, which is our reward center. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that is constantly seeking more pleasure. The more you feed it, the more your brain desires — it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

EL | Do you have advice for people on how to deal with screens around bedtime?

TL | I encourage my patients to create a nighttime ritual that always includes turning off all electronics at least one hour before bedtime. A Harvard study showed that for every hour we are on our devices at night, it suppresses melatonin for at least 30 minutes. A common combination I see in testing is low melatonin and high cortisol at night, which makes it biochemically impossible to wake up refreshed.

EL | Recent reports of anxiety, stress, and even depression caused by spending too much time scrolling social-media feeds have recently surfaced. Do you think it relates to growing smartphone use in general, or has it been accelerated by recent world or political events?

TL | While recent world events haven’t helped, I think it’s mostly due to smartphone usage. I’m old enough to remember a world without the Internet. Yes, anxiety and depression have always existed; however, it has risen at alarming rates in recent years. We are just beginning to learn the long-term consequences technology has on our health. This year is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, and I couldn’t imagine my life without it — yet I think it is crucial that we develop healthier habits with our devices.

EL | Finally, have you ever struggled with these issues yourself? If so, what do you do to counter them?

TL | Even knowing all the research, at one point in time I found myself checking Instagram as soon as I woke up. Then I would check my email and my day started in this whirlwind. I found myself to be more on edge throughout the day and cravings carbs. Once I started meditating again as soon as my eyes opened, it had a profound difference on my well-being. I was calm and focused all day while developing a healthier relationship with my phone.

Tiffany Lester, MD, is the medical director of Parsley Health, a membership-based functional-medical practice, and creator of The Unconscious Workout. Find her at www.drtiffanylester.com and on Instagram @drtiffanylester.

is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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