WDAY: The News Leader

Published December 15, 2013, 05:07 PM

Nonstop texting emerging cause of sleep problems

FARGO – The problem began when she started having problems getting up in the morning to go to school.

By: Patrick Springer, Forum News Service, INFORUM, WDAY

FARGO – The problem began when she started having problems getting up in the morning to go to school.

Her daytime sleepiness got so bad that she occasionally missed school and fell behind in her studies.

The teenage girl went to a sleep specialist, who ruled out physical problems as the cause.

The cause: Her nighttime devotion to sending and receiving text messages.

Texting is emerging as a new suspected cause of sleep deprivation, a problem documented in a recent study and starting to show up at Sanford’s Sleep Medicine Center.

“We’re finding texting definitely is getting to be a bigger and bigger part of the problem,” said Dr. Samy Karaz, medical director of Sanford’s sleep center.

The teenager, whom he has just started treating, is the first patient at the center with sleep deprivation from texting, but Karaz just received a referral involving texting.

The problem begins when people stay up later and later at night sending and receiving text messages. The resulting sleep deprivation causes “crashes,” bouts of daytime drowsiness or nodding off to sleep.

That throws off the normal sleep cycle, and interferes with the person’s ability to function at work or school.

“They wake up in the middle of the night, almost like a clock,” Karaz said, throwing the body out of sync and resetting the internal clock.

“It becomes a problem with what we call conditioning,” Karaz said. “It keeps the brain wide, wide awake.”

In the case of the girl, who does not wish to be identified, “By the time she wakes up, the day is gone,” he said.

Research at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., shows an association, although not a causal link, between texting and sleep loss.

Greater text frequency correlated with key indicators of sleep trouble, including sleep loss, taking more time falling asleep, sleep disturbances and fatigue during the day, according to work by Karla Klein Murdock, a professor of psychology at Washington and Lee.

Murdock decided to study texting and sleep patterns among college students, a population earlier research has shown is susceptible to sleep deprivation, according to a summary of her work in WebMD.

She examined the texting habits of 83 first-year students to explore whether the activity contributes to sleep disturbance and stress.

Some people feel compelled to respond to incoming texts, regardless of what time they arrive.

Texting on a cellphone or working on a computer screen are activities that highly engage the brain and can be more disruptive to sleep than watching television, which is more passive, Karaz said.

“Clearly when we are riled up and our brain is working at a high level, that can be a high risk of insomnia,” he said.

The bright screens on a cellphone or computer also can become a problem when used late at night.

Some people have reported “sleep texting,” a phenomenon similar to sleep walking. Karaz said he hasn’t encountered that but doesn’t find it surprising.

The habit some have acquired of texting at all hours is just the latest alteration in what used to be a clear separation of day and night.

“The definition of sleep and work has become completely hazy,” Karaz said.

As a result, sleep patterns can be thrown out of balance, and people can develop hypersomnia – becoming drowsy or falling asleep – or insomnia.

To restore normal sleep, patients have to relearn healthier sleep habits, including relaxing before going to bed and avoiding stimulating activities like texting or computer games for half an hour before going to bed.

“It makes it harder for the muscles in the brain to relax,” Karaz said.

The bedroom should be a place for sleeping. Still, if people cannot fall asleep, they shouldn’t fault themselves, he said.

They can go to another room and relax on a couch or recliner, listening to soothing music in the dark or thinking about something comforting, such as an upcoming vacation, until they become drowsy, he said.

“We remove completely the feeling of guilt and responsibility,” Karaz said.

He said the message to patients is: “It’s completely out of your control, so don’t worry about it.”

Even partial sleep can provide needed rest.

Meanwhile, more and more people are succumbing to temptations to extend daytime activities well into the night.

Grocery stores, ablaze with lights, now commonly stay open 24 hours a day, for instance. Electric lights, which can literally turn night into day, have only been available for a little more than a century.

“We are the guinea pig generation,” Karaz said. “As humans, do we really know the consequences to all of that?”