Wellbeing

“Is scrolling on my phone at bedtime bad for me?” – a sleep expert answers your questions

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 30-year-old social media editor struggles to switch off after scrolling on her phone in bed – with constant work stress lurking in the background. 

A little about me:

Age: 30

Occupation: Social media editor

Number of hours sleep I get each night: 5 to 6

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: No, but sometimes I do get up and eat in the night. This tends to happen more when I am stressed. I feel like I never sleep for more than four hours’ straight, too.

How much water I drink on average per day: I drink around one litre a day, and more on gym days.

How much exercise I do on average per week: I work out around two to three times a week, for an hour at a time.

What impact does phone use have on sleep?

Day 1

After a hike the day before, I spend my Saturday morning at a meditation and ice bath workshop. I am secretly terrified about the latter part, so I spend my morning firstly filled with nerves, and then nicely relaxed and rejuvenated once it’s complete – especially after a physically tiring day yesterday. 

But the feeling soon fades as the afternoon unfolds, as I begin to work (read: procrastinate and find jobs around the house to do) on a freelance piece. Trying to balance freelance projects with my actual job means my work anxiety is on steroids – especially as I’m on holiday for the second half of the week.

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Since the pandemic, staff cut means there is no one to cover me, and workload has gone up and up. But I’ll deal with that later. I work into the evening and manage to get off to sleep quite quickly around 11.30pm as I’m so mentally and physically tired. But I’m wide awake an hour later and struggle to get off to sleep again. I wake up again at around 3am – it’s pretty usual for me to wake during the night – and it doesn’t take long to get back to sleep. 

Long-term work stress is often corrosive

Day 2

My Sunday alarms, as usual, are set for 5.30am and 6.15am. This is always the same on most weekends, as I like to get up early where possible – or at least be aware of the time. I live off a main road with lots of cars and a tram, and I don’t have any curtains, so the noise and light would usually wake me up anyway. My body feels heavy getting out of bed. Today is an intermittent fasting day (which I usually do four days a week) so I make my black coffee for breakfast – with two more to follow – and a fruit/veg/protein powder smoothie for lunch. 

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My afternoon snack is a chocolate rice cake, and this time a coffee with coconut milk. In the evening I do a yoga class. I decide to take a night off from writing (I just send some emails). Instead I watch Netflix and have calls with people from home. Dinner is veggie burgers. I’m in bed by 11.30pm-ish and scroll on my phone for a while, before putting on a podcast and falling asleep. I don’t remember getting up in the night but think I woke up one or twice and looked at my phone/the time.

Yoga is associated with restful sleep

Day 3

I wake up with relative ease, but with a dulling sense of dread. There is just so much to do at work and I have some holiday days penned in, too. I do spinning in the morning – usually I try and spin or run a few times a week but I’ve been slacking recently as my workload has increased. I’m fasting again today, so my daytime diet looks the same as yesterday. I finish work at 5pm, but leave at 6pm and then head off to a 90-minute mediation session. 

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It’s enjoyable, but knowing that I have a long night of finishing a deadline ahead means I don’t really relax too much. I’m home at 8.30pm. I order a coconut milk latte and a doughnut, and I crack on with work. I finish at 2am, pack my bags for the next day and I’m in bed by 2.45am. I’ve gone full circle and I feel surprisingly awake.

how-to-sleep-better-tips
The thought of a looming deadline can make it difficult to relax

Day 4

After around three hours’ sleep, I am up at 6am to send my freelance project off before work. I get ready for a morning in the office followed by an afternoon photoshoot and client meeting. I feel surprisingly awake and refreshed. Today I skip fasting and buy a coconut latte when I arrive at the office. I eat an early lunch (a falafel sandwich) before my colleagues and I depart for a two-hour drive to the shoot. I drink a Diet Coke in the car, and get another latte when we arrive. The shoot goes well and the meeting I had been anticipating goes relatively smoothly. 

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We finish up at around 8pm, and I head to my mum’s house for a few days’ stay. We walk around some nearby shops, I have McDonald chips for dinner (since it’s an off day, we’re on the go, and I’m vegan so options are limited) and then we head home. I am in bed by 10.30pm, which is early for me. On rushed days like today, my usual healthy eating and exercise go out the window, I fall asleep easily and naturally as I am so tired, but I wake up 20 minutes later due to a startling noise. Work stresses then creep into my mind and I’m awake until at least 1am when I remember looking at the time. At 3am I wake up again, go to the bathroom, eat a cereal bar and then head back to sleep. I feel very thirsty, too, so I keep drinking water in the night.

Staying hydrated is an important part of overall wellbeing

Day 5

I’m on holiday today, so there’s no need to get out of bed early. I still wake up naturally around 8.30am but I have a slow morning. I spend the morning walking and have an early lunch – zaatar manakeesh – and afterwards, my mum and I keep walking and head home and I read my book. At about 2.30pm I nap for an hour, before going out for a bit of shopping. I have two coconut lattes throughout the afternoon, one quite late. 

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Dinner is mujaddara – lentils with crispy fried onions and salad – and I head to bed around 11pm feeling tired. I look at my phone for a bit, scroll Instagram, reply to messages, and before I know it an hour has passed. I am awake until 3.30am – I’m wide awake, so I end up chatting on WhatsApp and on social media, and listening to podcasts. I’m up again at 5am and then 6am. In the morning, I start my period and I think that is why I couldn’t sleep.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says:

“There’s a lot going on here. Yes, you have some great hobbies and self-care practices – meditation, exercise and walking, not to mention the breathwork and ice bath workshop (both of which are excellent for stress and training the nervous system). 

“But you also have some very unhelpful habits – notably your high caffeine intake, your poor food substitutes (a doughnut!) and your relationship with technology.”

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Nerina continues: “None of the above will be helping your sleep: the caffeine and sugar for obvious reasons (remember, sugary beverages and sweets have long been tied to worse sleep), and I suspect the tech use could be the cause of your patchy sleep.”

As per the National Sleep Foundation’s extensive research on the subject, electronic back-lit devices like cell phones, tablets, readers, and computers emit short-wavelength enriched light, also known as blue light. This has been shown to reduce or delay the natural production of melatonin in the evening, which, in turn, decreases feelings of sleepiness. 

Blue light can also reduce the amount of time you spend in slow-wave and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, two stages of the sleep cycle that are vital for cognitive functioning. So, even though you may have gotten enough sleep in terms of hours, it may not be of a very high quality.

“Now, I know you’re not getting enough sleep in terms of hours but the key thing is this: how are you feeling? Are you exhausted?” asks Nerina. “You don’t really say if you are, but I’d be interested to know.

“If you’re happy with your energy levels then what you’re doing is working for you. But I suspect you could have a lot more energy and resilience to cope with your deadlines if you follow my advice.”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Images: Getty

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