The Hazards of Binge-Watching, Sleep Edition

by | Oct 3, 2017 | Integrative Medicine

tablet, popcorn cup, stuffed animal on bedJust as your body needs oxygen, food, and water to go about all its daily business effectively and efficiently, it also needs sleep. Quality sleep. Sufficient sleep. It is, after all, one of the 8 keys to Radiant Health.

One thing that can get in the way of that? Binge-watching.

Recently, a research team, led by Liese Exelmans of the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research, surveyed just over 400 young adults, asking about fatigue, insomnia, and binge-watching habits.

Most of the sample (81 percent) reported that they had binge-watched. Of that group, nearly 40 percent did it once during the month preceding the study, while 28 percent said they did it a few times. About 7 percent had binge-viewed almost every day during the preceding month. Men binge-watched less frequently than women, but the viewing session nearly doubled that of women.

Respondents indicated they slept, on average, seven hours and 37 minutes. Those who binge-viewed reported more fatigue and sleep quality compared to those who didn’t binge-watch.

How come? “Increased cognitive arousal prior to sleep,” said the authors.

“Bingeable TV shows have plots that keep the viewer tied to the screen,” Exelmans said. “We think they become intensely involved with the content, and may keep thinking about it when they want to go to sleep.”

A racing heart, or one that beats irregularly, and being mentally alert can create arousal (or pre-sleep arousal) when a person tries to fall asleep. This can lead to poor sleep quality after binge-viewing.

“This prolongs sleep onset or, in other words, requires a longer period to ‘cool down’ before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall,” Exelmans said.

This means less deep sleep, too, and that’s a problem. Another recent study suggests that it’s the loss of REM-sleep – the phase when we dream – that may be the main cause of the health problems associated with sleep loss. “We are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived,” said its author.

And it’s not just our mental and emotional involvement with shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black that’s the trouble. There’s all that blue light emitted by the tablets, monitors, and other electronic devices we watch them on.

Blue wavelengths boost attention, reaction times, and mood. This is great during the daytime, but not so much at night when it comes time to wind down and rest. While any kind of light can interfere with your body’s internal clock – its circadian rhythms – blue light does so much more powerfully.

Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).

In another study of blue light, researchers at the University of Toronto compared the melatonin levels of people exposed to bright indoor light who were wearing blue-light–blocking goggles to people exposed to regular dim light without wearing goggles. The fact that the levels of the hormone were about the same in the two groups strengthens the hypothesis that blue light is a potent suppressor of melatonin.

While we experience sleep loss through things like daytime tiredness, crankiness, and muddy thinking, as we’ve noted before, skimping on sleep can ultimately drag down your overall health. A recent item in The Australian offers a pointed summary of what happens when you get even one hour less sleep than you need.

With less sleep your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure rises, your stress hormones surge, your growth hormones fade, your hunger hormones increase, you eat more calories (and especially more sugar and fat) and your arteries fur up. Your brain makes extra little parcels of endocannabinoids, the same chemicals that give dope smokers the munchies.

We’re not even halfway yet. Your cells start to ignore insulin (a precondition for type 2 diabetes), your testosterone levels sink to those of a person 15 years older, your testicles shrink and your sperm die (if you’re a man), your egg release hormone dives (if you’re a woman), your emotions run riot, your DNA gets scrambled like a pack of cards in a wind tunnel, and your immune system tanks. One British study suggests that sleep deprivation produces changes in the blood similar to your body preparing to be stabbed. And to top it all off, you look shiftier and less attractive to the opposite sex.

Keeping that stuff from happening should be plenty good motivation for spreading your viewing out over time – or at least making the binge just a sometimes thing.






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