Sleeping with your TV on is hurting your health — according to science

The debate over whether or not it’s okay to sleep with the TV on has existed since the invention of the television.

Some people say that sleeping with the TV on can cause a lack of sleep, while others say that it can help you sleep better. The dominant picture is that of millions of people falling asleep to their favorite Netflix shows.

According to a consumer survey, 60% of Americans fall asleep with their TV on. Another study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine revealed that 31% of Americans consider the TV a sleep aid. With the numbers skewing towards that direction, it’s easy to overlook the facts.

So, what does science say about it? I mean, if people consider sleeping with their TV the gateway to a peaceful slumber, is there any need for alarm?

The adverse effects of sleeping with the TV on

Numerous studies have sought to understand whether or not sleeping with the TV on poses any dangers to sleep quality. Most people report that watching TV late into the night helps them to unwind, relax and take their minds off the hustle and bustle of the day. Streaming channels understand this and they usually try to leverage it to their advantage.

However, mounting evidence suggests that this practice could be affecting your sleep quality and general health more than you realize. Here are a few things that happen to your body when you regularly fall asleep with the TV on.

1. Melatonin levels drop, affecting overall sleep quality

Melatonin is an important hormone that controls part of what’s known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. It’s consists of biological processes that operate in the background to carry out vital functions necessary for optimal health.

Melatonin regulates the cycle by promoting sleep. Darkness favors the release of melatonin while light reduces its production. At night, melatonin is what signals your body to start preparing for sleep. Changes in melatonin level can affect your sleeping pattern and the quality of your sleep.

What does television have to do with this?

Well, TV screens emit blue light which has suppresses the production of melatonin. This can affect your sleep in two ways:

  • It throws your biological clock of balance. You might find it more difficult to sleep at night.
  • It results in poor quality sleep. Low levels of melatonin make it harder to enter the deepest stages of sleep. You might awaken more frequently during your sleep.

Without the appropriate timing and quality, your body will not enjoy the full rejuvenating benefits of sleep. For most people, this is something they can live with but for others, it usually gets to a point where they need medical attention.

2. Your subconscious will “continue watching”

The human mind is a complex piece of work. It’s divided into the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious components; all with their unique qualities.

The subconscious is part of the mind which we lack a focal awareness of. It stores our beliefs and past experiences and is responsible for many important functions. For example, the positive impact of affirmations (beliefs) or tasks such as riding a bicycle (past experience) are all possible due to the power of the subconscious.

One weird thing about the subconscious mind is that it stays on even when you are asleep. As such, you may be comfortably zoned out on the couch in front of your TV yet your subconscious mind is still listening and processing the information in the plot.

The result is that your brain won’t get the good rest it needs. It will have to endure the unnecessary stress of digesting the information from the TV.

Watching horror movies or violent drama during the late hours of the night has a different impact. The disturbing scenes might continue playing in your subconscious mind or appear in your dreams, both situations which will affect your sleep.

Research published in the journal Dreaming found that people who watched violent scenes within 90 minutes of sleeping were 13 times more likely to have a nightmare than those who watched something lighter like a comedy.

It’s easy to overlook the type of content you view late into the night, but the detrimental effects are a specter to contend with.

3. Your sleep debt continues to grow

“Debt” is one of those words which almost always bears a negative connotation, and for good reason. You see, when you owe some debt, you have to pay it back at the expense of your time or resources.

Consider a scenario where you stayed up late last night watching new episodes of Suits, your melatonin levels were fucked-up and you didn’t manage to get quality sleep. However, you still had to wake up early and go to work.

Like a zombie, you struggle to survive the pressures of the day. But then, you get back home and instead of sleeping early, the allure of finding out what happens in the subsequent episodes keeps you up again. The cycle repeats itself and before you know it, you’re in sleep debt.

The Sleep Foundation defines sleep debt as “the difference between the amount of sleep your body needs and the amount of sleep it attains.” Sleep debt is cumulative; meaning if you squeeze in a few episodes every night and deny yourself an hour or two, your body will need to catch up with the deficit.

The ramifications of sleep debt are huge. A study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine showed that there’s a connection between binge-watching and classical signs of sleep debt such as chronic fatigue, drowsiness, poor quality sleep, and insomnia.

4. Yes, you might gain a few pounds

Who would have thought that your waistline could suffer from your binge-watching habits?

Preliminary research published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked watching TV late into the night to weight gain and obesity. The study showed that participants who fell asleep with their TV on were 17% more likely to gain an average of 11 pounds over 5 years.

Though no definite explanation has been given, the prevailing school of thought is that light emitted by screens and inconsistencies in sleeping patterns mixes up the body’s metabolism, paving the way for weight gain, obesity, and even cardiovascular diseases.

Furthermore, the compounding effects of inactivity and poor eating habits associated with prolonged screen time contribute to weight gain. More research is underway to understand the dynamics at play.

The takeaway

With endless shows streaming from every channel, it’s almost impossible to avoid the temptation of binge-watching TV late into the wee hours of the night.

Either way, it’s important to understand the repercussions of late-night screen time on your health. Poor sleeping patterns, poor quality sleep, sleep debts, and weight gain are the most notable ones.

Maybe it’s high time you revise your relationship with the TV.

This article originally appeared in Fitness and Health on Medium.