January 23rd 2019

Up All Night: Why Falling Asleep to TV is a Bad Idea


There was a time when you watched the nightly news, maybe the late night show, and then most programming was off. But that was years before DVRs, on-demand, and streaming television. Now you can watch TV all night long. The problem is, we’re really starting to – and too many of us are falling asleep to TV.

A recent poll revealed that 64% of Americans have a TV in the master bedroom. While that may not be surprising, it leads to another fact – reports that 60% of people watch TV to help them fall asleep. But in fact, while it might seem to help with going to sleep initially, it could actually hurt what happens once you’re knocked out.

Lighting up. One of the more widely understood issues is the problem with the light that emits from the television, which is interpreted by your body as a sign to get up, not go down. The light stimulates a nerve in the eye, which signals to parts of the brain that make us feel sleepy or wide-awake. Any light – sunlight, a light bulb, or that blue-ish glow from the television, interferes with our ability to produce melatonin, which helps create drowsiness.

TV can be a downer. There are also studies that link falling asleep to TV with depression — due to that lack of melatonin we just mentioned. An Ohio State University study exposed hamsters to dim light similar to that emitted by TV, and found they drank less sugar water than their comparison group. Why? They got less pleasure from activities. So while you might be laughing at that episode of Modern Family at midnight, you could end up a lot grumpier by noon.

Tune out earlier. It’s not enough to turn the television off right before you go to sleep, either. TV is one of the most stimulating activities we do – flashing lights, chatting voices, exciting story lines – this keeps neurons firing at full throttle. It can even create the fight-or-flight adrenaline surge. Your brain needs time to stop being stimulated, so you need to stop binge watching House of Cards at least 30 minutes before you want to sleep (some experts say an hour before).

Things will get heavy. Since late-night television watching impacts your natural ability to fall asleep, your hormones and metabolism are disrupted. Some studies show that this increases the body’s production of ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite by as much as 15%. That translated into a gain of almost three pounds in just 11 days, in one study. Imagine if you add in a little late-night snacking – talk about food for thought. (Sorry.)

Teenage angst. The impact of the television light has been shown to be even worse for teenagers. During adolescence, circadian rhythms change and teens tend to be more awake later, naturally. So when they have to be up at 7 a.m. for school, they are already fighting sleep deprivation. When they extend their late nights with the stimulus of TV, they exacerbate the problem. This lack of sleep not only puts them at higher risk for depression and other mood disorders, but also less attentiveness and compromised reaction times, which have contributed to auto accidents by teenage drivers.

Bottom line, TV keeps you up. And even when you’re finally sleeping, your body’s hormonal balance can be disrupted in ways that seriously impact your well being. So, put down the remote (or tablet or phone), and pick up a book. Or just count sheep. But give your brain a rest, literally. Game of Thrones will still be there tomorrow. We promise.