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What Sleeping with the TV on Does to Your Body, Says Science

If you fall asleep watching "Friends," here are a few reasons you shouldn't.
FACT CHECKED BY Alex Daniel

For many of us, falling asleep in front of the television is practically a modern rite of passage. In some cases, it's even a necessity. According to a national survey put together by LG Electronics, roughly two-thirds of Americans (61%) fall asleep with the TV on regularly. A similar survey published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine found that 31% of Americans straight-up consider their TV set a "sleep aid."

Why have our favorite TV shows turned into bedtime stories for so many? It probably has something to do with our inability to disconnect. A poll put together by the National Sleep Foundation and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reports that 9 in ten Americans use some kind of electronic device in the hour before bed, with 60% of that group admitting their device of choice is the TV. Considering those statistics, it makes perfect sense why so many fall asleep mid-episode.

So, what's the big deal anyway? If it helps you drift off into a peaceful slumber, who cares if snippets of Netflix are chirping in the background? While it's true that the familiarity of your television will no doubt help many of us unwind and relax after a long day, snoozing away with the TV blaring in the background could be affecting you and your sleep quality more than you realize. Curious to know what happens to your body when you sleep with the TV on? Read on to find out. And for more great sleep advice, don't miss why It's Worse to Sleep on This Side of Your Body, Says Science.

1

Your Subconscious Continues Tuning In

Woman falling asleep on sofa in front TV. Tired exhausted lonely sleepy lady in pajamas sleeping in front of television sitting on cozy couch in living room, closing eyes while watching movie at night

You may fall asleep at some point while lounging in front of the TV, but that doesn't mean your subconscious mind completely stops listening. As the characters chat and plotlines develop, your brain is still soaking in all that information. "Surprisingly, even if you have slept with the TV on, still your brain is perceiving all the sounds emerging from the TV, which is putting unnecessary stress on your brain when it needs to rest. So definitely, it's impacting your mental as well as physical health way too much," explains Amelia Alvin, MD, a practicing psychiatrist at the Mango Clinic.

Unsurprisingly, it makes matters worse if you fall asleep to a horror film. "Sometimes, watching disturbing TV shows or movies upsets you as it can leave an impact on your mind," says Alvin. "So, either it can't let you sleep peacefully, or it can appear in your dreams and unconscious thoughts, where again, it will affect your sleep."

This idea is supported by research published in the scientific journal Dreaming. Study authors found people who watch violent TV shows within 90 minutes of bed time are 13 times more likely to have a nightmare than others who kept the TV off or went for something lighter like a sitcom instead. And for some great ways to sleep better starting now, see here for The One Secret Sleep Trick That Can Change Your Life.

2

Your Melatonin Levels Drop

Lazy man watching television at night alone

When the sun goes down each night, our bodies begin producing much more of the hormone melatonin. When that happens, all that extra melatonin signals the body to start getting ready for sleep. Unfortunately, all of the blue light emitted from devices like TVs, computers, and smartphones can throw the body's internal clock out of whack and suppress melatonin production.

This usually results in lesser overall sleep quality and a greater chance of awakening frequently throughout the night. Moreover, it's much harder to enter the deepest (and arguably most important) stages of sleep.

"The light exposure before bed disrupts the production of melatonin within your body and also affects your internal clock's ability to tell time, with the TV light signaling to your body that it is still wake time," explains Robyn South, Relations Manager at SleepAdvisor.org. "Constant emission of light can prevent you from entering the deep stages of sleep which is necessary to inhibit our healing and information-processing capabilities. Without that deep sleep, you will likely spend the rest of the next day feeling tired."

3

Your Sleep Debt Grows

Young couple relaxing at home with blanket in front of TV.

"Debt" is a dirty word to many, and for good reason: No one particularly enjoys paying back a hefty debt, bill, or loan. Slumber isn't something we always associate with debts, but sleep debt is a very real phenomenon. Defined by The Sleep Foundation as the time difference between the amount of sleep one needs and the amount they actually attain, sleep debt is cumulative. This means that squeezing in just a few extra episodes of your favorite TV show just before bed can lead to a big sleep debt quickly.

The connection between relying on TV for sleep and greater sleep debt is supported by a number of studies. This project published in the scientific journal Sleep names TV viewing as one of the top reasons Americans miss out on the sleep they need. Additionally, another study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine noted a big connection between binge-watching habits and poor sleep quality, more fatigue, and more insomnia symptoms in general. And for more sleep news, see here for the One Secret Side Effect of Having Weird Dreams, Says Study.

4

You May Put on a Few Pounds

Woman falling asleep on the sofa at home while watching TV, she is holding the remote control

This effect will probably take many readers by surprise, but there is reason to believe that sleeping with the TV on could spell disaster for waistlines across the country. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that women who sleep with artificial light (like the glow of a TV screen) in their bedroom may be at a greater risk of obesity. Study participants who slept with their TV on were 17% more likely to gain an average of 11 pounds over a period of five years.

Importantly, the association between keeping the TV on while asleep and weight gain held up regardless of whether or not the women were getting quality sleep. In other words, it didn't matter if participants were insomniacs or fell asleep instantly each night. If they kept their TV on all night long, they were at a greater risk of weight gain.

"Although poor sleep by itself was associated with obesity and weight gain, it did not explain the associations between exposure to artificial light while sleeping and weight," comments corresponding author Dale Sandler, Ph.D., chief of the Epidemiology Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). And for more sleep news, don't miss The Secret Side Effect of Changing Your Bedtime, Says New Study.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more
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