The Hidden Health Dangers of "Binge-Watching"

A new way to watch television has not only affected the way we discuss our favorite shows around the water cooler, but can adversely impact our health as well.

“Binge-watching” is the latest media consumption fad to be borne from the marriage of gadgets and entertainment. Upstart services such as Netflix and Amazon – and even old-guard networks like HBO and NBC Universal –  are making it easier for us to “catch up” on their shows by providing entire seasons of programming available at once via our Internet connections. Many highly-acclaimed new series are being made available a full season at a time, with ten to twenty or more episodes “dropping” on the same day. Where once merely keeping up with the latest episode of Game of Thrones guaranteed our Monday morning pop culture credentials, we may now find ourselves behind the conversational eight-ball if we haven't seen every episode of Jessica Jones a week after it debuts!

But if we're not careful, our newly-minted binge-watching habits can damage our health. Some of the pitfalls should be obvious: The more TV we watch, the more we are sitting inside and not enjoying exercise and sunshine. But there are subtle traps to be found in binge-watching as well.

The typical Internet-delivered TV show from a premium streaming service such as Netflix contains no commercial breaks – in fact, this in one of the selling points. But many of us use these breaks to stand up, walk to a different room, take a break etc. And although we may think that we've got our upcoming personal Jessica Jones marathon covered by the half-hour we spent on the elliptical this morning, researchers at the department of epidemiology at Pittsburgh have determined that sitting has an effect on diabetes incidence that is independent of how much time we spend exercising. In other words, no matter how much we work out, too much sitting can still impair our health significantly.

Bingers are not just at risk of diabetes, either. A (typical) four-hour binge in front of a glowing screen before bedtime inhibits the release of melatonin, a hormone manufactured by our brain's pineal gland. Melatonin is sometimes referred to as the “Dracula hormone,” as it is only released into our bloodstream at night. Simply put, it's melatonin that causes us to become sleepy, and the chemical plays a yeoman's role in the regulation of our circadian rhythms.

Most all living things, from complex humans down through simple microbes, have circadian rhythms. This is a bit of a catch-all phrase used to describe the physical, mental and behavioral alterations living things undergo in an approximately 24-hour period. Chronobiologists (the specialists who study circadian rhythms and other products of our various “biological clocks”) have determined that, although these rhythms are rooted in our genetics, they are still profoundly affected by light.

In the case of binge-watching, the culprit is what has become known colloquially as “blue light.” This is light, also called “short-wavelength-enriched,” that runs in the 460 nanometer range of the spectrum.  The light from iPads, smartphones, e-books and other such devices falls into this range. The blue light is received by photoreceptors only recently discovered, known as melanopsin-containing ganglion cells. These cells take the cue from blue light to send a signal to the suprachiasmatic nucleus area of the brain which turns off melatonin production.

Prolonged exposure to the blue light of our big flat screens across the room, or even while staring at our smart phones and tablets up close, effectively confuses the pineal gland and disrupts melatonin release. The abnormal circadian rhythms that follow have been associated with depression, obesity, and – again – diabetes.

Melatonin also plays a factor in the timing of menstrual periods and the onset of menopause, and some evidence also suggests that it helps to strengthen the immune system. All strong indicators that you don't want to mess with it!

How can we protect ourselves in this new era of entertainment overload? Self-awareness is the key here, as it so often is in health matters. Start by setting a sleep schedule and doing your best to stick to it. Don't let a new season of House of Cards cause you to waver. If possible, avoid baffling your pineal gland by doing your binge watching during the day, and likewise avoid any extensive tablet or smart phone use while in bed before sleep.

If you cannot avoid blue light during the hours right before you sleep – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so – you may wish to consider blue-light blocking goggles such as those manufactured by Uvex. Sure, you may look like a cyborg, but if that's the price paid for a better night's sleep, it'll be well worth it!

Although it may seem counter-intuitive when gearing up for a long weekend of nothing to do but watch television, try not to plant yourself as a couch potato. Incorporate additional activity that can be done while standing into the time you have put aside for binge-watching, such as running on a treadmill (The blog, Treadmill Watch, has a great rundown of compact treadmills here) or even folding laundry. And although there are no commercials to drive you into another room at twenty-minute intervals, make a point of getting up to stretch your legs at least every thirty minutes anyway. 

And whatever you do, don't let binge-watching become an excuse for binge-eating!