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There’s a Right Way to Binge Netflix

You're probably doing more late-night binge watching than usual. Here's how to optimize your streaming habit for better sleep.

Netflix and Sleep

While we all stay home to limit the spread of Covid-19, we’re also watching a lot more Netflix. The streaming platform has reported a record high in new subscribers, and they’re not alone: HBO Now reports users are binge-watching its series 65% more. While the abundance of streaming options are a godsend during shelter in place, there’s a surprising amount of science to be aware of to binge watch correctly and not torpedo your sleep.

Left unchecked, your binge watching is hurting your immune system, ruining your focus and productivity, and causing anxiety and stress. We’re not suggesting you abandon Netflix entirely, but we are advocating that you binge watch responsibly.

Two Ways Late-Night Binge Watching Ruins Your Sleep and Energy

If you’re scratching your head because it feels like your nightly “Curb Your Enthusiasm” session only relaxes you, the truth is it’s keeping you from feeling well rested in the morning.

1. Late-night binging racks up sleep debt, sabotaging productivity and emotional well-being

Staying up to watch a show or movie cuts into your sleep time. This is by design. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings isn’t shy about labeling sleep as the company’s number one competitor, nor proclaiming Netflix as the winner.

Hastings is right. A 2019 survey by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) found a remarkable 88% of respondents report having lost sleep because they stayed up “past their bedtime” to watch multiple episodes of a TV show or streaming video series. For 18-44 year olds, that number jumps to 95%.

When getting less sleep than you need gets repeated for even a few nights, you rack up sleep debt, or how much sleep you’ve missed relative to your biological need. High sleep debt is correlated with all of the negative side effects we mentioned (weakened immunity, poor focus, anxiety) as well as many more (lack of creativity, less empathy, diminished problem-solving).

2. Late-night binging throws off your circadian rhythm, making you more groggy in the morning and making it more challenging to fall asleep

‘Case of the Mondays’: the phenomenon of circadian misalignment

But even if you’re careful to not let TV time cut into sleep time, there’s another, less obvious, issue at play. It’s called circadian misalignment, which can be defined as an “inappropriately timed sleep and wake” cycle, and which negatively affects sleep quality and psychological wellbeing. If you’ve ever had a hard time waking up on Monday morning because of late weekend nights and mornings (what’s called “social jet lag”), you’ve experienced it. Here’s how it works:

Your circadian rhythm triggers when you wake up and when you fall asleep, as well as peaks and dips in your energy in between. Although some liken it to your brain’s “built-in” clock, it’s not impervious to stimuli, and can fall into misalignment because of light, especially in the evening. When you sit yourself in front of a screen to watch Netflix after work hours, the blue light emitted by the screen (or from any other light source) effectively tricks your brain into thinking it’s daylight outside.

The light at night reduces your body’s melatonin production. Melatonin is naturally secreted by your brain and tells your body when to sleep and wake. One of the most important bodily processes triggered by your circadian rhythm is what’s called Dim Light Melatonin Onset (DLMO), a roughly two-hour period every evening when your body releases its most melatonin, cueing a window when you’re best able to naturally fall asleep (also called your “biological night”). When you stay awake and expose yourself to light during your DLMO, your brain thinks it’s not yet night time and delays your clock — something known in chronobiology called a phase delay. Delayed sleep makes it much harder to wake up in the morning. Chronic circadian misalignment of this type can lead to Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder and a host of deleterious mental and physiological outcomes.

Your brain on serialized content

There’s still another way Netflix undermines your circadian rhythm: the bodily “arousal” you experience when watching bingeable television shows. Arousal, defined as the physiological and psychological state of being awoken, activates a part of your brain that leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure, and a condition of sensory alertness and mobility — all of which makes it much harder to fall asleep when you finally hit pause, shifting your circadian rhythm.

Building on research that found playing video games increased activity in the central and autonomic nervous system, which in turn prolonged sleep onset (the time it takes to fall asleep), a recent study sought to uncover whether TV binge viewing frequency was also positively associated with “cognitive pre-sleep arousal” — the condition of sensory alertness, mobility, and readiness to respond (all characteristics of wakefulness, not sleep).

The results were fascinating. Those who identified as a binge viewer had a 98% higher likelihood of having poor sleep quality compared to those who did not identify as a binge viewer, with cognitive pre-sleep arousal as the key factor. Results showed binge viewing frequency was significantly related to cognitive pre-sleep arousal and that cognitive pre-sleep arousal was strongly related to sleep quality, daytime fatigue, and insomnia symptoms.

The researchers concluded, “A possible explanation might be that binge viewing leads to a stronger sense of involvement into the narrative and identification with its characters than does regular viewing. … The narrative structure that characterizes “bingeable” television shows involves (1) a larger number of (2) more diverse storylines that (3) extend beyond one episode, and that often (4) intersect during a season or (5) turn out to be connected with each other in the end. As such, the narrative complexity in these shows leaves viewers thinking about episodes and their sequel after viewing them. This prolongs sleep onset or, in other words, requires a longer period to “cool down” before going to sleep, thus affecting sleep overall.”

How to Stream at Night and Still Sleep

Even armed with this knowledge, it’s more than likely you’ll tune in a couple of nights a week—especially as long as we’re encouraged to stay home. To do this without completely throwing your sleep out of whack (and therefore your immunity, productivity, and mood), follow the tips for naturalistic sleep below.

1. Cut Blue Light

Blue light comes from every light source, not just screens. There are several options for managing how much it impacts your sleep.

  • Wear blue-light blocking glasses: put on specially-designed glasses starting 90 minutes before bed. Rise recommends UVEX Skyper blue light blocking glasses as the most scientifically effective.
  • Dim indoor lights: dim or turn-off electric lighting or use candles 90 minutes before bed.
  • On your devices, use a filter: Most phones, tablets, and computers now offer an option to activate a blue light filter, which prevents your brain from perceiving it as daylight. We recommend wearing blue-light blocking glasses even if you employ a filter — filters might not work as well as intended.

2. Rewatch Old Favorites

If you’re going to watch late at night, choose episodic programming (when a story is told within a single episode) or something you’ve seen before since it’s likely to be less arousing. Becoming nervous or excited about a new plot twist or character is liable to make your body feel more alert, preventing you from nodding off.

3. Make your Bedroom a Cave

Optimize your bedroom for sleep by making it cool, dark, and quiet, like a cave. The science recommends setting your thermostat between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, using a blackout curtain or mask to prevent you from noticing when the sun rises, and wearing earplugs to block ambient noise—even if you think you can sleep through sirens and air duct rattling, they’re still disturbing your sleep quality.

4. Establish a Wind Down Routine

To give your body the time it needs to naturally decompress before bed, consider timing your Netflix habit earlier and as part of a larger wind down routine.

We recommend using your circadian energy to structure your night. Schedule the activities that need your highest level of focus and attention for your evening peak, when you have your second cycle of energy. This timing not only helps you be more productive; it also protects your wind-down time by creating a cue to start ending the day.

It’s critically important to manage stress in the evening hours before sleep. Pre-sleep stress is associated with sleep disturbances and difficulty falling asleep. During this wind down cycle, your brain is sending your body signals to begin preparing for sleep. This signal is your cue to end the workday and avoid activities that take mental energy. Take a hot shower or bath. Stretch or do yoga. Meditate or read a book. Watch Netflix at the beginning of this cycle to preserve the wind down period before bed. (The same goes for similarly “arousing” activities, like scrolling social media, which drives its own brand of sleep-interfering alertness.)

5. Maintain Regular Sleep Patterns

Have you slept in on Sunday and felt groggy for most of the morning? That’s because the grogginess you experience naturally when you wake up (sleep inertia) is overlapping your morning circadian energy peak. Keep your wake time consistent (within an hour) even on weekends to keep your circadian rhythm predictable for the day.

These are trying times, and we’re all reaching for our favorite diversions a bit more. But a bit of mindfulness and moderation go a long way, especially where streaming TV and movies are concerned. To avoid hindering your much needed immune system, focus, and positive frame of mind, follow our best practices to ‘Netflix and sleep.’

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