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How binge-watching tv series can wreck our immune systems

It turns out there are some surprising daily habits, such as overdosing on our favourite TV series, that can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to fight off colds and flu.

Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – a leading provider of colds and flu medication – says the relatively new phenomenon of being able to watch an entire TV series all at once, as opposed to waiting a week, has sparked several studies that attempt to understand how binge-watching is impacting our health.

She cites a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine which found that people’s addiction to watching TV series can lead to chronic fatigue, which has a damaging effect on immunity.

“According to the study, over half (52%) of binge-watchers viewed three to four episodes in one sitting, with an average session lasting three hours. If one considers that most of the watching occurs in the evening, that doesn’t leave much shuteye. Binge-watchers also reported more fatigue and insomnia and had 98% more chance of having poor quality sleep than those that limited their screen time.

“Watching TV in a dark room for hours on end can really mess up our circadian rhythm (the cycle that regulates physiological processes) and disrupts sleep-wake cycles. The blue light emitted from TVs, PCs, laptops, smartphones and other devices can also reduce the production of melatonin (a hormone that promotes sleep). Poor sleep in general is associated with lower immune system function and a reduced number of antibodies or ‘killer cells’ that help to fight germs. Adults need between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night in order for the immune system to function optimally. You can still enjoy watching TV, but try to avoid a binge too close to bedtime,” she recommends.

Apart from lack of sleep, marathon-viewing can also exacerbate mindless eating and unhealthy snacking – both detrimental to your waistline and immunity.

Research by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that action-packed shows, such as The Walking Dead for example, made participants eat twice as much (98%) than others who watched milder talk show content. Those that watched depressing shows, like the sci-fi drama, Solaris for example, also ate 55% more than participants who watched positive, upbeat programmes. According to the researchers, action and adventure shows may encourage viewers to eat more, because viewers subliminally try to keep up with the pace of the story. Stress and anxiety experienced during a show also leads to comfort-eating.

Jennings points out that although it’s easier to order in pizza than pausing your show for an hour to cook a nutritious meal, junk food really upsets the immune system.

“Fatty, fried foods increase bad cholesterol and can cause inflammation, leading to reduced immunity, while sugar can hinder the body’s ability to produce germ-fighting white blood cells that destroy foreign pathogens. Watching your favourite characters drink a beer or smoke a cigarette might also trigger a craving for these substances, which have been proven to lower immunity. If you’re planning to watch a TV series, rather put out cut-up fruit and vegetables or low-carb meals and healthy drinks on the table,” she suggests.

Furthermore, sitting in the same position while watching hours of TV series not only contribute to deep vein thrombosis and the formation of fatal blood clots, but also increase one’s risk of respiratory tract infections (RTIs) such as a cold, sinusitis or tonsillitis, most likely as a result of lowered immune function.  A study conducted by researchers in the US found that staying physically active nearly halved the odds of catching cold viruses, and even those that did fell ill, didn’t suffer too badly.

Jennings suggests that instead of sitting on the couch, TV addicts should consider watching a series on their cellphone or tablet while walking on the treadmill, stationary bike or rowing machine. “There are different ways to make the occasional marathon TV session healthier, but moderation is key,” she concludes.

These findings were released as part of Pharma Dynamics’ ongoing public awareness efforts to help reduce the incidence of respiratory infections, which typically spike in winter.

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