What You Really Should Know About Alcohol & Sleep

12th March 2019

Read time is about 5 mins

What You Really Should Know About Alcohol & Sleep

Think that nightcap is going to help you sleep? Think again.

A lot of people use alcohol as a sleep aid. In fact, one study found that around 20% of Americans rely on alcohol to fall asleep, and experts agree that this number is growing. Unfortunately, while it may help you fall asleep, you’re sacrificing the quality of your sleep. The negative effects of alcohol on your sleep quality far outweigh the “help” it provides to fall asleep, and the more alcohol consumed, the greater the impact.

Alcohol metabolization disrupts your sleep

Our body is equipped to metabolize alcohol best during the early evening hours, because of the length of time it stays in our system. When you consume alcohol closer towards bedtime, then metabolization will begin to happen during the second half of your sleep. This causes a “rebound” effect, and the sleeper will experience more micro-awakenings. Micro-awakenings are when we rise to the lightest level of sleep, which we may or may not even be aware is happening.

Alcohol reduces REM sleep

Alcohol consumption reduces the amount of time we spend in the rapid eye movement stage of sleep. Normally, we begin to cycle through the REM stage approximately 90 minutes after we fall asleep. It is considered to be the most restorative stage of sleep, and essential to the forming of new memories (Psychology Today). Poor REM sleep can lead to daytime drowsiness, reduced alertness and irritability.

Alcohol interrupts your circadian rhythm

Alcohol interrupts and throws off our circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle commonly known as the “body clock.” Your metabolism, energy, sexual drive, mood and sleep cycles are all in tune with this rhythm. However, when you consume alcohol, it interferes with your body clock’s ability to synchronize itself, so the many processes it regulates become unaligned. Alcohol also diminishes your body’s ability to respond to light cues, which play an important role in telling you when to fall asleep. If that wasn’t enough, it also confuses your body cues by elevating your levels of adenosine (a neurochemical that makes you sleepy) while reducing melatonin production (a hormone that helps you sleep).

Alcohol aggravates breathing problems

Alcohol can also be responsible for impairing your breathing. This is because alcohol causes your whole body to relax, which is why some people find it helps them fall asleep. Unfortunately, full relaxation isn’t always a good thing, as it includes your soft palate and the muscles around your throat. This can cause full or partial obstruction of your airway, which is why maybe people will snore after consuming alcohol, even if they aren’t regular snorers. For individuals with sleep apnea and/or other sleep disorders, alcohol can aggravate pre-existing breathing problems.

As with most things in life, moderation is key! For most, the occasional nightcap or glass of wine with dinner will not have a negative impact on their sleep. Try to avoid alcohol close to bedtime, by switching to water 4 hours before you hit the hay. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, a sleep study could give you some helpful insight on what’s happening while you sleep. If you find you’ve become reliant on alcohol to unwind at the end of the day or to fall asleep, we encourage you to visit your doctor.


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