Categories: Sleep Science

How Alcohol Impacts the Quantity and Quality of Your Sleep

If you’ve ever drunk alcohol, you’ll be only too aware of the fact that it can make you very drowsy. You might think, therefore, that a glass of wine or a beer before bed will help you sleep. However, how true is this? In this article, we take a look at the facts on how alcohol affects the quantity and quality of your sleep.

What Alcohol Does While You Sleep

When you’ve been drinking, and end up going to bed with alcohol in your system, you might think you’re in for a good night’s sleep. In fact, around 20 percent of Americans tend to use alcohol to help them get some rest at night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

However, alcohol can impact the following aspects of your sleep, including your:

  • Breathing. As alcohol relaxes your muscles, it also allows your airways to close up more easily. Because of this, it increases the risk of sleep apnea, or makes it worse, if you drink within a few hours of your bedtime. Sleep apnea is a very serious sleep disorder that happens when your breathing is interrupted during sleep. If it’s left untreated, you can stop breathing sometimes as many as hundreds of times during the night.
  • Sleep rhythms. When you have a nightcap before bed, it’s linked with slow-wave sleeping, also known as delta activity. This type of deep sleep is necessary for learning and memory formation. Another type of sleep pattern that happens after you’ve been drinking is alpha activity. This is something that doesn’t usually tend to happen when you’re asleep, but when you’re having a quiet rest. When you sleep with alcohol in your system, this alpha and delta activity can inhibit your rest.

Alcohol is also known to affect your circadian rhythm. Although when you drink, you tend to quickly fall asleep, you’re also more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. This is due to alcohol affecting the normal production of chemicals in your body triggering sleepiness. After you’ve been drinking, the production of the sleep-inducing chemical in your brain, adenosine, increases, so you sleep quickly. However, this rapidly subsides, and you’re therefore far more likely to wake up before you’ve had a good rest.

  • REM sleep. Drinking liquor before bed also gives you low quality rest as it blocks your restorative REM sleep, and therefore makes you wake up feeling groggy and hungover.
  • Nighttime bathroom trips. When you sleep, your body typically puts your bladder into hibernation. However, as alcohol is a diuretic, you’ll need to use the bathroom more, which is turn interrupts your usual sleeping pattern.
  • Dreams and nightmares. With a nightcap in your system, you’re far more likely to experience bad dreams and even nightmares. You could also find that you’ve more of a tendency to sleepwalk too. With alcohol poisoning killing as many as six Americans every day, it could be time to take stock of your drinking habits if you’re regularly experiencing alcohol-induced nightmares.

Other Considerations

Gender Differences. If you’re a woman, you absorb more alcohol than your male friends. This is due to the fact that women have less of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. So, if a man and a woman drink the same amount drink for drink, the female builds up a higher concentration of alcohol, thus impacting her sleep quality.

The morning after. When you take a drink before you go to bed, you’re likely to wake up with some degree of exhaustion and grogginess. Enjoying an alcoholic drink before bedtime makes you wake up feeling unrefreshed as you’ve no doubt spent the night waking up from time to time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, taking a drink can decrease your levels of melatonin. This is the hormone that’s responsible for regulating your internal clock, so if you’re an alcoholic, you can sometimes get your nights and days mixed up.

If you wake up feeling terrible after a night on the booze, there are various ways to reduce the symptoms you’re experiencing. You need to focus on hydrating your body, although the best practice is to have drunk lots of water before going to bed in the first place.

You can take over-the-counter painkillers to help with your headache, and sugary food can help you feel less shaky. Try drinking easily digestible vegetable soup to replace your vitamins and minerals, and do your best to avoid drinking more alcohol  to ease the effects you’re feeling as this will just delay your recovery.

With all of the above in mind, it’s a good idea to refrain from drinking at least three to four hours before you intend to go to bed, so your body has some time to adjust, and to get ready for sleep.

Tips for Sleeping Without Alcohol

If you’ve found yourself in the habit of taking a nightcap to get to sleep at night, there are others ways of getting a good night’s rest. These include:

  • Kicking your caffeine habit. As caffeine is a stimulant, it keeps you awake, particularly if you drink coffee, tea, or soda after 2 p.m. Try drinking ice water and lemon instead when you’re thirsty.
  • Opening your curtains in the morning. Sunlight streaming in your window tells your brain that it’s time to wake up, as well as helps to set your internal clock. If it’s a nice day, try to go for a quick walk in the morning, as this helps you stay alert throughout the day.
  • Exercising is the best medicine. Exercise reduces stress, and if you do so either in the afternoon, your core temperature will be raised, and will fall by the time you retire to bed, helping your body get started on the sleep process.
  • Getting consistency in your sleeping routine. You need to maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle to get the most from your sleep. With this in mind, it’s crucial to get to sleep about the same time every night, and to wake around the same time in the morning so your body is trained to rest.

Having a drink from time to time can be an enjoyable experience, and through following the advice above, you can ensure you enjoy alcohol without your sleep suffering.

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    Amber Merton

    Amber Merton is an accomplished writer on the topics of green living and sleep. Her work has been covered in numerous online publications. Amber has been a regular author on the PlushBeds blog for the past 7 years.

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