Sleeping it Off: How Alcohol Affects Sleep Quality

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The average adult sleeps 7.5 to 8 hours every night. Although the function of sleep is unknown, abundant evidence demonstrates that lack of sleep can have serious consequences, including increased risk of depressive disorders, impaired breathing, and heart disease.

In addition, excessive daytime sleepiness resulting from sleep disturbance is associated with memory deficits, impaired social and occupational function, and car crashes

Alcohol consumption can induce sleep disorders by disrupting the sequence and duration of sleep states and by altering total sleep time as well as the time required to fall asleep (i.e., sleep latency).

alcohol affects sleep

This Alcohol Alert explores the effects of alcohol consumption on sleep patterns, the potential health consequences of alcohol consumption combined with disturbed sleep, and the risk for relapse in those with alcoholism who fail to recover normal sleep patterns.

Having a drink (or two) is one way to nod off more quickly, but how restful is an alcohol-induced slumber?

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The latest research, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, shows that while a nightcap may get you to doze off, you’re more likely to wake up during the night and may not feel as rested following your sleep.

Scientists reviewed 20 studies that included 517 participants who were tested in 38 sleep laboratory experiments. The volunteers drank varying amounts of alcohol, ranging from a low of one to two drinks, a moderate amount of two to four drinks, to a high of four or more drinks. While some experiments examined the results of only one night of drinking, others extended into several consecutive nights. Most of the participants were healthy young adults, and none had drinking problems.

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In contrast, drinking has long been known to reduce REM sleep, the deepest sleep stage in which most dreams occur and during which memories are likely stored and learning occurs. And the current review suggests that it’s the amount of alcohol people drink that may have the biggest effect on their sleep quality. One or two drinks, for example, can increase slow-wave sleep while not affecting deeper REM sleep. But more alcohol can cut into the time spent in the REM stage. So that nightcap may be helpful in getting you to doze off, while a wild night of heavy drinking is likely to make you more restless. Moderation, it seems, is the key to a good night’s sleep.

Do you typically finish out your evenings with glass of wine, beer or even a shot to ease into sleep?

Consuming alcohol near bedtime can have a powerful, negative impact on your sleep quantity and quality. The effects of alcohol on sleep are apparently not common knowledge. A study found that 58 percent of 2,000 respondents were unaware that drinking can be detrimental to sleep.

Alcohol generally acts as a sedative and a small amount can and will induce sleepiness. Essentially, alcohol functions as a rapidly absorbed, relatively fast acting drug that gets to your brain within a few minutes. The drug metabolizes quickly and its effects pass within a few hours, depending on how much alcohol you consumed.

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Using alcohol to get to sleep is by no means a new concept. Despite advances in sleep medicine, many people with trouble initiating or maintaining sleep self-medicate with alcohol and accept the consequences of fitful or unfulfilling sleep. In fact, it was not that long ago that physicians recommended “night caps” for insomniacs or others experiencing sleep problems. Using alcohol for sleep is a bad idea because it can affect sleep stages, lighten sleep and cause abrupt awakenings. Chronic use of alcohol may lead to needing higher and higher doses to achieve the same sleep-inducing effect.

Tips for Sleeping Well Without Alcohol

Worried that sacrificing that glass of wine will lead to all nighters? Try out a few sleep tips below to kick the nightcap habit.

  • Sleep/wake consistency. Your sleep routine should be as consistent as your personal hygiene routine. Just like you brush your teeth and comb your hair in a certain order each morning, try to maintain a regular sleep/wake cycle by going to bed around the same time every night and waking up around the same time every morning (yes, even on weekends).
  • Get moving! Exercise is a good way to reduce stress. Exercising in the late afternoon or early evening raises your core body temperature above normal. Your temperature will start falling by bedtime and this natural decrease in body heat helps initiate the sleep process.
  • Let the light shine in the morning. While you probably know that light tells the brain it is time to wake up, it also helps set your internal sleep/wake clock. Try eating breakfast outside — sunlight exposure for just 30 minutes in the morning should help you stay alert throughout the day.
  • Kick your caffeine habit. It’s no secret that caffeine is a stimulant. Avoid coffee, soda and tea after 2 p.m. If you need a natural boost, sip on a glass of ice water.

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If you are concerned about the impact alcohol has on your sleep, discontinue drinking within a few hours of bedtime. In general, it takes about an hour to metabolize one ounce of alcohol. If your sleep problems persist despite your best efforts, talk with your family physician.

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