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Alcohol and sleep: How drinking disrupts your Zzs

alcohol and sleep

Trevor McDonald tells us why alcohol and sleep aren’t a good mix. Having a drink before bedtime can hurt the quality and quantity of sleep you get that night. Read on to find out exactly what’s happening inside your body while you’re wide awake in bed.

Alcohol and sleep are a bad combo

Are you in the habit of having a nightcap before bed? Many people turn to alcohol before bed because they look at alcohol as a way to unwind and relax. But if you’ve ever tried this, you’ve probably found that you wake up feeling exhausted. That’s because alcohol is affecting your sleep.

While a drink may help you get to sleep faster, it won’t help you stay there. You may not even realize that you haven’t slept. But the exhaustion you feel in the morning is evidence that you haven’t had the best night’s rest.

Here are a few of the ways that alcohol disrupts your sleep:

Alcohol interrupts our circadian rhythm

We don’t exactly know why or how alcohol disrupts our circadian rhythm, but we know that it does. And there are some theories.

One theory is that alcohol impacts the hormones related to sleep and wakefulness. When you drink alcohol, your body produces adenosine, which helps induce sleep. That’s what helps you get to sleep faster.

And it’s also what tricks you into believing that alcohol is a tool to help you sleep. But that surge of adenosine leaves as quickly as it came. This is why you end up having a restless sleep.

Booze induces slow-wave sleep patterns

When you have a cocktail before bed each night, and maybe even more on the weekend, you’re actually introducing slow-wave sleep patterns and turning on alpha activity.

The slow-wave sleep patterns are generally a good thing; it’s the type of sleep that’s associate with learning and forming new memories. On the other hand, alpha activity isn’t usually a part of sleep at all.

The alpha activity is more closely related to a waking period of rest. The combination of these brain changes leads to asleep that’s less than restful.

Alcohol blocks REM sleep

Another way that alcohol and sleep don’t mix concerns REM. An acronym for Rapid Eye Movement, REM is the deepest level of sleep possible. It typically occurs after you’ve been asleep for about 90 minutes. REM sleep isn’t long-lasting, but it’s important.

Although the first stage of REM only lasts about 10 minutes, each of the sleep stages gets longer. The final REM sleep may last about an hour. During this time, you will experience heightened brain activity and muscle relaxation.

Unfortunately, at least one study has shown that alcohol interferes with your ability to get REM sleep. Since this is the deepest and most restful sleep, you wake up feeling tired. And this is usually true regardless of how much sleep you actually got that night.

Lastly, the more alcohol you consume before bed, the less likely you are to fall into any significant REM sleep.

Alcohol can worsen breathing problems

If you have breathing problems, such as asthma or sleep apnea, alcohol is likely to make these problems worse, especially while asleep. In fact, research shows that alcohol can even cause a type of sleep apnea in people who aren’t even sufferers. Imagine how spontaneous sleep apnea could disturb your sleep.

Having alcohol in your system can actually make sleep apnea quite dangerous because it can lengthen the amount of time you stop breathing during an episode of sleep apnea. This causes blood oxygen levels to drop further and may even lead to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the body.

And even if you don’t have or develop a breathing condition at night, alcohol is more likely to make you snore. You’ve probably seen this in a sleeping partner. If they have too many drinks, the snoring can often be unbearable. The reason is that the alcohol relaxes the muscles of the throat, which can cause the upper airways to collapse.

Potty trips disturb your Zzs too

As if all of those reasons why alcohol and sleep don’t mix aren’t enough, here’s a final one. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine production and output.

Simply put, alcohol makes you go pee more often. Most healthy people under 55 can get through the night without having to get up to go to the bathroom. But when alcohol is involved, this becomes a challenge.

Also, it doesn’t matter why you wake up or how long you’re awake. Either way, getting up will disturb your sleep cycle.

Since alcohol already limits REM sleep, getting up at night for bathroom breaks makes it all the worse. When you get up at night after drinking alcohol, there’s even less of a chance that you’ll experience any level of deep sleep.

Quick tips for getting a better night’s rest

By now it’s clear that you’ll have to skip the glass of wine at night if you want to sleep well. But there are a few other things you can do to help improve your sleep. Try the following:

Get a new mattress – If it has been longer than 8 years since you’ve replaced your mattress, it’s definitely time. Or, if you’re waking up with aches and pains, you might need a more comfortable mattress suitable to your preferences.

Unwind before bed – Shut down any technology about an hour before you plan to go to bed. The blue light emitted from smartphones and televisions can interfere with your circadian rhythm.

Try white noise – Sometimes, all you need is a little quiet hum in the background to fall asleep. This technique can be especially helpful if you live in a noisy apartment or neighborhood. White noise raises the level of ambient noise in the room so those exterior noises are less audible to your ears.

Final words on alcohol and sleep

Sleep is such an important part of your health that you don’t want to leave it to chance. If you do have a drink before bed, make sure it’s a small one.

A few sips of alcohol likely won’t interfere with your sleep, but a few glasses will do so.

About today’s writer

Trevor McDonald is a freelance content writer who has a passion for writing. He’s written a variety of education, travel, health, and lifestyle articles for many different companies. In his free time, you can find him running with his dog, playing his guitar, or outside enjoying any type of fitness activity imaginable.

4 thoughts on “Alcohol and sleep: How drinking disrupts your Zzs”

  1. So, so true! Now that I am sober I sleep so much better, and as a result, my brain functions better the next day, my eyes are brighter, I have more energy. Fabulous post – thanks for sharing!

  2. I agree alcohol has an effect on the quality of your sleep…Since abstaining my sleep is so much better I wake up refreshed and certainly notice the difference both in my sleep and my weight :)

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