A bottle of beer or a glass of wine close to your bedtime can make you relaxed, but will it help you get better sleep?
For most people who use a sleep aid, alcohol is the go-to substance. 20% of adults in the United States use alcohol to sleep better. A 2017 study showed that up to 13% of the UK population use alcohol or medication to improve their sleep. But does this work?
Alcohol gets you drowsy, so it can make you sleep quickly. But getting quality sleep is another thing entirely. You don’t want to wake in the morning feeling like you just came back from a hunting trip. Quality sleep should leave you feeling revitalized and ready to take on the day’s activities.
Getting quality sleep is required for sound health and improved productivity. Knowing whether alcohol helps you do this is dependent on knowing how alcohol acts on the body. This article aims to explain the effects of alcohol on the body and its consequences on sleep quality.
What Alcohol Does to the Body
Alcohol is quite a unique substance. It has a stimulant effect – that’s how you can party all night after a couple of drinks – and an opposing sedative effect – the reason you feel drowsy after.
The body does not process alcohol like food or other substances. After you take an alcoholic drink or two, it is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream, primarily through the small intestine and stomach. You begin to feel the full effects (peak concentration) of alcohol you’ve consumed after about half an hour to 90 minutes.
What happens after is break down and excretion. The liver breaks down alcohol to water and carbon dioxide, which is excreted by the lungs (think breathalyzer tests) and kidneys (via your urine). Now you may be wondering how this affects sleep. Alcohol can affect sleep because of what it does to the brain.
The brain is a hive of chemical activity. Some chemicals in the brain – called neurotransmitters — are triggered and suppressed by external and sometimes internal substances causing different effects on emotion and behavior.
Remember how we said alcohol was a stimulant? Alcohol exerts stimulant effects by increasing the amount of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. An increase in your dopamine levels is why you feel euphoria from alcohol and other substances that make you feel good. The brain’s insatiable desire for dopamine is what causes addiction to alcohol and other narcotics.
Simultaneously, alcohol reduces the level of glutamate – another neurotransmitter that causes excitement – leading to sedation. Like benzodiazepines (sedative drugs), alcohol has one other effect, which is an increase in GABA — a neurotransmitter which has a calming effect. The effects of this neurotransmitter are why a doctor will tell you not to use alcohol with your sedative medication.
How all these combine to affect sleep will become clear if you know what occurs during sleep.
What Happens When You Sleep?
Sleep is controlled by a mechanism called the circadian rhythm. The human circadian rhythm (known as the body clock or the sleep/wake cycle) is what makes you feel sleepy at night and alert during the day. The body undergoes a series of stages every night when we sleep. There are five sleep stages grouped into REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep stages.
In REM sleep, the eyes dart quickly in all directions. REM sleep is characterized by increased brain activity and muscle relaxation. Dreams occur during this stage of sleep because of heightened brain activity. Neurotransmitters are restored to their normal levels during REM sleep, and your mind and body are equally renewed during this time.
NREM sleep makes up four of the five sleep stages. The late stages of NREM stages are the deep sleep stages. The body carries out restorative tissue repairs during deep sleep, leaving you feeling recharged and refreshed when you awaken.
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Suffice to say, the effects of alcohol on sleep are largely disruptive. These actions of alcohol stem from its impact on your physiological processes. The actions of alcohol that combine to reduce the quality of your sleep are as follows:
Alcohol Disrupts Your Sleep-Wake Cycle
Remember your circadian rhythm? The sleep/wake cycle is regulated by a hormone called melatonin, which uses light signals to tell your body when to prepare for sleep and when to wake up. Alcohol suppresses melatonin and disrupts your body’s ability to respond to light cues.
Alcohol Causes Diuresis
The quality of your sleep will be reduced if you have to take frequent restroom breaks. For this reason, your brain tells your bladder to take a break for the night. Alcohol’s diuretic effect means that you will have to use the restroom several times before your body is ready to wake, further disrupting your sleep.
Alcohol Can Cause Sleep Apnoea
The risk of sleep apnoea and other breathing problems can be increased by using alcohol. Alcohol relaxes your throat muscles causing them to become narrower. A narrow airway impedes airflow causing snoring. This can happen even if you took alcohol just the night before. People with existing sleep apnoea will aggravate their condition by consuming alcohol.
Alcohol Affects REM Sleep
Alcohol interrupts REM sleep in a rebound effect that retards rejuvenation. Alcohol metabolites still in your system will make you more responsive to external stimuli during REM sleep. You will spend more time in REM sleep and wake more frequently. The consequence of the rebound effect will be hangovers and a general feeling of crankiness throughout the day.
Alcohol Can Cause Night Sweats
Alcohol can affect your body’s homeostatic mechanism leading to excessive sweating during sleep. This can make sleep uncomfortable, especially for hot sleepers.
Alcohol Can Worsen Insomnia
Alcohol and insomnia are comorbid, i.e., the presence of one increases the risk of the other. Alcohol use can exacerbate the symptoms of insomnia making your chances of getting quality sleep even worse.
Taking a few drinks can reduce the amount of time you require to fall asleep. However, you will not get better sleep. Your alertness during the day may also be affected. Here are some tips to improve your sleep without resorting to alcohol.
- Cut out consumption of caffeine, nicotine, and other stimulants close to bedtime.
- Avoid heavy meals late in the evening.
- Increase your exposure to light during the day and decrease it at night.
- Consider taking melatonin supplements.
- Make sure your sleeping environment is conducive to sleep. A good bed and pillow can equally help.
- Try to clear your mind before sleep. Workday stress can make sleep hard to come by. Breathing techniques and meditation are helpful.
If one or a combination of these steps do not help you sleep better, you could have an underlying disorder and may need to see a doctor or a sleep therapist.