Sometimes falling asleep is no easy task, and for many it’s downright difficult to do under any circumstance. Due to its sedative effect, alcohol is a common choice for those who have a hard time finding a way to fall asleep. It’s important to consider the other effects, however, that alcohol will have—namely on the very sleep these people use it to achieve. Booze before bedtime may appear to ease the transition into dreamland, but what happens after that is well worth taking note of.
REM Sleep & Alcohol
Adults function best with anywhere between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. The consumption of alcoholic beverages before bedtime, interestingly enough, will effectively serve to cut the number of hours actually acquired in half. In fact, drinking alcohol at any time three hours or less before bed can lead to both early waking and disruptions in the sleep cycle on the whole. The entire sleep process is advanced by alcohol intake: N-REM sleep [also know as “deep sleep”] increases, incrementally decreasing REM [or “Rapid Eye Movement” rest]. The problem is that you need both types, in very balanced doses. You may be surprised to learn that these facts don’t deter many: in recent studies, some 28% of insomniacs claimed to have depended on alcohol as a means for falling asleep, and fully 67% described the practice as helpful.
The difficulty with this nighttime “medication” approach is plain: alcohol can either make sleep disorders more frequent, or increase your susceptibility to acquire them. The most common sleep disorder that occurs as a result of the consumption of alcohol before bedtime is obstructive sleep apnea, and it’s one of the most destructive in regard to heart health. Drinking alcohol will narrow your air passages and thereby make it harder to breathe at night. As you gasp for the air that’s being blocked, your sleep cycle is deeply disturbed.When air is obstructed in the passages, your heart must work much harder to get the oxygen that it needs, which results in lasting health problems if it persists over a long period of time.
What the Studies Say
Studies have shown that the consumption of alcohol even just an hour before bedtime causes major disruptions in the second part of the sleep cycle, which will lead to early awakening. As mentioned earlier, drinking alcohol before bedtime will not only shorten REM sleep but increase deep sleep. The resultant physiological state is known as “REM rebound.” After consuming high doses of alcohol, the body becomes sedated, causing you to fall asleep quickly. After you begin to snooze, your body becomes adjusted to that alcohol running through your blood stream. By the time the second part of the sleep cycle is underway, however, your body has metabolized [re: eliminated] the alcohol from your system, and it will attempt to return your metabolism to normal levels. This is where that rebound begins to occur. Instead of successfully returning to physiologically-normal levels [gauged by certain sleep variables such as the amount of REM sleep acquired at night] your body will over-compensate and change its course in the opposite direction, which results in a sleep disturbance. Furthermore, this disturbance will disrupt the proportionality of the various sleep stages. When rebound and its associated disturbances occur, your body won’t feel fully rested the next day. We all know what that’s like: an unclear [or “foggy”] state of mind and a marked inability to perform simple tasks at an optimal and efficient performance level.
Several studies have evaluated next-day performance and alertness in healthy people who consumed alcohol before falling asleep. In one such study, young pilots drank alcohol between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. in quantities sufficient to result in BACs [blood-alcohol concentrations] of 0.10-0.12 percent right before bedtime. The following morning, over 14 hours after consuming alcohol and with BACs reset to 0, the performance of pilots in a flight simulator was significantly impaired when compared to their performance after imbibing a placebo. The lack of continuity and longevity of the sleep they experienced after heavy drinking is the same as what everyone will suffer when doing so: it simply makes people slower and less attentive the following day.
It’s clear by now that the effects of alcohol on sleep can be dire. Though you may believe it’s helping you sleep, the consumption of alcohol before bed will only result in next-day fatigue and an inability to remain alert… and can actually lead to a serious sleeping disorder. Aside from the havoc it wreaks on your system when frequently drunk at high levels, alcohol can also be dangerous to others around you. There’s no question that critical mistakes are made every day by folks in all walks of life due to the effects of alcohol consumption, whether in the intoxicated state or, like the pilots mentioned, well after you think you’ve “slept it off.” Remember that there are several alternatives to alcohol that are both healthier and more effective when it comes to getting the shut-eye you require on a nightly basis. For starters, you might try getting into a sleep routine, which is a tremendously effective way to train your body’s physiological nature into winding down at night. You’re probably already aware that you should avoid caffeine, dairy products, and smoking before bedtime. Finally, consider going to bed an hour or two later—it can help you go to sleep faster because you’ll be more fatigued. And bear in mind that your old mattress may be part of the problem… switching to memory foam will improve your body’s blood circulation and alleviate the pressure points associated with traditional innerspring mattresses so that you get more restful sleep each night. In sum, you can do better for your body than waking up with a hangover every day. It’s time to make strides toward getting some quality sleep without alcohol.
Even if you do own a fine memory foam mattress you must be sure to have good sleeping habits to help you fully enjoy it!
Alcohol Alert. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa41.htm. Retrieved on July 28th, 2009.
Alcohol and Sleep.Loyola Marymount University. https://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=headsup. Retrieved on July 28th, 2009.;