Drink Smarter to Sleep Better
I love drinking, but drinking doesn’t love me back – especially when it comes to getting good sleep. The effects of alcohol and sleep have been studied since the 1930’s. And since then we’ve known that alcohol isn’t a solution for sleep problems – it’s a cause, even though it seems like alcohol helps you fall asleep.
Fall Asleep Faster But…
If you go to bed with alcohol in your system, research has shown that you’ll fall asleep more quickly and will actually have more slow-wave sleep for the first few hours. Sounds great. Unfortunately the problem comes after your body has metabolized all of the alcohol. During the second half of the night (depending on how much you’ve had) your sleep becomes lighter or you wake up as your body suffers the ‘rebound effect’ of trying to sleep without alcohol. During this second phase of sleep, there is also significantly less REM sleep.
This rebound effect also changes our body’s temperature while we sleep. Alcohol is known to lower your core body temperature, which is also a key signal for your body to fall asleep, but once it’s out of your system your body temperature rises, waking you up or causing you to sweat.
Beyond disrupting your core sleep functions, alcohol also disrupts the production of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which your body needs to rebuild after the stresses of your waking day. Worse, HGH is suppressed for up to three nights after alcohol-induced sleep.
Insomniacs, Alcoholism, and Sleep
Obviously not sleeping will make you less alert the next day, but it will also make you a worse drunk the next day. Studies have shown that decreased sleep the night before leads to stronger effects when alcohol is consumed the next day.
Most studies of alcohol’s effects on sleep are on healthy volunteers. Interestingly, when subjects are insomniacs, the results are different. For research subjects who have confirmed insomnia, alcohol often isn’t as detrimental to sleep as with healthy subjects. But, and this is a big but, a tolerance to the effects of alcohol quickly develops leading to larger doses that do interfere with sleep – and of course tolerance combined with larger doses is the first step on the path to alcoholism.
Trips to the Bathroom
Finally, alcohol is a diuretic, which means you’ll need to go the bathroom more often during the night, which of course means that your sleep will be interrupted or you won’t be able to get back to sleep. You’ll also wake up dehydrated, but you already knew that.
How to Drink and Still Get Great Sleep
Alcohol is a big part of our culture and is often at the center of our social life, so how do you keep it from interfering with your sleep? The key is to make sure there isn’t any alcohol in your system when you go to bed. This means drinking less and drinking earlier in the evening. A cocktail after work is a much better idea than a nightcap before bed. If you use the rule that it takes one hour to metabolize one drink for a healthy adult, you should stop drinking at least two hours before bed if you’ve had two drinks. This time is increased for women since women don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly for men.
Make a Change
Try skipping alcohol for a few nights and record how well you sleep – you might take longer to go to sleep, but you’ll see a big difference in the quality of your sleep. If a nightcap is part of your bedtime Sleep Ritual, try replacing it with a chamomile tea or a cup of Natural Calm – both are soothing and can help ease you out of the habit.
References and Additional Resources
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm – review of literature on sleep and alcohol
http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/110-125.htm – review of alcohol’s effects on the sleep of heavy drinkers
http://www.nosleeplessnights.com/does-alcohol-help-you-sleep/ – A good review on the effects of alcohol on sleep
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/acer.12006/abstract – Meta study of alcohol’s effect on sleep