How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

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There are plenty of us out there who have trouble sleeping. Some may take medication. Others may decide to have a nightcap, or they just like to drink alcohol. Regardless there’s been plenty of myths and research done on how alcohol affects you. And new research shows how exactly boozing it up before bedtime impacts your brain during sleep.

The research, which will appear in the April 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that initially alcohol may help you fall asleep, since it’s a sedative, but you won’t be able to maintain that good night’s rest.

Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director of the London Sleep Centre, found that alcohol increases slow-wave sleep during the first half of the night. Slow-wave sleep is beneficial for people since this is the stage where the body repairs and regenerates tissue, builds bone and muscle, and may strengthen the immune system. While this may sound like a good thing at first, Dr. Ebrahim stated that deeper sleep could worsen sleep apnea and cause sleepwalking in some people.

Also during the first half of sleep, alcohol can affect REM sleep. Rapid eye movement sleep is where most people dream. Drinking heavily, more than four drinks, decreases the REM cycle. People who lack enough REM sleep may have problems with concentration, motor skills, and memory during the day.

During the second half of the night, as the alcohol is wearing off, people will have their sleep disrupted. They can wake up in the middle of the night and will continue to have REM sleep disturbed.

Even more interesting is what happens to people the following day. Regardless if someone drank all night or just had one drink right before bedtime, a person could develop signs of sleep deprivation. This includes drowsiness, moodiness, and trouble focusing.

While this study is interesting, and will most likely be dismissed by plenty of people who come across it, it’s definitely not the first to approach the subject.

The November 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the same journal who just released the above, found much of the same results. The first half of sleep was fine, but “that drinking leads to insomnia rather than good sleep” later on in the night. Other health concerns were that since the heart rate increases in people who are drinking heavily before bed they could become prone to other diseases.

The same journal also found in another study that alcohol disrupted sleep in women more than men. Lab readings found that “men slept just as soundly after drinking alcohol as they did when they were sober. The women, by contrast, slept nearly 20 minutes less and awoke more often and for longer periods when they had alcohol in their system.” While both men and women stated that their quality of sleep was worse after drinking, women metabolize alcohol quite differently, which explains why it disrupted their sleep more.

So, what does all this research tell us?

Basically, it tells us that we shouldn’t use alcohol as a sleep aid and we probably shouldn’t drink before bed. Sounds pretty much like common sense to us. But it’s taking some of the fun out of life. Especially if you’re a woman.


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