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Alcohol and Sleep – What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?

Is a Night Cap Really a Great Way to Get a Good Night’s Sleep?

To answer this question properly, we need to differentiate between two things.

The first is whether alcohol allows you to fall asleep faster. The second is the effect of alcohol on your sleep quality.

While alcohol may help you to fall asleep faster, even the smallest amount of alcohol can affect the quality of your sleep significantly. In fact, you may wake up the next day and feel like you haven’t slept at all!

Let’s take a deeper look into this, shall we?

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What Does Alcohol Do to the Body?

So, why does alcohol make you drunk?

Alcohol first impairs your brain function as it slows down your chemicals and pathways for your brain to send messages. This alters your mind by affecting your mood and outlook on life. In fact, alcohol is a depressant! It also alters your body by affecting your reflexes & balance.

You will also find it more difficult to remember things. That is because alcohol has a big impact on your long-term memory. In fact, alcohol abuse can lead to your brain shrinking. If you drink heavily over a longer period of time, alcohol can lower your ability to learn, think and remember things.

Having too many drinks also negatively impacts other body parts, such as your liver and stomach. Booze irritate the lining of your stomach. This is why you may feel like you need to throw up after one too many. Your liver will also be left with many scars over time as it tries to filter out all the toxins.

Is Alcohol Bad for You?

There are many studies that say that a glass of wine a day is healthy. They are often greeted with lots of enthusiasm by the media and general public. However, it is not that easy to determine whether alcohol in moderation actually has health benefits.

One of the reasons may be that moderate drinkers could also be those who generally look after themselves better than others. It could be, that they generally eat healthier, exercise regularly, and simply have a healthier lifestyle.

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Negative Effects of Alcohol

We have to separate the long- and short-term negative effects of alcohol!

Short-Term Negative Effects of Alcohol

  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Distorted vision and hearing
  • Impaired judgment
  • Decreased perception and coordination
  • Unconsciousness
  • Anemia (loss of red blood cells)
  • Coma
  • Blackouts (memory lapses, where the drinker cannot remember events that occurred while under the influence)

Long-Term Negative Effects of Alcohol

  • Unintentional injuries such as car crash, falls, burns, drowning
  • Intentional injuries such as firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence
  • Increased on-the-job injuries and loss of productivity
  • Increased family problems, broken relationships
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • High blood pressure, stroke, and other heart-related diseases
  • Liver disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Sexual problems
  • Permanent damage to the brain
  • Vitamin B1 deficiency, which can lead to a disorder characterized by amnesia, apathy and disorientation
  • Ulcers
  • Gastritis (inflammation of stomach walls)
  • Malnutrition
  • Cancer of the mouth and throat

Alcohol and Sleep - Effects of Alcohol

Many confuse the sedative and relaxing effects of alcohol as beneficial for their sleep. However, the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess, is proven to do the exact opposite.

In fact, alcohol is tightly linked to poor sleep quality and duration. Many even show similar symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea after just a few drinks.

While drinking in moderation is considered safe, it is important to keep in mind that we all react differently to every substance. On some it may have an immediate and large negative impact, while on others it is less apparent.

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Does Alcohol Make You Sleepy?

As mentioned earlier, alcohol essentially slows-down your brain activity. That is what many people experience as feeling drowsy after a drink!

So yes, alcohol will make you feel sleepy. However, (and it is a big HOWEVER), you won’t sleep well. Remember that there is a difference between sleep quality, sleep quantity and the time it takes for you to fall asleep!

The thing is that your body processes the alcohol throughout the night. The moment this effect wears off, it will leave you tossing and turning. Your body simply won’t get that good REM sleep that you need to refill your batteries.

In addition, you are more likely to have vivid dreams and nightmares after a few drinks. Also, don’t forget the frequent trips to the bathroom!

Alcohol and REM Sleep

Let’s have a look at the effects of alcohol on your sleep cycle!

Having a few drinks can completely disrupt your sleep cycle. It will completely mix up the ratio of NREM and REM sleep that you need to fully rejuvenate.

NREM sleep is also known as non-rapid eye movement sleep (or dreamless sleep). In fact, NREM sleep covers all of the first three stages of your sleep cycle! During NREM sleep, your heart rate normalizes, your breathing becomes regular and you are slowly falling into a deep sleep.

During REM sleep you experience deep sleep. It’s the stage where the most dreams occur, memories are stored, and is the restorative part of the night. REM sleep usually kicks in about 90 minutes after you fall asleep.

Sleep fact: NREM sleep takes up 75% of your good night’s sleep! The remaining 25% is deep sleep, also known as REM sleep.

The issue with alcohol is that it won’t let you get the recommended 6-7 REM cycles that you need. Especially the second half of the night will be heavily disrupted as the alcohol wears off.

Many will find themselves only having 1-2 REM cycles instead of the recommended 6-7. That is why you will end up feeling exhausted rather than refreshed and energized.

Now, add to that the irregular late night out with friends and a busy work week and you will understand why you feel that way!

Alcohol and Sleep Deprivation

As we have mentioned earlier, there is a strong connection between alcohol, low sleep quality and low sleep quantity. In fact, up to 72% of people who struggle with drinking have a problem with sleep.

In fact, these problems may end up becoming chronic. That means that they may persist even after you have stopped drinking altogether.

Let’s have a look at the two most common sleep disorders which are linked to alcohol!

Sleep Apnea and Alcohol

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder when you repeatedly stop breathing for a few seconds during your sleep. It occurs when your throat muscles relax to the extent that you block your airways.

The most noticeable symptom of sleep apnea and alcohol is snoring. In fact, alcohol can cause you to snore louder than usual! Since your throat muscles are relaxed, you begin to breathe harder in order to push the air.

Sleep apnea and alcohol and closely related. Even if you usually don’t snore, you may find yourself doing so the night after drinking!

Insomnia and Alcohol

Insomnia is a disorder that prevents someone from achieving a restful night’s sleep. While this may not be such an issue for a day or two, it is very devastating in the long run.

Many people suffering from insomnia tend to use the sleep inducing effects of alcohol to combat the disorder. However, alcohol makes the issue even more complicated.

Remember how we mentioned that alcohol prevents you from getting into deep REM sleep? Now imagine combining that with insomnia and you have a devastating recipe.

In addition, many do not feeling the negative effects immediately. However, once they do realize that they always wake up tired, they opt for the most simple solution: have more drinks.

In fact, this is one of the major reasons for alcohol dependency.

Sleep Aids and Alcohol

Right off the bat: it is a big NO to use sleeping pills and alcohol together.

There are serious side effects which can occur if you combine the two. In fact, the side effects can also be potentially fatal.

Even small amounts of alcohol combined with certain sedating medications may lead to dangerous symptoms. That includes over-sedation, confusion, dizziness, fainting, slowed breathing and lower heart rate.

There are many different sleep medications and at least just as many different interactions between them and alcohol. While some may be more dangerous than others, the rule of thumb stays the same.

Never mix alcohol with any form of sleep medications or sedatives – including the prescribed ones!

Melatonin and Alcohol

Melatonin is the hormone our body produces to induce sleep. However, you can also take it in form of a supplement or medication.

While our body does naturally produce the hormone when we want to go to sleep, it is just as unsafe to take melatonin in combination with alcohol.

Both are sedatives, and the increased risk of accidents or over-sedation is just as valid for melatonin as with other sleep medications.

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How Do You Increase Your Sleep Quality?

Alcohol is not a good way to increase your sleep quality. In fact, we know now that it does the opposite!

Here are a few tips to improve your sleep quality!

#1 Keep Your Natural Sleep-Wake Cycle

  1. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day (yes, including weekends!)
  2. Take correct naps
  3. Combat after-dinner drowsiness if it occurs way before your bed time

#2 Exercise Regularly

  1. Time it correctly! Don’t exercise right before going to bed
  2. The more you do, the more sleep benefits you will feel. However, even a 10-minute walk every day already improves your sleep quality!

#3 Think About What You Eat and Drink

  1. Limit caffeine and nicotine
  2. Try to avoid bigger meals for dinner
  3. Avoid alcohol
  4. Don’t drink too many fluids before bed. You might need to go to the bathroom too often otherwise!

#4 Wind Down and Relax

  1. Stay away from your smartphone as notifications will keep your mind busy!
  2. If you have difficulties with this, mindfulness activities or meditation may help!

#5 Create the Perfect Sleep Environment

  1. Your environment should be relaxing. Turn off all screens and unnecessary lights!
  2. Make sure to have the best sleep equipment for your individual needs. This includes your mattress, pillow, topper, blanket, and so on.
  3. Ensure to have the right sleep temperature in your room (around 65° F or 18° C)
  4. Make sure your room has enough airflow and ventilation
  5. Changing or adapting your sleep position can also help!
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5 Tips for Sleeping After a Few Drinks

So, you’ve had a few drinks. It will happen eventually! Here are a few things you can do to still get the best out of your good night’s sleep!

  1. Try to drink and snack at the same time. Eating and drinking (non-alcoholic drinks, of course!) will slow down the effect of alcohol.
  2. Allow 3 to 4 hours between having a glass of wine and hitting the sheets!
  3. Never have a drop of alcohol when taking sleep pills!
  4. Use the ‘two for one’ rule. For those who don’t know the rule: have one glass of water for every two alcoholic beverages!
  5. Try to cut down the fizzy and carbonated mixes. It makes you gassy and allows the alcohol to be absorbed faster!

Fun Fact: What is Sleep Drunkenness?

While alcohol may play a role in it, there is no direct causation between the two!

Sleep drunkenness is a sleep disorder where you wake up confused, tense, or with an adrenaline rush. It is also known as confusional arousal.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 1 in 7 adults may experience sleep drunkenness regularly.

Alcohol and Sleep – the Bottom Line

As with many things in life, it may boil down to drinking in moderation. There is a big difference with having the occasional social drink and alcohol abuse. It is important to understand that alcohol negatively effects both your body and mind.

However, one thing is for sure: alcohol has a disruptive effect on your overall sleep quality. While it may be a guilty pleasure from time-to-time, we highly recommend to ensure that you get high quality sleep as often as possible!

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