Alaska Sleep Education Center

Does Alcohol Help or Hurt Sleep?

Posted by Patrick Bailey on Aug 31, 2020 4:05:00 AM

Group of friends going out to a bar and having drinks

Most adults believe that drinking alcohol, especially the stronger stuff, leads to drowsiness and an easier time falling asleep. This often leads people to believe that they should drink to make it easier to get some shut-eye.

While it may be true that you'll fall asleep faster, that doesn’t mean that you should drink for that reason. Your overall quality of sleep may be worse after drinking alcohol. This is just one of many reasons why alcoholism rehab is so important.

When you sleep, your brain cycles through several different sleep rhythms. In fact, there are five stages of sleep. The stages are associated with brainwave patterns associated with certain brain activity. During sleep, the brain experiences the following stages:

1) Relaxed wakefulness - alpha waves

2) Stage N1 - theta waves

3) Stage N2

4) Stage N3 or deep sleep - delta waves

5) REM or dreaming sleep

The more time your brain spends in certain stages of sleep, the better quality of sleep you receive. For instance, the brain produces more alpha waves when in the relaxed wakefulness stage. Research suggests that alpha brain waves are most common when you awake but not entirely focused on anything. Think of this state like daydreaming or meditating.

Alcohol, in many cases, will keep your brain in this state even after you fall asleep. So, instead of sleeping, imagine if you meditated for eight hours. How would you feel in terms of sleep quality?

Consuming alcohol before sleep also increases delta brain waves that are often associated with deep and dreamless sleep. The delta brain wave function also relates to memory formation and other basic functions. These two contradictory states of brain waves mean your brain is less able to cycle through restorative sleep, resulting in poorer quality overall rest.


Circadian rhythm interruptions

While drinking alcohol before sleep can decrease sleep quality, it can also interrupt your circadian rhythm. This is the internal clock that your body operates in a 24-hour cycle.

Circadian cycles are part of human biology, which adapted to the day-night cycle over time. They allow you to feel awake during the day and feel tired around nighttime. The cycles also impact your hunger throughout the day, among other things.

One way to determine the relationship between circadian rhythms and sleep is to study the body’s production of adenosine, a chemical responsible for tiredness that leads to sleep. Studies have found that alcohol can rapidly increase the production of this chemical.

But don't be fooled. Once you fall asleep, the production of adenosine stops almost entirely, and you will wake up or enter into a more wakeful brainwave, thus interrupting your circadian rhythm.


Symptoms of a bad circadian rhythm

Interruptions to your circadian rhythm may lead to chronic sleeping conditions that leave you feeling tired and drowsy at the wrong times of the day. You may also notice that your perception of time of day begins to shift.

For example, you may begin to fall asleep later and later in the evening and wake up later in the day. That could be problematic if you need to follow a certain schedule for work, school, or family responsibilities.

In some cases, your entire cycle of sleeping and wakefulness could flip. That means you could end up sleeping during the day and staying awake at night.

If you do develop a sleep issue as a result of circadian rhythm interruptions, then you may need to seek professional medical health. Some therapies exist for sleeping problems.

Some therapies include bright light therapy, which places a bright light near you for certain periods of the day. Other therapies may include chronotherapy, where a professional helps you slowly shift your daily habits throughout the day.

But these interventions can be time-consuming and expensive. So, it may be easier and more cost-effective to avoid sleep issues altogether by avoiding large amounts of alcohol before bedtime.


Goodbye, REM sleep

Another problem with using alcohol to fall asleep is that it reduces our amount of REM sleep. Since alcohol increases the occurrence of alpha waves, this makes it much more difficult to fall into REM sleep, which is widely regarded as a very restorative stage and, therefore, one of the most important sleep rhythms.

While some research does suggest humans might be able to live without REM sleep, this sleep rhythm has also been linked to feelings of restfulness, increased brain plasticity, and increased ability to learn and remember certain information.


Not Getting Enough REM Sleep

There are signs you may want to look out for if you typically consume alcohol before bed. Since REM sleep is linked to several key brain functions during the day, you should be wary of such symptoms.

Research suggests that receiving more REM sleep at night can help your brain recall memories better and solve problems more quickly during the day. So, if your memory begins to become hazy and you can't work out problems, you may be suffering from a lack of REM sleep. Deficits of this type of sleep could also make you forget basic aspects of your life, such as how to ride a bicycle, where you put your keys, and more.


Breathing Complications

Aside from your body's ability to receive good sleep, alcohol also has an effect on breathing. In some cases, those with asthma or who are prone to snoring will suffer even more. In some studies, people who are prone to sleep apnea seemed to suffer from breathing issues after ingesting alcohol. Sleep apnea is a disorder where breathing rapidly starts and stops.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the presence of sleep apnea and its symptoms can cause high blood pressure, daytime fatigue, type II diabetes, and more. That means relying on alcohol to fall asleep could exacerbate or even produce the condition of sleep apnea. In some cases, individuals must wear special masks at night to sleep in order to prevent breathing complications.


Increased Urination

The term breaking the seal is often associated with drinking alcohol, which acts as a diuretic. This means your body may produce more urine after alcohol consumption, which is why increased urination is associated with drinking.

Diuretic effects can affect your sleep in different ways. For example, too much alcohol may make you lose control of your bladder and release urine in your sleep. Or, you might wake up and need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Consuming large amounts of alcohol before bedtime can harm your health. Excessive alcohol can interrupt your sleep cycles, prevent you from entering REM sleep, produce breathing complications, and create the need to urinate more often. Your sleep is more important than alcohol.

If you believe that you have obstructive sleep apnea, it’s vital that you see a doctor immediately who can diagnose you. Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious medical condition which can be fatal, so knowing what to do and what to avoid can help with your symptoms and ease any fatigue and exhaustion commonly linked with the condition.

For more information on diagnosing, treating, and the possible consequences of untreated obstructive sleep apnea click here.

Chronic Drowsiness



About the Author: Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. 


Sources: - Sleeptionary -- Definitions to Common Sleep Terms - The Science of Sleep: Stages and Cycles - What Are Alpha Brain Waves and Why Are They Important? -  Everything to Know About Your Circadian Rhythm - Insomnia: Restoring Restful Sleep - Sleep Apnea - Why Does Alcohol Make You Pee More?

Topics: get better sleep, alcohol

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