Most people think having a drink in the evening helps with sleep. While that may be true with regard to quickly falling asleep, any amount of alcohol within 3-4 hours of bedtime disrupts the entire night’s sleep and can lead to serious health problems. It can also affect alertness, mood, and physical strength the next day.
Alcohol Disrupts Sleep Cycles
During a normal night of sleep, your body goes through deep sleep (slow wave) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Our body does all its rest and repair work during the deep sleep cycle which happens early in the sleep cycle. After that, your body will go through about 6-7 cycles of REM sleep, which is essential for good health. In fact, one study showed that rats deprived of REM sleep died.
Alcohol is a central nervous system chemical depressant so it reduces nerve activity in the brain. But your brain reacts to this by releasing its own supply of hormones and chemical stimulants to restore balance. The problem happens when the alcohol is metabolized and processed, which takes about 4-5 hours. Once this occurs, your body is left with only the stimulants, leaving you wide awake in the middle of the night. This commonly occurs around 2-3 a.m. at which time the brain stimulants make you unable to go back to sleep. This is one way alcohol disrupts sleep.
Alcohol also prevents REM sleep and while you need about 6-7 REM cycles each night, drinking any amount of alcohol reduces this to only one or two cycles. When this happens, you most likely will feel tired and sluggish the next day, maybe even depressed.
Winding Down at Night
When you are getting ready for bed, your brain winds down and releases some substances, including melatonin, to help you prepare for sleep. But when you drink alcohol, it interferes with this natural process and prevents the release of these hormones and chemicals. The alcohol artificially induces sleep, because it’s a depressant. So while alcoholic beverages may help you fall asleep more quickly, they’re actually affecting the entire sleep process. Should you choose to remove alcohol from your life, you may initially have trouble falling asleep until this natural process is restored (about 5 days).
Healthy Options for Preventing Alcohol-related Sleep Problems
The healthiest option is to avoid alcohol completely, or at least take 30-60 day breaks. Those who do usually notice improvements in sleep apnea and reduced snoring after a week to ten days. Alcohol-free breaks also promote weight loss (learn more here about how alcohol prevents weight loss). But if you choose to drink alcohol keep these tips in mind:
- Stop drinking at least 3-4 hours before bedtime.
- Drink water in between alcoholic beverages.
- Avoid caffeine after midday.
- Increase regular daily exercise.
Sleep is essential to good health and a strong immune system. It helps us restore our minds and bodies daily. There is no question that alcohol disrupts sleep. For many people, reducing or eliminating alcohol can have a huge positive impact on overall health.