“Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as it helps induce sleep, but overall, it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night.”
~ Dr. Irsaad Ebrahim, Medical Director of the London Sleep Centre
If you think that a drink or two before bed to help you sleep, it may be time for you to rethink that notion. Because although alcohol may help you fall asleep more quickly, it actually may prevent you from getting a good night’s rest. In fact, drinking may disrupt the quality and quantity of your sleep so profoundly as to trigger a sleep disorder.
Let’s take a closer look at what science tells us about how alcohol affects your sleep.
Drinking and Sleep: The Statistics
According to a recent study conducted by Mattress Advisor:
- 25% of respondents admitted to feeling “restless” at bedtime after drinking.
- 25% reported waking up multiple times during the night.
- 23% felt uncomfortably hot while trying to sleep.
- 19% complained of nausea and vomiting.
- 55% falsely thought that they got a full, restful night’s sleep.
Alcohol Affects Your Sleep Architecture
The term “sleep architecture” refers to the amount of deep sleep you get, versus light, dreaming sleep. Normal sleep is comprised of two alternating states in which brain waves demonstrate different kinds of activity:
- Slow-wave sleep (SWS)
- Rapid eye movement sleep (REM)
In addition, research identifies another “transitional” light sleep stage occurring at intervals during the sleep period.
During SWS, the brain waves are very slow. It is deep, restful sleep, typically accounting for approximately 75% of a night’s sleep.
REM sleep happens periodically through the night, making up about 25% of sleep time. REM cycles happen around 90 minutes apart and last between 5 and 30 minutes each. This is the sleep stage associated with dreaming, and it is less physically restful. However, REM sleep is crucial for mental and emotional well-being.
Alcohol significantly delays the onset of the first REM cycle and reduces the total amount of REM sleep you receive during the first part of the night. And the more you drink, the more pronounced the effect is.
During the second half of the night, SWS is reduced, and you are more likely to suffer from poor sleep quality or even wakefulness. As a result, when you get up in the morning, you are still tired both physically and mentally.
This is especially true as we age, because we naturally experience a decrease in SWS and an increase in wakefulness. In fact, according to past studies, people over 65 may wake up 20 times or more during the night.
This means their sleep is less restorative and restful, encouraging the increased use of alcohol in an attempt to improve sleep. The result, unfortunately, is a sharp increase in alcohol-related sleep disturbances among older adults. Not coincidentally, high-risk drinking among seniors has spiked by 65% within recent years.
Dr. Susan Bondy, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto, says, “The proportions of time change. You spend a lot more time in light sleep and then you slightly wake up and you’re aware of being awake…At the end of the night, you haven’t had a deep sleep, which restores brain function…”
Alcohol Worsens Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing constantly starts and stops. Drinking can contribute to both the development of and the worsening of OSA.
Two of the main symptoms of OSA are loud snoring and tiredness even after a full night’s sleep. Of special relevance, alcohol relaxes the jaw and throat muscles, causing them to collapse onto the airway. This reduces airflow and causes snoring. Alcohol also slows heart rate and respiration and lengthens the intervals between breaths.
As Dr. Ebrahim explains, “With increasing doses, alcohol suppresses our breathing. It can turn non-snorers into snorers, and snorers into people with sleep apnea — where the breathing’s interrupted.”
Alcohol Dependence and Sleep Disturbances
Chronic drinking can lead to alcohol tolerance, where your brain is so accustomed to the presence of alcohol that you must drink more to experience the same effects, including sedation. And once you increase how much and how often you drink, the next stage is alcohol dependence.
At this stage, you are physically unable to stop drinking without experiencing alcohol withdrawal, which is characterized by unpleasant physical and mental symptoms, some of which directly interfere with your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
- Pronounced reduction in SWS
- Shorter periods of REM sleep leading to an overall decrease, but a marked increase in nightmares and withdrawal-related hallucinations
- An increase in transitional sleep, leading to more frequent nighttime awakening.
This is important because an inability to sleep during early sobriety is one of the most accurate predictors of an impending relapse. In fact, almost half of alcoholics in recovery who are struggling with untreated sleep disturbances will relapse within five months.
What Does All of This Mean to YOU?
There are a few important takeaways from this information.
FIRST, self-medicating with alcohol in the hopes of improving your sleep tends to have the opposite effect. It will help you fall asleep faster, but your sleep won’t be as restful or restorative.
SECOND, regular drinking can lead to alcohol tolerance, dependence, and ultimately, a full-blown Alcohol Use Disorder.
THIRD, during recovery from AUD, untreated sleeping problems make you drastically more vulnerable to a relapse.
FINALLY, if you are trapped in a vicious cycle of sleep disturbances and increasing alcohol use, you may need specialized professional help to help you regain control.
If you live in Southern California, Lasting Recovery is your first and best resource. As the oldest and most-respected outpatient drug rehab in San Diego, Lasting Recovery combines the latest evidence-based treatment strategies with total-wellness holistic therapies to give you your best chance at a safe and successful return to health.
To get immediate help, contact Lasting Recovery TODAY.