A lot of people look to alcohol as a stress-relief tool. After a really hard day, it’s not unreasonable to want to relax, even if you need a couple of drinks to loosen up. Because of its ability to provide short-term relief, alcohol commonly sees use as a sleep aid. After all, anything that helps you get your mind off things and fall asleep faster is useful, right?
Well, not so much. Alcohol has been shown to have multiple negative effects on your body’s circadian rhythm and ability to get proper, restorative rest during the night. Couple that with the potential headaches (or other hangover effects) you get in the morning, and it becomes clear that alcohol has a lot more risks than upsides. In this article, we will explain in more detail why you should avoid imbibing alcohol before bedtime, especially in heavier amounts — the simple explanation is that because of how alcohol affects your body, avoiding it helps you prevent sleep disorders and other health concerns. Let’s look into things, shall we?
Alcohol as a Sleep Aid
When a person first resorts to alcohol as a sleep aid, they may find it weirdly effective. A single drink before bedtime and they’re relaxing comfortably. They wake up tomorrow without consequences and wonder if they should attempt drinking before bed in the future – and a habit forms. Before long, their body develops an increased tolerance to alcohol, which makes them drink more to achieve the same effect. Meanwhile, their circadian rhythm becomes completely disrupted, and some other health issues may crop up, especially since alcohol can weaken your immune system.
If this sounds like a full-on addiction, that’s because it is. Please remember that for all its short-term benefits, alcohol should be indulged in with moderation. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re relying on drinks to fall asleep, even if it works early on. While a single drink may have little to no effect on your circadian rhythm or sleep quality, if you start increasing the dosage, you’ll encounter negative effects. This problem is amplified even further if a person with an already established sleep disorder resorts to alcohol.
The Effects of Alcohol on our Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Quality
Before we get into it, let’s briefly look over how our circadian rhythm works. Basically, human bodies come with a built-in biological clock that is synchronized with the day and night cycle where we live. This rhythm affects our metabolism, our mood, our immune system, hormone secretions, sleep, and most other bodily functions. If this “clock” fails to synchronize properly (this can happen for many reasons, including drinking alcohol), then those processes and functions become less efficient, causing problems like:
– Compromised liver function. The liver is our body’s filter system, helping to remove toxins from the bloodstream and metabolize food and drink. However, liver regulation is affected by our circadian rhythm, and drinking lots of alcohol can (and will) disrupt this rhythm. As a consequence, the liver becomes much weaker, which can lead to disease or liver toxicity.
– Depression. Anyone who is suffering or has suffered from depression knows that sleeping problems and potential alcohol use are never too far behind. It’s incredibly easy to have your circadian rhythm disrupted when you’re depressed, and alcohol only makes it worse.
– Leaky gut syndrome. This one is particularly terrifying because of how hard it is to diagnose and how vague our knowledge is on it. Symptoms of this illness include gas, bloating, food sensitivity, pain, etc. A lot of these are not exactly uncommon, and so spotting a leaky gut can be hard. The gut operates under the “supervision” of our circadian rhythm, and a disrupted rhythm can quickly cause this issue. When you have a leaky gut, it means toxins and bacteria (along with tiny bits of food) can enter your bloodstream.
– Sleep-wake cycle disruption. We’ve mentioned melatonin before as a hormone crucial to maintaining a healthy sleep cycle. Alcohol has a suppressive effect on melatonin, reducing its production by as much as 20% if you consume anything more than a tiny amount. While this can be slightly made up for by taking melatonin supplements, it’s a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Aside from this, alcohol makes it much harder for your biological clock to recognize and respond to light cues that normally let it synchronize. Not only that, but that disruptive effect can persist even without you downing more drinks – making alcohol consumption a very slippery slope.
There’s another chemical disbalance caused by alcohol that affects sleep. Adenosine is a chemical whose job it is to block out wakefulness-inducing chemicals. It may sound complicated at first, but what essentially happens is – Adenosine levels slowly grow while you’re awake. As they grow, you are less and less capable of resisting sleep, which is how the body forces you to rest. Alcohol considerably increases adenosine production, making you sleep during periods when you shouldn’t, further throwing your sleep cycle off-balance by messing with your sleep drive.
Note: How prepared your body is to process alcohol varies based on the time of day. If you drink during the early evening, your body is at its most prepared to metabolize that drink. Mornings, on the other hand, are a disaster period for drinking. Avoid taking in any alcohol during that time.
We’ve covered alcohol’s effects on our circadian rhythm, but that’s not where it ends. We mentioned sleep quality in our introduction, and now it’s time to cover it in more detail. The most important thing to take away is this: The more you drink, and the closer that drinking is to bedtime, the worse your sleep will be. Even if alcohol does help you fall asleep faster, the overall sleep quality will be much poorer, and you will probably feel horrible in the morning. It is because alcohol affects sleep architecture – the flow of sleep through naturally progressing stages. As a result, you may often wake up sooner than you wanted, and have trouble falling asleep again.
Alcohol reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep; it’s undeniable. If you drink a lot of alcohol, you may pass out instead of going to sleep normally. The problem is, your body becomes resistant to the effects of alcohol, which forces you to increase the amount you drink to get the same effects you used to. Almost everyone that drinks as a way to fall asleep faster is completely unaware of the following consequences.
Under the influence of alcohol, you spend more time in deep sleep and less time in REM sleep during the first half of the night. REM sleep is the most restorative phase when it comes to mental functions like memory or emotional processing. Your body knows what kind of sleep architecture is the most healthy, and changing it via alcohol can only cause harm. But it doesn’t stop there. During the second half of the night, the relaxing effects of alcohol subside, as it’s been completely metabolized. As a result, you automatically move to lighter phases of sleep, making it extremely likely that you will wake up during the night. Even if you don’t encounter problems falling asleep again, the restorative portion of sleeping is disrupted enough that the damage is already done. Sometimes you don’t even remember waking up, but the result is the same.
Additionally, alcohol relaxes the muscles in your throat and neck, which affects your breathing. As a result, you can begin snoring even if you normally never snore. Something similar happens with sleep-disordered breathing, too. It doesn’t end there, however. If you already have sleeping disorders, alcohol can amplify them and make your sleep cycle even worse. As a cherry on top, you may wake up more often to go to the bathroom, especially during lighter sleep phases. It means your sleep keeps getting interrupted, which affects how you feel and perform the following day.
If you’re a hot sleeper, there’s another downside. Alcohol drops your body temperature when you first consume it, which is beneficial for entering and maintaining light sleep. This makes it a good short-term solution for quickly falling asleep, but it comes at a cost. Once the effects of alcohol wear off, your body temperature will suddenly and prematurely rise. This rise in temperature can singlehandedly ruin your night if you’re already prone to sleeping hot (or if your mattress doesn’t allow good air circulation, among other problems).
Note: Women are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than men. This is because they naturally process and metabolize alcohol faster. Because of this, they should be even more careful about their daily alcohol intake, especially towards the evening when it matters the most.
How are Alcoholism and Insomnia Connected?
These two conditions can both be chronic and can exist side by side at the same time. They go hand in hand, as insomniacs are way more likely to resort to alcohol as a sleep aid in dire situations. It may go well at first, but as they increase the dosage, a dependency starts to form, and full-blown addiction is hot on its trail.
Alcoholics, in general, tend to suffer from sleep fragmentation and other such issues. As we’ve already explained, their habit causes massive disruption to their circadian cycle and sleep architecture, and almost all of them deal with sleeping problems. The problem lies in how sleep problems persist when a person tries to quit alcohol or cut back on it considerably. Insomnia is a symptom of both alcohol addiction and a withdrawal symptom when trying to quit, which makes quitting that much harder. The detox process can itself cause insomnia, complicating matters further. It takes time for your sleep quality to get back to normal after you go cold-turkey – sleep fragmentation problems have been reported to last over a year after someone quits drinking.
Because sleeping problems are present both while addicted and while trying to quit, it’s very easy to relapse. Insomnia and sleeping problems are one of the biggest relapse causes out there. It’s a vicious cycle because being tired during the day (after experiencing sleeping problems the previous night) can lead a person to drink in the evening to “sleep better,” further amplifying the downsides.
How Much Alcohol is Acceptable?
Some people may be led to believe that only heavy drinkers suffer from severe sleep problems. The truth is, even a moderate amount (roughly two or three drinks in one day) can be enough to get the snowball effect rolling and cause issues. As a rule, no one should be drinking more than two or three times per week. You can still enjoy a glass of wine with a nice meal, or beer & barbecue gathering with friends without disrupting your sleep quality or circadian rhythm. You don’t have to remove alcohol from your life entirely, just don’t make it a habit, and don’t drink heavily in any situation. Social pressure can make this difficult, and you may have to find other sleep aid options, but it’s worth it. Steering clear of alcohol can improve your mental faculties by enabling proper, restorative sleep.
Note: If you’re having massive struggles trying to fall asleep, consult your physician before trying to self-medicate on a regular basis. They are far better equipped to understand, diagnose and treat your problem than you are, and while you may be sent to a sleep specialist to confirm a correct diagnosis, all that bother is worth it. Maybe external factors are affecting your sleep quality that you can change without risking addiction.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic