How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
REM sleep and sleep in general is vital to our health and longevity. Therefore, any substance that may affect our sleep cycle poses a health risk. The more you know about how alcohol affects sleep will help you understand how it may end up affecting one of the most important activities we do every day.
Is Sleep Really That Important?
Yes. Yes it is. Good quality sleep is necessary to protect your mental and physical health, along with your quality of life and safety. The quality of sleep you get often plays a large role in determining how you feel when you are awake. During sleep, the body regenerates blood vessels, regulates hormones, strengthens your immune system, and much more.
We’ve discussed other ways in which alcohol can pose a health risk, but alcohol’s ability to inhibit the benefits of good quality sleep is paramount to its detriment as a substance. If you or someone you know needs help stopping their use of alcohol, contact someone today to learn more about what you can do to help.
Yes, Alcohol Makes You Sleepy. But…
Many people drink themselves to sleep. Some even do it every night. The intention might be harmless—we all know how unpleasant it is when we cannot fall asleep. However, though alcohol might initially help us fall asleep, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
As you may know, alcohol is a depressant. It has sedative effects that can make you feel drowsy and also relaxes your muscles. While you may fall asleep more easily, alcohol actually increases the number of disturbances you have at night. When you wake up in the middle of the night after drinking and you can’t fall back asleep, you can blame alcohol.
This is the irony of using alcohol for inducing sleep. Though people might use substances to self-medicate, the result is often more damaging due to alcohol’s inhibition of deep, restorative sleep.
The 5 Stages of Sleep
In order to fully understand alcohol’s effects on sleep, we have to first understand the different stages of sleep and what tends to occur in each stage. There are 5 stages of sleep:
- Stage W: Wakefulness
Throughout the day, your brain experiences different types of electrical activity. Right before you sleep, your brain begins to experience brain waves associated with daydreaming, relaxation, and contemplation. This is when you remember bits and pieces of your day, think about what you will do tomorrow, etc. As discussed above, studies show alcohol aids in this part of the sleep cycle.
- Stage N1: Relaxed Wakefulness
When you finally begin to fall asleep, your body temperature begins to drop and your heart rate slows down. This is a short stage, but it is important due to “sleep spindles,” which are rapid bursts of electrical energy produced in the brain to aid the transition into a deeper sleep.
- Stage N2: Light Sleep
Once your brain is in a total state of relaxation, it begins to produce delta waves, which are slow and directly tied to sleep. However, this is where alcohol begins causing problems. Alcohol creates a disturbance in the sleep cycle because it continues to incite alpha waves, which are not tied to deep sleep but are rather associated with resting quietly. This combination of delta (deep sleep) and alpha (resting) brain activity disrupts the normal sleep cycle and often leads a person to wake up and start back at Stage 1.
- Stage N3: Deep Sleep, or Slow-Wave Sleep
This stage is a continuation of Stage 3. Delta waves increase, and the brain is almost ready for REM Sleep. However, with alcohol use, a person may not be able to enter this stage of the sleep cycle and therefore not obtain the rest they need.
- Stage R: REM Sleep (Dreaming)
REM Sleep is the most important type of sleep you get every night. For every 8 hours of sleep, the average healthy adult gets between 1 and 2 hours of REM Sleep, and all of it is vital for the brain’s health. REM Sleep incites the part of the brain associated with learning; those who do not spend enough time in REM Sleep tend to have memory deficiencies. Furthermore, REM Sleep is when memories are sorted and stored, bodily tissues are repaired, and proteins are produced. It’s a big deal.
Alcohol blocks REM Sleep. Without REM, sleep can almost feel useless. This is why many people who use alcohol to fall asleep often wake up feeling groggy and unrested.
- Stage W: Wakefulness
Did you know? REM stands for rapid eye movement. This is because, during REM sleep, your eyes move quickly in different directions.
But That’s Not All
There are other aspects of sleep that alcohol tends to interrupt. For example, alcohol can mess with your circadian rhythm, a.k.a. your sleep schedule. When you’ve been awake for a certain period of time, your body naturally produces adenosine, a chemical that makes you sleepy. Using alcohol increases the production of adenosine, which is why it is easier to fall asleep. But soon after, the adenosine production stops abruptly. This explains why many people wake up in the middle of the night after drinking.
Furthermore, alcohol can interrupt sleep through aggravating breathing problems and increase bathroom trips. Alcohol relaxes all of your muscles, including the muscles in your throat, which leads to snoring and sleep apnea. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means it increases urination. Usually, your body puts your bladder in hibernation during sleep, but alcohol tends to mess with that, too.
How Addiction Starts
The truth is, no one starts to use alcohol expecting all the negative side effects. It often begins in small quantities and infrequent nights. But as you build tolerance, one beer may turn into three, and one night a week may turn into six or seven. It’s a gradual process, and sometimes it’s not easy to know that it has become a problem until the addiction has staked its ground.
Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead users to drink even more to cope with stress and anxiety. The more you drink, though, the less you’ll sleep, and the more problems you’ll begin to encounter as alcohol not only affects your sleep but also your physical and mental health.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
People who drink alcohol to fall asleep often began to do so because they couldn’t fall asleep in the first place. There are many reasons why a person may have trouble falling asleep, including stress and mental illnesses. However, a person who drinks alcohol to fall asleep will never know the root cause of their sleep problems if they continue to use alcohol.
If you or a loved one is struggling with sleep problems due to alcohol use, it may be that they have developed an alcohol use disorder and may require some outside support. Reach out to us at Launch Centers to