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How Alcohol Affects Sleep

The relaxing feeling that alcohol can give may contribute to us having an early drink before going to bed. But alcohol is neither a nightcap nor a sleeping pill. On the contrary, there are links between sleep problems and alcohol. In this article, we will investigate how alcohol affects our sleep - and why they are a rather bad combination.

How Alcohol Affects the Body

Alcohol goes straight into the bloodstream, affecting almost the entire body and reaching all of the organs. The liver suffers the most damage, as that's where the alcohol is metabolised. Alcohol increases the risk of diseases such as cancer, and you are more likely to suffer from infections and depression if you drink too much. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) over two hundred diseases and injuries can be attributed to alcohol. In the UK, there are almost fifty alcohol-related deaths per one hundred thousand people every year. However, if you drink small or moderate amounts of alcohol, the risk of damage is lower.

However, even small amounts of alcohol affect the brain, and the deterioration in our judgment, cognition, reaction times and memory is noticeable. So why do we keep drinking when it's so dangerous? Alcohol releases endorphins and dopamine in the brain; hormones that make us happy, relaxed and feel good. Once the intoxication subsides, we often become tired and sleepy, which can lead us to believe that alcohol helps with sleep problems.

How Much Alcohol Is Dangerous?

How much alcohol we can cope with, as well as what the consequences are, varies widely from person to person, but the more often you drink, the worse it is for your health. There is a higher risk of suffering physical, mental and social consequences if you drink too much alcohol. The limit is estimated at fourteen units, which is seven glasses of wine per week.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep

It's often easier to fall asleep after drinking alcohol, because alcohol makes us relaxed and calm. However, general sleep quality deteriorates as alcohol makes you wake up more often, sleep more lightly and be more anxious. Sleep is divided into four different stages: falling asleep, base sleep, deep sleep and dream sleep (or REM sleep) that are repeated during the night in different cycles. When you drink alcohol in the evening before going to bed, you often fall asleep faster, but your sleep changes - the amount of deep sleep increases and the amount of dream sleep decreases. This might not sound too bad, but it means thatyour quality of sleep is worsened and you wake up more frequently during the night and earlier in the morning. The more you drink, the more your deep sleep is affected. Instead of focusing on deep sleep, the body is too busy breaking down the alcohol.

When Finnish scientists carried out a study into alcohol habits a few years ago, they found that moderate amounts of alcohol impaired the quality of sleep by 24% and large amounts of alcohol impaired the quality of sleep by 40%.

Does a Nightcap Work?

Many people become tired after alcohol, and so naturally it seems like alcohol is an effective nightcap if you have trouble sleeping. However, as we mentioned above, the sleep-inducing effects of a nightcap are short-lived. Alcohol reduces the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and this means that we don't feel as sleepy. Two hours after alcohol consumption, melatonin levels had dropped by 15–19%, according to an American study.

Waking up in the middle of the night is caused by the heart working hard against the alcohol. When the drowsy effect caused by the alcohol disappears from the body, we wake up because of an elevated pulse. Alcohol also interferes with the substances found in the brain that regulate fatigue and wakefulness, and this damages your sleep cycle. This means that you don't get enough sleep, are tired and feel worse in yourself.

For those who snore and/or have breathing problems during sleep; these are also aggravated by alcohol. According to research, alcohol increases the risk of sleep apnoea by 25%.

For those who drink only occasionally, this often doesn't cause any problems. However, those who often suffer from sleep problems know that nights with a lot of alcohol can upset the routines the body needs in order to rest and experience better quality sleep.

Long-term Alcohol Consumption

With long-term consumption, or alcohol abuse, the brain shrinks; potentially resulting in epileptic seizures, dementia or other diseases of the brain. When it comes to sleep, increasing amounts of alcohol are required to experience that relaxation and calm which first makes us sleepy but then disturbs our rest. That's why alcohol abuse often leads to serious problems with sleep. The day after is often filled with withdrawal symptoms, such as increased anxiety and nausea, which can result in further sleep problems.

Serious Risks caused by Drunk Sleep

If you have drunk a lot of alcohol, your heart rate slows down and breathing becomes irregular, which can be dangerous when you sleep. If you have alcohol poisoning, the respiratory centre can stop working and you might stop breathing. You might even sleep so heavily that you don't wake up while vomiting and risk suffocating. In 2020,  there were over seven thousand alcohol-related deaths in the UK. There are also risks involved with falling asleep drunk, such as if you sleep with your baby. The child's face may get covered or squashed so that they can't breathe. The risk for sudden infant death syndrome increases if the mother has drunk alcohol, especially if the baby is very small and sleeps in the same bed as its mother.

Help Is Available

If you're worried about your alcohol consumption and how it affects your life, you're not alone. There is help available from the organisation Drinkline, your healthcare provider, social services in your area or addiction clinics. If you work, you can contact your occupational health service. There are also voluntary organisations that you can turn to, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

One Month of Sobriety Can Make a Difference

When you stop drinking alcohol for a period of time, you will probably notice the differences immediately. The effect will be particularly powerful if you had a high level of alcohol consumption previously. The liver and the rest of the body will get a chance to rest and your alertness will improve, as will your ability to concentrate and your memory. The risk of illness will decrease and your mental health will improve. In addition, you'll sleep better and feel more rested during the day. You'll also snore less.

Tips: How to Enjoy Alcohol and Still Get a Good Night's Sleep

The vast majority who drink alcohol in moderation do not experience any serious sleep problems. They only sleep poorly the night after a party and then make up for it the following nights by not drinking alcohol. However, there are things you can do if you want to have a drink and still get a good night's sleep afterwards.

  • Alternate each drink with a drink of water. Drink at least as much water as alcohol and the effects of the alcohol should decrease.
  • Eat a proper meal. Alcohol affects you less if you eat properly while drinking. For example, if you eat dinner with your alcoholic drink, it'll be easier to keep your drinking in check.
  • Skip that last drink before closing time at the bar. You'll sleep better if you stop drinking alcohol before midnight. Ideally, you should stop drinking alcohol three hours before going to bed so that your body has time to process the alcohol before you go to sleep.
  • Try some alcohol-free alternatives. Nowadays, there are plenty of alcohol free beers, wines and even cocktails.
  • Don't go to bed too late. That way you take advantage of the best sleeping hours of the day and won't disturb your normal sleeping pattern too much.
  • Don't mix alcohol with sleeping pills. Alcohol increases the effects of sleeping pills so it's not advisable to take them together. Alcohol affects each person differently. How much you have drunk and whether you drink a large amount regularly also affects how your body will react. Read the sleeping medication information leaflet carefully.  If you use sleeping pills regularly, ask your doctor if it's okay for you to drink alcohol.


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