Alcohol and Sleep

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Alcohol and Sleep

We all know that sleep is important. A lack of sleep can profoundly affect our health, mood, and general well-being, and most of us know that a good night’s sleep can make all the difference between a good day and a bad day.

However, many people struggle to fall and stay asleep. In a bid to get a better night’s sleep, it is not uncommon for us to invest in specialized mattresses and sleep-inducing tea. Doing so has seen the US sleep industry become worth a staggering $30bn.

Although there are many helpful ways to help you fall asleep, you may believe that alcohol and sleep go hand-in-hand like many other people. As a result, you may often find yourself drinking alcohol before bed.

A common misconception is that having a drink containing alcohol before bed, also known as a nightcap, will aid sleep. But this is not true. Alcohol can negatively impact your sleep, especially if you engage in harmful behaviors and alcohol abuse. If you have sleep issues, abstaining from alcohol could be in your best interest.

Unfortunately, many people will find this advice impossible to carry out because they are unable to entirely give up alcohol and review their drinking habits. If you find you can’t cut out alcohol despite its effects on your life, such as sleeping problems, you might have an addiction.

If you have developed an alcohol addiction, help and professional treatment are available at many rehab centers, such as our own.

Alcohol and Sleep Overview

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Alcohol is a powerful central nervous system depressant. This means it slows down messages sent between the brain and body and produces a relaxing effect. In turn, when you drink alcohol, you often experience slow reactions and slurred speech.

As alcohol reduces your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate, you might even feel drowsy. These side effects may lead you to believe that alcohol and sleep go hand-in-hand. However, research has found that alcohol can cause sleep problems, especially when abused. In fact, one common side effect of alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is insomnia.

Alcohol can affect sleep because it disrupts our natural sleep cycles, interfering with sleep homeostasis. When we engage in heavy drinking, this can cause us to spend more time in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Drinking can also exacerbate sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea.

If you consume alcohol and are worried about the effect your drinking habits may have on sleep disorders or sleeping in general, contact us today to talk to a medical professional about stopping drinking safely.

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What Are the Stages of Sleep?

Although slightly different for everyone, we all follow the same typical sleep pattern. This is called our sleep architecture. We sleep in two cycles – REM sleep and NREM sleep – and have four sleep stages.

  • Stage one. This is the first stage (N1) of NREM sleep that typically lasts for five to 10 minutes as we fall asleep. Stage one is a light stage of sleep which you can be roused from easily.
  • Stage two – In the second stage (N2) of NREM sleep, our body temperature and heart rate begin to drop as we start to fall into a deep sleep. This usually lasts around 20 minutes.
  • Stage three – This third stage (N3) is the final stage of NREM sleep. This is when our deepest sleep occurs, with electroencephalography (EEG) recordings of people in this sleep stage showing low delta activity. This is referred to as ‘slow-wave sleep.’ It is a dreamless stage of sleep where our muscles relax and our breathing rate drops further. NREM sleep is restorative and is essential for healing the body and strengthening the immune system.
  • Stage four – Stage four of sleep is REM sleep.

For a good night’s sleep, it is essential that we go through all four stages of the sleep cycle. After the initial cycle is complete, we cycle through NREM and REM sleep for the rest of the night. In a typical night’s sleep, we are in NREM sleep for four to seven hours and rem sleep for one and a half to two hours.

Drinking alcohol can make us fall asleep faster and sleep for more extended periods than a usual NREM cycle, but it can also shorten our REM cycle. This disturbs our sleep cycle, but there are other consequences to not getting enough REM sleep.

How Does Alcohol Affect REM Sleep?

REM sleep is associated with rapid eye movement and dreaming. Our brain activity increases so much during REM that it resembles being awake when looked at through an EEG. It restores cognitive function, increases learning, and helps us retain information and make memories.

As our REM cycle is where we have our most restorative sleep, we rarely feel refreshed in the morning or feel cognitive and productive without REM sleep.

But reducing your alcohol consumption won’t necessarily provide an instant fix – it takes time for your body to regain its natural cycle and circadian rhythm back. When you quit alcohol through detoxification, your body will try to make up for lost time.

As a result, you will experience smaller periods of deep NREM sleep and more extended periods of REM sleep – this is called REM rebound. Through the alcohol withdrawal process, you may experience insomnia and fatigue due to a lack of NREM sleep and vivid dreams, such as nightmares and night terrors, as REM sleep increases until your sleep cycle is restored.

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What Sleep Disorders Are Affected by Alcohol?

Not only can alcohol disturb our sleep cycle and disrupt sleep, but it can affect sleep disorders. If you have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor to determine if quitting alcohol can help alleviate symptoms.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. People with insomnia find it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep and often feel tired throughout the day.

Common insomnia symptoms are:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Regularly lying awake at night
  • Waking during the night
  • Waking up early and not being able to go back to sleep
  • Waking up tired
  • Daytime tiredness
  • Not feeling well-rested after a night’s sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Irritability and mood swings

Causes of insomnia include stress, anxiety, blue light from screens, caffeine, poor sleeping habits, pain, medications, and mental illness. It is common to experience a bout of short-term insomnia at some point in your life, which usually resolves within a few days. But if you struggle with long periods of insomnia, talk to a medical professional for advice on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, alcohol can induce insomnia. Many people with an alcohol addiction report also experiencing insomnia. This is because alcohol disturbs our natural sleep cycles. Another theory is that alcohol reduces the amount of melatonin released in the brain. Melatonin is a hormone that helps the brain prepare for sleep.

Sleep Apnea

A common sleep disorder affected by alcohol is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing stops and starts during sleep. Common sleep apnea symptoms include:

  • Breathing that stops and starts
  • Making gasping or choking noises in your sleep.
  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up during the night

You might not realize you have sleep apnea until someone else, such as a family member or doctor, notices these symptoms while you sleep. Until a diagnosis is made, you might only experience tiredness, mood swings, or headaches when you wake up.

It is important to look into this if you don’t seem to wake up feeling refreshed in the morning, especially if you drink alcohol.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This occurs when tissues in the mouth and throat relax, narrowing or closing the airway.

While alcohol doesn’t cause sleep apnea, it can put you at a higher risk of developing OSA and worsen existing symptoms. As alcohol is a depressant, it relaxes the muscles, including those in the mouth and throat, exacerbating the effect of OSA.

Alcohol is also a sedative, which reduces your body’s ability to arouse when feeling the effects of OSA, meaning it takes longer to wake up after a period of no breathing. In addition to a bad night’s sleep, it will aggravate the side effects of OSA.

Your doctor might recommend that you stop drinking alcohol to ease the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

Should I Stop Drinking Alcohol?

If you have trouble sleeping or believe your sleep disorder is worsened by alcohol, you might want to reduce your drinking or avoid alcohol altogether.

Official guidelines recommend that women consume no more than one drink of alcohol per day and men no more than two drinks – any more is considered excessive. Meanwhile, more than seven drinks per week for women and fifteen per week for men are classed as heavy drinking. This increases a multitude of risks, particularly sleep problems and addiction.

Reducing alcohol intake should be straightforward for people who only engage in moderate drinking and don’t have an alcohol dependence, as they will likely only need to swap a nightcap from alcohol to herbal tea. However, those with an alcohol addiction will need to seek treatment.

No matter the extent of your drinking problem, if you find it challenging to cut down, talk to your doctor or consult a specialist through a helpline or a treatment facility. You may not realize that your drinking has quite as much of a hold on you as it does.

How Do I Stop Drinking Alcohol?

If you are unable to stop drinking alcohol or experience withdrawal symptoms when reducing your alcohol consumption, you might have an alcohol addiction or AUD.

When an AUD is present, quitting drinking cold turkey could cause you to experience a host of withdrawal symptoms. Not only is detoxing unpleasant and incredibly difficult to do alone without support, but it can also sometimes have dangerous side effects.

For this reason, it is best to consult an alcohol rehab center such as our own for advice on what to do next. At a specialized treatment facility, you will be kept safe under 24-hour care. Medication is available to help reduce some side effects of detoxing to ensure you are comfortable throughout the entire process.

You can find a local rehab center as well as help and support to stop drinking through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. If you are worried about the cost of rehab, ask your insurance provider about coverage or ask your preferred treatment facility about payment plans.

Quitting alcohol might just be the secret to good sleep while stopping drinking will improve your short and long-term health, mental state, and overall well-being.

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If you or a loved one is suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction, please contact us today. We can help.