Updated: Jul 25
Many people turn to alcohol to aid their sleep. Drinking a couple of glasses of wine in the evening can make you drowsy. But even if you fall asleep quickly, your sleep quality suffers as your body processes the alcohol. There’s a lot more going on in your body while you’re asleep than you might think.
During natural sleep, you go through cycles of light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage is important as your brain engages in intricate tasks. Your brain sends signals to repair and rejuvenate your body. It also reinforces your memories and thoughts, connecting them together with your waking experiences in interwoven paths. Your brain needs uninterrupted sleep to carry out these important processes. When you awaken after a natural restful sleep, you feel refreshed and revitalized.
On the contrary, relying on alcohol for sleep is a weak substitute. Alcohol disrupts the different stages of sleep that your body goes through and prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep. While natural sleep is rejuvenating and invigorating, sleep induced by alcohol is draining and unpleasant.
Let’s look closer at
how alcohol really affects your sleep.
Many people mistakenly believe that having a drink is necessary to fall asleep. In reality, alcohol sedates our bodies, which actually hinders our natural ability to fall asleep. Dr. Matthew Walker, a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, explains in his book "Why We Sleep" that alcohol-induced sleep is more like anesthesia rather than genuine, restful sleep because of its sedative effects. Instead of helping us fall asleep, alcohol simply makes us less awake. This disrupts our body's natural sleep process, making it difficult to fall asleep without alcohol. That's why the first ten days of sobriety can be particularly challenging. During this time, our bodies adjust to falling asleep without the sedative effects we've grown accustomed to.
Alcohol can inhibit a crucial phase of REM sleep. During REM sleep (which is important for memory formation, learning, emotional processing, brain development, and dreaming) complex memories in your brain are strengthened. REM sleep plays a vital role in connecting information and recognizing patterns. Unfortunately, alcohol's effect on your sleep can impair this valuable cognitive function. Even if you drink alcoholic beverages days after your brain has collected and stored information, alcohol's disruption of REM sleep can interfere with retaining the knowledge you acquired.
And it doesn’t have to be excessive drinking. Even with just a few drinks, REM sleep can be suppressed. If you find yourself struggling to retain information or experiencing emotional ups and downs the next day, it's likely due to the lack of REM sleep.
Unlike the normal drowsiness that comes with falling asleep, alcohol's sedative effects decrease as the night goes on. We've all experienced those dreaded wake-ups at 3 am. Your brain becomes more active as the alcohol wears off, which makes it harder to stay asleep. Your brain fires off multiple times a night as if it is awake. This is called fragmented sleep. You’re more likely to toss and turn, experience vivid or stressful dreams, and wake up frequently. However, you may not consciously remember these brief awakenings. You might not even connect feeling exhausted and mentally foggy the next day with the disruptions caused by alcohol because you think you had a solid night’s sleep.
Research has shown that alcohol messes up your circadian rhythm. One of the functions of this internal clock is to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. When alcohol screws with your circadian rhythm, it prevents your sleep and wakefulness patterns from matching up with the natural day-night cycle, which can increase the chances of experiencing various health problems and make it harder to maintain a regular sleep routine.
Frequent Nightly Potty Visits
Alcohol can also make you wake up more often during the night to use the bathroom. Alcohol acts as a diuretic, increasing urine production. It does this by blocking the release of a hormone called vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone (ADH). This leads to a stronger diuretic effect, causing you to pee more often. When ADH is blocked, your kidneys release more water, which can dehydrate your body, causing you to urinate frequently and potentially leading to headaches and stomach upset.
You also may snore more when you drink alcohol. Alcohol relaxes the muscles in your throat, which can disturb normal breathing. Alcohol can slow down breathing and make it shallower. This is especially risky for people with sleep apnea who already have trouble breathing while sleeping.
Alcohol can also affect your morning routine. Because you’re feeling tired and foggy, you may opt for caffeine or other stimulants, which can make it harder to fall asleep, leading to the need for something to help you sleep, continuing the cycle.
It’s amazing how much of our sleep is affected by alcohol. When you take a break from alcohol, it may take a little time for your body to recalibrate. Be patient. Your body will gradually re-train itself to fall asleep naturally without the booze, and fragmented sleep will diminish. The sleep cycles will regulate, and you'll get the deep and REM sleep you need to restore your mind and body. You'll start feeling more energized, focused, and better overall.
Want more info on sleep? Check out this blog post for some natural alternatives to help you fall asleep without alcohol.