Why Can’t I Sleep Without Alcohol?
Why Does Alcohol Make You Sleepy?
We’ve all felt it before. That drowsy feeling when you first climb into bed after a feed of alcohol may feel pleasant at first, but it is actually alcohol’s central nervous depressant function causing your brain activity to slow down.
Alcohol affects sleep by influencing your neurotransmitters, including GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). You may have heard of GABA as a relaxing neurotransmitter before, and alcohol dampens activity in your brain, directing the brain to slow down. Alcohol also impacts other brain chemicals like adenosine, linked to your digestive process, which limits the brain from becoming stimulated and engaged. These processes in tandem produce a relaxed and tired sensation.
So far so good, right? Well, not quite.
Why Alcohol Can Make Sleep Problems Worse
Alcohol has sedative effects that can induce pleasant feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that drinking alcohol actually has a negative impact on your sleep-wake cycle, linked in many studies to poor sleep quality, poor sleep structure and lower sleep duration overall.
REM sleep kicks in around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, where eye movements restart and your breathing and heartbeat will quicken. This stage of sleep is thought to play a pivotal role in memory consolidation from the day. Even a couple of drinks of an alcoholic beverage before bed can lead to REM sleep suppression, short-circuiting your cycles and pushing you headfirst into deep sleep. While you might be out for the count quickly, this depletes sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.
Ever woken up with a complete memory blank after only a few drinks? This could be one of the reasons.
Alcohol’s Tricky Relationship With Insomnia
Insomnia, more than just a poor night’s kip, can be defined as a condition making it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or causing you to wake up too early. It can be short lived (acute) or long lasting to the point where you’re at your wits end (chronic).
It’s not hard to see the effect of one night’s bad sleep on your attention, thinking and cognition, so it’s easy to see how a substance that kicks you into a deep sleep more quickly could be an attractive option to reach for before bed.
As we’ve learnt, while it might knock you out more quickly, alcohol disrupts REM sleep and causes more sleep disturbances, which often results in daytime sleepiness the next day. This can lead to a vicious cycle where we consume stimulants such as caffeinated drinks and sugar to give ourselves that little pick-me-up throughout the day, and self medicate with alcohol at night in order to nod off at night.
This already creates a routine that’s pretty hard to kick, but when you factor in an increasing tolerance for alcohol before bed which requires progressively more and more of it to allow you to doze off each night, it becomes a difficult beast to tame.
Are you seeing the problem here? Yup.
This is why a short term fix like alcohol is never recommended for insomnia. If “practising good sleep hygiene” sounds a little too clinical, think about it like this. Create a relaxing wind-down routine before bed, and don’t be afraid to switch up your tactics to find out what works best for you.
Dimming the lights and opting for candles after 9PM, switching off your latest Netflix binge and tucking into a page turner of a book (fiction is thought to be best before bed), avoid caffeinated drinks after midday or one of our favourites - having a warm shower as it gets the blood flowing, raising your body temperature to a crescendo followed by the drop necessary to facilitate a good night’s kip, are all more sustainable relaxation techniques that can help you drift off.
Will A Small Amount Of Alcohol Affect My Sleep?
There’s no doubt that drinking to excess and binge drinking will impact your sleep more negatively, but how about a little tipple before you hit the hay? A 2018 study on how alcohol affects the first few hours of sleep showed that low amounts of alcohol decreased sleep quality by 9.3%, moderate amounts of alcohol by 24% and high amounts of alcohol by 39.2%.
While less is almost certainly better, it seems as though any amount of alcohol really is detrimental to sleep even in small doses and substantially impacts the restorative quality of your snooze.
What a circadian rhythm buster.
How About Some Good News?
So, it seems as though alcohol is out of the question for those of us who want to bounce out of bed when Monday comes around, or generally on every other day of the week when you want to get more out of your days. But wait, how about non-alcoholic beer?
We know there is a psychological element to pouring yourself a drink before bed, but hops also have a part to play in their role as a mild sedative and a key component to many beers. Most positively of all, a 2012 study on the sedative effect of non-alcoholic beer in healthy female nurses demonstrated that one 330ml alcohol free beer with supper for 14 days improved sleep quality.
And the kicker? Anxiety also decreased in the treatment group, all without the sleep depriving and dehydrating effects of alcoholic beverages.
It seems as though the ritual of having a beer in the evening combined with the sedating, relaxing qualities of hops combine to create a restful experience regardless of the alcohol content. That’s why kicking back with a can of Days means you can enjoy good times, good sleep and good tomorrows.