How does alcohol affect sleep?

How does alcohol affect sleep?

The greatest tool our body has to back up many of its functions is one simple gift of nature - sleep. There are things that can help us get better sleep and things that damage our chances of a quality restful night and drinking alcohol falls in this second category. 

If you need convincing of the importance of sleep just consider that throughout thousands of years of evolution the human body still demands a long period of sleep (approximately a third of our day). Sleep seems pretty unhelpful in the context of our wider lives as humans - lying dormant not able to perform any other tasks (or fight off predators for our early humans). So the fact we still perform this basic function of sleeping every night is a signifier of its value to our bodies. Put simply we need to sleep!

And we need to sleep well! The great news is that the very intelligent people who study this have explored the ingredients for a better sleep and it has become something we can take some control over. 

Around 25% of people in the UK use alcohol to help them get a good night’s sleep. Whilst this feels like a good idea at the time it appears it is not the remedy you were after. In fact there is some likelihood that turning to a few alcoholic drinks will have a significant toll on the quality of our sleep.

The secret to a good night’s sleep is to satisfy the cycle of REM sleep and slow-wave sleep so that body and mind both get the rest and reset they need. During REM sleep our brains sort through information and memories. This allows us to develop a good memory, it allows us to concentrate during the day and learn new things, and it helps avoid problems like depression and other mental-wellbeing concerns. So getting a better sleep means being a better you. This is where considering an alcohol free alternative might come in handy because studies show that presence of alcohol in the system negatively affects REM sleep. The days following your poor sleep will be affected as your system readjusts. But continual disruption to the REM cycle over time can lead to more serious problems like insomnia.

Of course there are other ways that alcohol free drinks improve your quality of sleep. There are few more annoying things than having to get out of that comfy bed in the dark and find your way to the bathroom. Some midnight relief trips are unavoidable but drinking alcohol before bed won't help. Alcohol is a diuretic which means it increases the rate at which you need to pee. It inhibits the body's production of vasopressin known as anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). By suppressing the levels of ADH the kidneys release more water which not only leads to a disturbance in your sleep but is also the reason you wake up with a dry mouth and other signs of a dehydrated system.

Another harmful side-effect of alcohol on our sleep is that it can cause or contribute to sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea can be more serious than just a bit of snoring. It can mean repeatedly starving your system of oxygen during the night which is disruptive and in extreme cases dangerous. Alcohol can cause sleep apnea because it relaxes the muscles in the throat leading to collapse of the upper airway. If you are someone prone to sleep apnoea anyway, an alcohol free drink could be of real benefit.

Lying in your bed for 8 hours is all well and good and you’re doing better than many people. Nearly 75% of the UK population achieve less than 7 hours sleep. However, it is about improving the quality of that shuteye that is vital. You might be an avid tracker of sleep with all the bands and apps or you might be someone who just tunes in to how they feel when the alarm goes off in the morning. But whatever your approach in assessing the quality of your sleep you can certainly have some control over it. Having a few drinks to wind down in an evening, to share with friends or to accompany dinner is something we all want to hold on to. So hold onto it. Just try making those drinks ones without alcohol in them.

Starving yourself of good sleep for a few days and then having one long snooze is less beneficial than consistently good quality nights of rest. This is because the body works to patterns and rhythms. The less disruption to this, by alcohol intake for example, the more you can be rewarded by wondrous sleep and the more robust your body and mind will be to take on the day.

In 2020, sleep is a multi-billion pound industry. But it need not cost you a fortune to secure a good night’s sleep. A small choice like what you drink can be enough to reap the benefits of one of our most powerful natural mechanisms. If we avoid interfering with the natural process of going to sleep and allow our bodies to restore and regenerate as they want to, we are more likely to wake up feeling fresh. But as well as this wonderful waking sensation we will also enjoy the hidden benefits of a restful sleep.