Many of us have been there: you have one drink too many and start feeling very sleepy. Assuming the alcohol-induced sleepiness will last all night, you drift off into a deep slumber – only to awaken several hours later, restless and needing to use the bathroom. The first few winks of an alcohol-induced slumber can feel promising, but alcohol’s overall impact on the quality of your sleep can be quite detrimental.
Women vs. Men
In studies evaluating sex and a family history of alcoholism on sleep following alcohol intoxication, women were more sensitive to the disruptive effects of alcohol than men were. Participants in the study were given alcohol (the dosing was adjusted based on sex and weight)
before bed and the Stanford Sleepiness Scale and Karolinska Sleepiness
Scale were administered. Though a family history of alcoholism proved to
have little impact on the quality of sleep, the gender of the
participants had great impact. For women, sleepiness ratings at bedtime
after drinking alcohol were higher and sleep quality ratings were lower
than they were for men.
Alcohol’s Effect on the REM Cycle
Drinking a lot of alcohol before bed can make your body fall straight into deep sleep. The problem with this is that your body is actually skipping over the crucial first stage of sleep – the stage for rapid eye movement (REM). An average night generally yields six or seven cycles of REM sleep, but a heavy-drinking night could lead to only one or two. When alcohol wears off and your body goes out of deep sleep, it can go back into REM sleep at the wrong time. That can lead to waking up after only a few hours of sleep.
Alcohol can also disrupt sleep by causing frequent
middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom. Not only can alcohol trigger
acid reflux when you lie down, it’s also a diuretic that can cause
frequent urination. Several trips to the bathroom in one night would be
enough to disrupt normal sleep, much less sleep that’s already been
hindered by alcohol intake.
Alcohol Doesn’t = Sleep Aid
Some people use alcohol as a sleep aid, which increases the risk of alcohol dependence and alcoholism. Remember: both insomnia and alcoholism are chronic conditions. Those suffering from alcoholism often complain about the same sleep disturbances as those who rely on alcohol to fall asleep do: they take a longer time to fall asleep, wake multiple times throughout the night, and experience decreased REM sleep. Using one to treat the other is unlikely to be effective.
Don’t Mix Alcohol and Sleeping Pills
Alcohol can combine poorly – even dangerously – with both prescription and natural sleep aids. Alcohol and prescription sleep medications (like Ambien and Lunesta) should never be mixed with alcohol, since doing so could actually cause someone to stop breathing. Natural sleep aids aren’t entirely safe either – Melatonin, often taken as a sleep supplement, can increase the sedative effects of alcohol, and alcohol can increase the sedative effects of Melatonin – so taking the two together could lead to a deep sleep that doesn’t shake off easily.
The Next Day
The impact of a poor night’s sleep can extend well beyond the night itself. When a person’s base level of sleepiness is increased, daytime sleepiness and a decrease in alertness can result. In some studies, daytime sleepiness also led to a cyclical effect: those who were more tired during the day were more likely to drink before bed, which would then cause more restless sleep and more daytime sleepiness, and that would cause them to drink before bed again.
Sleep Apnea Complications
For the 2 to 4 percent of Americans who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes the upper air passage to narrow or close during sleep, alcohol before bed can be a particularly bad idea. Moderate to high doses of alcohol have been found to increase apnea even for those who didn’t initially show signs of OSA. Preexisting OSA can be worsened by alcohol – its general depressant effects can increase the amount of apnea someone experiences throughout the night. A person’s risk for heart attack, arrhythmia, stroke and sudden death is greatly increased by the combination of alcohol, OSA and snoring.
The Rebound Effect
Researchers often refer to disruption in the later half of the sleep period as a “rebound effect.”
As alcohol leaves your system, the body shifts into the opposite mode
as it adjusts to the change in blood alcohol levels. Assuming it takes
approximately four to five hours to metabolize the alcohol, the second
half of the night’s sleep would become disturbed.
The bottom line: Though it may initially seem like alcohol aids sleep, it doesn’t help for long. A deep sleep that’s disrupted halfway through the night isn’t beneficial overall. And when mixed with medication or sleep apnea, alcohol-induced sleeping can be downright dangerous. A safer bet is to drink in occasionally in moderation and to talk to your doctor if you’re regularly experiencing trouble falling asleep.