An Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walk into a bar. Sound familiar? With the talk about the state of Britain’s drinking and our new serving size system pointed out that on average, we drink much more than we all realised and that’s no joke.
Who knew that a cheeky Vimto down at Spoons really would be cheeky. But did you know that drink impacts not only your liver but your sleep? And not in the way you might expect.
For many people, wine and sleep go hand-in-hand. Alcohol is a depressant, which makes you feel drowsy even after the kind of day you just had. Given its effectiveness, it’s no wonder many of us feel that we can’t sleep without alcohol.
Where alcohol impacts our sleep most is not in its ability to send you drifting off but in the quality of your sleep. What’s more, women are more likely to find that alcohol impacts their sleep more negatively. There are so many ways that alcohol can impact your sleep. Let’s look at the most significant issues: your circadian rhythm, a shortened REM cycle, and sleep apnoea.
The great warrior-poet Michael Scott once said, “It’s not like booze ever killed anyone.” We (and science) say, “Tell that to your circadian rhythm.”
Alcohol disrupts your body’s biological clock and prevents it from synchronizing, which is why you wake up after a night out wondering whether its Sunday or…Tuesday? The synchronization problem is what does so much damage to your liver. Alcohol interferes with the rhythms that control your liver function.
What does it do to your sleep cycle exactly? When alcohol interferes with your circadian rhythm, it stops your body from responding to light cues, which get in the way of your ability to sleep well.
You don’t need a whole bottle of wine to accomplish this. Sleep disturbances can happen with a glass or two .
Alcohol also interferes with what’s called your body’s “internal sleep drive.” Drinking raises your adenosine levels. Adenosine is a chemical that regulates your sleep by growing when you’ve been awake and blocking the chemicals that keep you feeling awake. When you drink alcohol, your adenosine grows at an inappropriate time, which throws off the sleep-wake cycle.
So yes, alcohol makes you sleepy, but you can expect to pay for this drowsy reward later.
After a long day, you want two things: a big glass of wine and an even bigger sleep. While you might go to sleep feeling more relaxed after drinking, your body has a surprise in store for you. Spoiler alert: you’re going to need an extra Venti triple-shot order from Starbucks in the AM.
The period of rapid eye movement (REM) is your body’s deep sleep. It starts around 90 minutes after drifting off, and it’s the most restorative part of the whole night. But alcohol reduces those precious minutes of REM – and you only started with 90 in the first place.
There’s a reason to believe that one drink (read: a measured serving not eyeballing) won’t do too much to harm your REM sleep. However, when you drink more, you lose more REM. It’s partly why you wake up feeling tired and feel sleepy all day after a night out – even if you came home and slept for 10 hours.
Throwing off your circadian rhythm and losing that sweet, sweet REM are good enough reasons to avoid alcohol before sleep. But if you snore, then alcohol before bed is a particularly bad idea. (We’re not talking about your sweet little snorlets. It’s snoring that sounds like a lawnmower revving that makes the difference. You – and probably your neighbours – know who you are.)
Okay, okay you snore. Don’t you (and your partner) suffer enough? Apparently not.
People who snore have a higher risk of developing sleep apnoea, and if you drink alcohol, it can bring on the disease because alcohol is a muscle relaxant.
Funnily enough, it’s why you snore loudly on nights when you drink – the more you know.
Studies show that even moderate drinking can cause obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) among those who don’t even have sleep apnoea.
Here’s sleep apnoea and alcohol can get scary. When you have OSA, you stop breathing in the middle of the night. Your body wakes itself up to restart your breathing. But if you drink, then it takes more time to wake up, which prolongs the time you stop breathing and makes OSA worse. It can also lead to low blood oxygen levels including higher carbon dioxide levels, which is known as hypercapnia. At its most severe, hypercapnia is fatal.
You might think to yourself, “I don’t have sleep apnoea, so what’s the problem?”
Many people living with sleep apnoea don’t have a diagnosis or undergo treatment – even if you snore so loud that it sounds like you’re trying to swallow your own face at night. Plus, even though women are less likely to have sleep apnea than men early in life when women reach menopause, they are as likely to develop sleep apnoea as men thanks to hormonal disturbances.
After all, the symptoms of menopause itself aren’t enough – what’s a sleeping disorder, too?
So if you are at a higher risk of sleep apnoea or you have sleep apnoea or you are going through menopause, then wine and sleep go together like Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall in another attempt at a “Sex in the City” reboot. Read: they don’t, and don’t try to force them either because it’s going to be awkward for everyone.
We hate to sound like a handbrake, but there’s no appropriate amount of alcohol to drink before bedtime. As your GP will tell you, “Alcohol is not an appropriate sleep aid.” If you have trouble falling asleep at night, it is better to look for healthier alternatives, like meditation, natural melatonin supplements, and other bedtime rituals without contraindications.
Plus, drinking before bed increases the likelihood that you’ll rely on it. Even one drink an hour before bedtime reduces your brain’s melatonin production by as much as 20 per cent.
Whether it’s a big night out or a cheeky night in, try to stop drinking in time for your body to process the alcohol before you sleep. The average amount of time it takes to process one unit is one hour.
You already know that alcohol is bad for your liver, but you may not realise the extent to which it damages your sleep.
While a glass of wine before bed every once in a while won’t hurt you, wine and sleep aren’t a great combination, even if you do feel extremely tired after drinking alcohol.
If you like a tipple before bed or you can’t sleep without alcohol, consider changing your routine to include something else. Supplements that include natural melatonin (like Montmorency Cherry) can help you feel sleepy without damaging the restorative power of your sleep.
If sleep constantly evades you for reasons that aren’t your kid’s sleep schedule or your partner’s snoring, make an appointment with your GP to learn more about the causes of your insomnia.