This Is How Alcohol Really Affects Sleep

'It's a vicious and extremely damaging circle.'

It's a common misconception that a nightcap before bed will improve your sleep.

In reality, while alcohol may help you to nod off initially, drinking before you head to bed can have a detrimental effect on your overall quality of sleep.

Jackie Ballard, chief executive of Alcohol Concern tells The Huffington Post UK that alcohol acts as a suppressant on the brain and therefore causes us to experience drowsiness.

"This is why some people use alcohol to help them sleep," she says.

"However, alcohol actually stops you from getting deep sleep, which is the most restful part.

"This is why after a big night out people can often wake up feeling less rested even after a night’s sleep."

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Professor Paul Wallace, chief medical advisor at Drinkaware, says drinking alcohol before bed can lead to a person missing out on the first stage of sleep - known as REM sleep.

"[You're] ultimately heading straight into a deep sleep, meaning you’re most likely to wake up just a few hours later," he tells HuffPost UK.

"In the course of one night you’re typically meant to have around six to seven cycles of REM sleep in order to wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

"However, when you drink alcohol you can only expect to achieve one to two cycles of REM sleep.

"This can inevitably effect the overall quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling less productive and exhausted the next day. Not ideal during the working week."

Dr Helen Webberley, the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy, says people often turn to alcohol to quiet their continuously whirring mind when they are suffering with problems such as depression, stress and insomnia, but drinking before bed can actually make these issues worse.

"When the alcohol wears off, in the early hours, people often wake feeling unrefreshed and worse for wear due to the 'hangover' effects," she says.

"The alcohol dehydrogenase, produced by our liver to combat the alcohol, breaks it down into acetaldehyde and this is what causes the hangover symptoms."

According to Dr Webberley, alcohol affects the body in various stages: at first it acts as a stimulant and induces a sense of wellbeing but after a while it turns to a sedative, making you sleepy and groggy.

"There is good agreement that alcohol's ability to induce striatal dopamine release is the mechanism underlying its stimulatory effects; however, alcohol's impact on the change in brain function in relation to sedation is less well understood," she says.

She adds that different people experience the different phases of alcohol after consuming varying units, but scientists don't know why.

"There is the problem of the body becoming used to the alcohol, and the fact that ever increasing amounts of alcohol are needed to reach the same effect of easing anxiety and helping sleep induction. It's a vicious and extremely damaging circle," she says.

To limit the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol for sleep, Alcohol Concern advise people to stick within the recommended limits of 14 units of alcohol per week, spread out over the week with 2-3 days being alcohol-free.

The Drinkaware website also offers the following tips on how to get a good night’s sleep without alcohol:

  • Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the evening. Try a hot, milky or herbal drink instead.

  • Make sure your bedroom is cool and uncluttered, and your bed is comfortable.

  • Take exercise to relieve the day's stresses and strains.

  • Make lists of things to be tackled the next day before you go to bed, so they're not swimming around in your head.


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