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Understanding the Relation Between Alcohol and Sleep

alcohol and sleep

Anyone who has ever consumed alcohol knows that it makes people drowsy. This is the very reason why many people consume alcohol before going to bed because it helps them fall asleep faster. In many cultures, it is a custom to drink a nightcap after dinner or before going to bed because it is supposed to help the person relax and fall asleep faster. In that case, drinking any warm beverage, such as milk or herbal tea, aids in sleep. But there’s nothing that works like alcohol. The moment you consume alcohol, your nerves start to loosen up, and you feel drowsy and sleepy. Naturally, after drinking any alcoholic beverage, it does not take long at all to fall asleep. That is how most people consider the relation between alcohol and sleep.

About 20 percent of Americans use alcohol as a sleep aid. It’s true that alcohol induces sleep quickly but what we don’t realize is that alcohol also negatively impacts the quantity and quality of sleep. There are people who regularly use alcohol as a sleep aid to reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep). But constant use of alcohol for sleeping results in alcohol dependence, just like any other sleep aid.

Because alcohol disrupts the quality and quantity of sleep, people usually wake up with a hangover. Keep in mind that alcohol is not like other sleeping aids that are specially formulated to help people sleep. Alcohol is consumed for pleasure, and that is what it should be limited to because consuming alcohol for sleep has both short- and long-term effects.

Why Use Sleep Aid?

There is only one reason why people use sleep aids, and that’s for falling and staying asleep. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who consume sleeping pills or other sleep aids on a regular basis do so without consulting a healthcare practitioner. Not all sleep aid requires a prescription, making it easier for people to consume sleeping pills randomly. Most people do not know how to consume sleeping pills safely. As a result, the dependency on the sleeping pill slowly grows and makes it impossible to sleep without it.

A large number of people around the world suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. In many cases, the sufferer is not even aware of the condition. Certain sleep disorders can go for years without being diagnosed or treated. This means the sufferer keeps losing precious sleep to the disorder.

In some cases, healthcare practitioners prescribe sleep aid for any of the three reasons:

  • To aid in falling asleep
  • To help in staying sleep
  • To prevent frequent episodes of wakefulness during the night

When healthcare practitioners prescribe sleeping pills, they are aware of the effects and side effects and can guide the patient to use the pills safely. They also know when to instruct the patient to slowly go off the pills and try to sleep without them. In cases like insomnia, sleeping pills are regularly prescribed by doctors to prevent the person from sleep deprivation. Sleeping pills are also prescribed when the patient suffers from some other disorder that prevents quality sleep. But when a sleep aid is prescribed by healthcare practitioners, it is done after considering the overall health of the person and the side effects of the sleep aid.

Although many people consume alcohol as a sleep aid, you will never find a healthcare practitioner endorsing this idea. Alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, but the side effects outweigh the benefits.

How Alcohol Disrupts Sleep

At first glance, it seems that alcohol is an effective sleep aid. But there are several ways in which alcohol disrupts sleep. Alcohol is a depressant, which means it reduces the alertness and hinders the function of the nervous system. Once you know that alcohol is a depressant, it isn’t hard to understand why any alcoholic beverage causes drowsiness and hangover and robs the person of all sensibilities.

Alcohol not only affects you negatively while you are awake but also when you are asleep. The following are the five ways in which alcohol disrupts your sleep cycle and quality.

Disruption of Sleep Cycle

There are four stages of sleep, and all of them are equally important in ensuring that you wake up refreshed and alert. If you spend a long time in one stage and do not spend enough time in the other, your sleep cycle is disrupted. It’s true that alcohol reduces the time taken to fall asleep, but there is an important way in which alcohol gets in the way of restorative sleep. This is by turning on both delta wave and Alpha wave activity. Delta wave activity happens when the person is in a deep sleep. This is responsible for memory formation, focus, and learning. But at the same time alcohol also turns on another brain pattern called alpha activity. The problem is alpha activity is not supposed to happen when the person is asleep. It takes place when the person is awake. When Delta and Alpha activities take place at the same time, it can prevent restorative sleep and leave you feeling tired in the morning.

Impact on Circadian Rhythm

While alcohol may help you fall asleep easily, it severely impacts the quality of sleep. Even if you fall asleep quickly, it’s common to wake up in the middle of the night. The reason behind this is that alcohol disrupts production of the chemicals that balance sleep and wakefulness. When you consume alcohol before bedtime, it produces adenosine, a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain. Adenosine brings on sleep very fast, but it also fades away just as quickly, making you wake up even before you’ve had enough sleep.

Blocking REM Sleep

Have you ever wondered why you wake up with a hangover after consuming alcohol? One of the reasons is that alcohol hinders the normal functioning of the nervous system and makes you feel confused and disoriented. There is another reason why consuming alcohol before bedtime leads to feeling groggy and confused in the morning. The reason is that alcohol prevents REM sleep. The final stage of sleep is called the REM phase and is considered the most restorative type of sleep. The brain becomes active in this sleep stage and boosts alertness, memory, and concentration. In short, this is the phase when the brain recharges and gets ready for the next day. When you miss out on REM sleep, you are more than likely to wake up confused groggy and disoriented because the brain hasn’t had time to recharge.

Aggravate Breathing Problems

Alcohol works by relaxing all the nerves and muscles of the body. That is why alcohol feels so relaxing before bed because it makes you drowsy and helps you fall asleep faster. But if you suffer from problems like snoring or sleep apnea alcohol aggravates these problems by causing breathing difficulties. When the nerves and muscles relax, the throat muscles also relax, obstructing the airway and preventing normal breathing. Even if you don’t normally snore, sleeping after consuming alcohol can make you more prone to snoring because of the relaxed throat muscles. When this continues for a long time, it can become chronic sleep apnea.

Waking Up for The Bathroom

Your body knows that sleep is a time for rest and not for frequent trips to the bathroom. This means your bladder is also sleeping through the night. But alcohol being a diuretic, increases your need to go to the bathroom during the night. While there is nothing harmful with going to the bathroom during the night, waking up frequently can prevent you from having a quality restful sleep. Every time you go to the bathroom you are turning on a light, which blocks the production of melatonin and makes it harder to fall back asleep.

Sleeping Naturally Without Alcohol

When you regularly consume alcohol for falling asleep fast, it can seem like there is no other way you could ever fall asleep. But that’s not the truth. There are ways to fall asleep without depending on alcohol, and one of the first steps is to treat any existing sleep disorder.

Sleep disorders are the biggest cause behind insufficient sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. To get proper nightly sleep, sleep disorders must be diagnosed and treated before they go out of hand. To kick the habit of using alcohol as a sleep aid, you should talk to your healthcare practitioner about natural sleep aids.

Once you stop consuming alcohol before bedtime, it can be initially difficult to sleep without it. But if you give your body enough time to adjust to the change, it’s possible to kick the habit and sleep without alcohol. Natural sleep aids like lavender oil, acupuncture, and melatonin supplements work to help you fall and stay asleep without side effects.

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