You might drink to help yourself fall asleep, but that nightly wine or beer could be doing more harm than good. We may not intend to rob ourselves of well-deserved rest when we drink, but there’s plenty of scientific evidence that proves drinking wrecks our sleeping patterns and prevents us from feeling as restored and rejuvenated as we could every morning.
Your Sleep and Mental Health
Lack of proper rest wreaks havoc on our lives. Those who suffer from anxiety and depression are more likely to have insomnia. In fact, 50 to 80 percent of adults who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder have sleep troubles, and 65 to 90 percent of adults with depression struggle to fall or stay asleep.
Insomnia robs people of the energy they need to be productive and improve themselves. Studies have shown that patients in psychiatric facilities who suffered from insomnia did not respond as effectively to treatment. Without proper rest, our brain chemistry becomes further imbalanced, which leads to worsened symptoms and greater difficulty in treating them.
Having good mental health is a full-time job. Staying happy or recovering from a depressive episode or period of anxiety requires a lot of energy. It’s natural to feel exhausted during a rough period, and rumination can lead to many restless nights. While a few drinks may slow your thoughts and relax you, after you close your eyes, the real problems start to kick in.
Why People Use Alcohol as a Sleep Aid
Alcohol is a depressant that suppresses the central nervous system. As a result, drinking makes us feel drowsy, relaxes our muscles and naturally makes falling asleep a lot easier. Studies have revealed that drinking reduces the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, but it also increases the number of disturbances experienced throughout the night.
Falling asleep fast is only one small piece of the puzzle. Even if a few glasses of wine help you slip into slumber, you won’t hit the deep, restorative stages necessary to wake up feeling well-rested.
People turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medicating. Unfortunately, many people fail to realize that treating their symptoms with drinks or pills only contributes to the greater disease of addiction.
How Alcohol Impacts the Different Stages of Sleep
The nightly sleep cycle is made up of five stages that cycle approximately four or five times. Each of these stages has an important role in our bodily function. Let’s take a more in-depth look at each one.
Stage One: Alpha and Theta
Our brain waves vary from hyper-alert and focused to languid and relaxed. Alpha and theta are two brain wave frequencies characterized by relaxation, daydreaming and contemplation. People move through alpha and theta as they begin to drift off. This stage often comes with passive thoughts about the day that don’t “stick” before a person falls asleep.
Stage Two: Sleep Spindles
During the short second stage, the body temperature drops and heart rate slows. The brain produces bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain activity called “sleep spindles.” Sleep spindles aid the transition between the light and deeper stages.
Stage Three: Delta Waves
Delta waves move people from light to deep sleep, signifying the first major transitory period of sleeping. As people enter this portion of the cycle, alcohol will begin to cause the disturbances that prevent people from actually staying asleep and remaining in the rejuvenating deeper stages.
Stage Four: Delta Sleep
This is the second-deepest stage people encounter during the night. As a result of drinking, the brain can cause more disturbances and increase the likelihood of sleepwalking or waking up.
Stage Five: REM
This is the deepest stage humans hit every night and also the most important. During REM, important functions are carried out. REM stimulates the part of the brain associated with learning, and people who do not spend the proper amount of time in REM (70- to 90-minute intervals) are prone to forget things. Memories are also sorted and stored, tissues are repaired and proteins are produced while people are in the deepest stages.
Too much alcohol in the system disrupts the natural pattern by causing greater disturbances during the second half of the night. A joint study by researchers at Wayne State University and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that drinking and addiction cause many complications with staying asleep.
Drinking and Sleeping Don’t Mix
Alcohol addiction affects wakefulness during the second half of the sleep cycle, leading to less rest and more fatigue throughout the day. This also impacts other important physiological processes that help people operate at their most efficient levels.
Alcohol addiction and nighttime drinking change the way our bodies fall and stay asleep. If you consume alcohol during happy hour, at dinner or even right before bed to fall asleep, you’re more likely to wake throughout the night and miss out on the most important stages of the natural cycle.
How Addiction Starts
Many people who wind up substance abusers never intended for their use to get out of hand. People who rely on alcohol to help them fall asleep build up a tolerance over time. Eventually, it will take two or three beers to drift off when just one used to do the trick.
As the body’s alcohol tolerance increases, more is needed to achieve the desired results. However, the more you drink, the less rest you’ll get. The vicious cycle can spiral out of control and lead someone to drink more to deal with the stress, anxiety and irregular emotions caused by fatigue.
Human beings have a natural circadian rhythm that dictates when they fall asleep. You may have heard of our body’s “internal clock” being thrown off by daylight saving time or the turn of seasons. We learn to fall and stay asleep based on this natural rhythm, and the excessive waking caused by drinking can throw this off and leave us restless, fatigued and frustrated throughout the day.
How Alcohol Threatens Your Health During Sleep
Many people who drink find that they develop substance-induced sleep disorders. The most common problems exacerbated by drinking include insomnia and obstructed sleep apnea.
Due to the increased waking caused by alcohol, insomniacs may find it even harder to fall asleep after they’ve had a couple of drinks. Up to 30 percent of people who suffer from insomnia have used alcoholic beverages to self-medicate, and estimates suggest 36 to 67 percent of insomniacs suffer from alcoholism.
Obstructed sleep apnea is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing while asleep. As a result, the individual wakes up choking and gasping for air. The brain jolts the person awake to get them to start breathing again, but because drinking relaxes the muscles, the attacks are worsened by a lower level of oxygen in the bloodstream.
Now, we’ll go over some of the other ways drinking will impact your bedtime routine. It does so by keeping you awake, causing more disturbances and preventing you from waking up well-rested.
The Rebound Effect
Many people think that drinking will soothe all their problems, but the truth is that substance abuse only masks our issues before making them worse. Addiction happens because the relief people feel after drinking or doing drugs wears off faster each time. Eventually, the high is replaced with unpleasant feelings.
Alcohol can cause rebound insomnia. This explains the sudden wakefulness and inability to fall asleep during the early hours of the morning that many people experience after drinking.
Night sweats can be a sign of alcohol withdrawal. Even those who don’t have a dependency may find themselves waking up warm and clammy after drinking before bed. As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) changes, your temperature will fluctuate. Your body’s attempt to regulate your temperature can lead to the dilation of blood vessels, which causes sweating.
The changes in temperature also disrupt the body’s natural cycle. This causes people to wake up in the middle of the night uncomfortable and unable to fall back asleep.
More Bathroom Breaks
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you have to urinate a lot more than usual. It also suppresses a hormone called ADH (anti-diuretic hormone). As a result, your kidneys stop absorbing as much water and begin to flush the toxins from their system instead. Rather than your body becoming hydrated from the couple of glasses of water you guzzled, you’ll find yourself waking to use the bathroom more often throughout the night.
Too much drinking can cause excessive urination, which can cause you to become dehydrated. To top things off, alcohol can also irritate the lining of your bladder, making you feel like you have to go to the bathroom more than you actually do.
You’ll Dream Less
Dreaming is one of the greatest human mysteries. Although we have plenty of data and experiments that explain the science of dreaming, no one is certain for sure why humans actually do so. We spend around two hours each night dreaming, and during that time, our bodies are paralyzed.
REM ensures that we don’t hurt ourselves as we move in our dreams. During the dream stage, important neurotransmitters in our brain are replenished. One of these neurotransmitters is serotonin. Serotonin is one of the several “happiness hormones” our brain produces.
Serotonin has many important functions that contribute to your overall well-being. On the mental front, it decreases depression and regulates feelings of anxiety. Physically, serotonin contributes to good bone health, regulates bowel movements, aids blood clotting and controls sleep. People whose serotonin levels are either too high or too low are prone to struggle from sexual dysfunction and mental illness and have problems with falling asleep.
Is Addiction the Reason You Can’t Sleep?
If you find yourself up throughout the night and craving a drink to fall back asleep, you might have a problem. Many people who start drinking to reduce the effects of their anxiety or depression don’t realize that their self-medicating habit is actually a culprit.
There are many reasons why you may struggle to fall asleep. Stress, mental illness and even physical health problems can lead to insomnia. It’s easy to turn to substances that help you drift off when you typically spend hours tossing and turning in bed otherwise. However, drinking will not ultimately solve insomnia or any other problems. Meditation, journaling, therapy and other holistic approaches can help you cut back on drinking and train your brain to fall asleep on its own.