Alcohol has some pretty powerful effects on our sleep!
We all know that feeling when we have had a bit too much to drink and a drowsiness comes over us. People falling asleep from drinking too much are the subject of practical jokes, face painting being one of many.
Over the last couple of months, I had started to notice a pattern. Nick and I had gotten into the habit of having a glass of wine (or two!) with dinner. What I started to realize, especially on those two glass days, is that I woke up the next morning feeling abnormally tired. I’m a morning person and I kind of have a lot of energy. So for me to feel a little off sucked. I like to give 100% of my energy to my clients, family and work. Being tired the next day just wasn’t an option (I don’t have kids or insomnia … I have no idea what I’m going to do!).
So in January, I started a little experiment. I laid off the liquor. All of it. I just wanted to see what would happen. Of course, I started to feel better and less fatigued. It piqued my interest. I wanted to know what the relationship between alcohol and sleep was.
Don’t get me wrong, alcohol in small to moderate doses is actually good for you
There is always a little bit of a debate about alcohol. Yay or nay. But epidemiological studies on large numbers of adults in different populations have shown that small to moderate amounts of alcohol can actually be good for you. There is data to show that it can help decrease the odds of having heart disease and frailty… two huge issues as we get older! This is even when they controlled for other things, like people who are drinking are often a bit more social or are out more.
Binge drinking on the other hand (usually more than 5 drinks in an evening depending on the size of the person), has negative health consequences. This is where you can see more abusive behaviour towards alcohol. This is the time when you are seeing toxic levels that have bad impacts on your health. We aren’t talking about these things.
So Christina.. what does this have to do with alcohol and sleep?!
Nothing really but I just wanted to put it out there that I don’t think alcohol is bad. Heck, I am not going to not drink forever!
The effect of alcohol on your sleep
This is where I started looking. When people drink alcohol close to when they go to sleep, it does have a sedative effect. It helps you fall asleep. In the early hours of your sleep, alcohol decreases how long it takes you to fall asleep AND helps you stay asleep. This is the time when you are breaking down the alcohol in your system.
Here’s the catch.
It has the reverse effect in the LATER parts of the evening. In the second half of the night, alcohol essentially does the exact opposite. It doesn’t help you stay awake and makes you surface sleep more. This makes it feel like you aren’t sleeping as well.
Duration versus Quality
Alcohol doesn’t effect how long we sleep. When we compared people who were drinking alcohol versus those that weren’t, they slept the same amount of time. (Interesting fact was that people who drink more on average also sleep more on average but I digress).
The difference came in the QUALITY of sleep.
Alcohol affects our REM sleep. Our rapid-eye movement sleep. Our stage 3 deep sleep and our REM sleep are our restorative sleep stages for different reasons. Alcohol places us in Stages 1 and 2 sleep for longer especially at the second half of our sleep. This is when we are normally in REM sleep the MOST. That is why people always complain that they feel like they “surface slept” when they drink alcohol.
How we think we have slept: Sleep Quality
When you ask people how well they have slept with alcohol compared to with a placebo, people report being more tired. The quality of your sleep goes down. This is because we gage the quality of our sleep based on how we think we slept during the second half of the night (past midnight-1 AM for most people). This makes sense with what we were talking about above. Our REM sleep goes down at night so we feel like we’re surface sleeping. This is why when we wake up we feel slightly less rested. Therefore, we’re more tired the next day.
The studies are really preliminary and there is still more work to be done.
What it comes down to though really is how you respond. If you have a glass of wine at night (or two), do you wake up feeling ready to face the day?
Nick is less affected than I am so I’m sure there is individual differences between people based on many things, sex and size being two of them.
I thought it was an interesting experiment and it was fun to think through it all. So for me, I’m going to pass a lot of the times on having alcohol. On occasion I will, knowing I’ll feel a little tired the next day and that’s cool. Those are the choices we make!
We talk about sleep a lot. Have you seen our other article on work, stress and sleep?
Ebrahim, I. O., Shapiro, C. M., Williams, A. J., & Fenwick, P. B. (2013). Alcohol and sleep I: Effects on normal sleep. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(4), 539-549. doi:10.1111/acer.12006 [doi]
Ortola, R., Garcia-Esquinas, E., Leon-Munoz, L. M., Guallar-Castillon, P., Valencia-Martin, J. L., Galan, I., & Rodriguez-Artalejo, F. (2016). Patterns of alcohol consumption and risk of frailty in community-dwelling older adults. The Journals of Gerontology.Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 71(2), 251-258. doi:10.1093/gerona/glv125 [doi]
Roerecke, M., & Rehm, J. (2014). Alcohol consumption, drinking patterns, and ischemic heart disease: A narrative review of meta-analyses and a systematic review and meta-analysis of the impact of heavy drinking occasions on risk for moderate drinkers. BMC Medicine, 12, 182-014-0182-6. doi:10.1186/s12916-014-0182-6 [doi]
Steffl, M., Bohannon, R. W., Petr, M., Kohlikova, E., & Holmerova, I. (2016). Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for sarcopenia – a meta-analysis. BMC Geriatrics, 16, 99-016-0270-x. doi:10.1186/s12877-016-0270-x [doi]