It’s late, you’ve been working all night, and you can’t seem to get comfortable. Maybe a quick night cap will send you off into the slumber you’re after.
You pour your favorite spirit into a glass and take a sip, a few more and you’re feeling nice and warm. That’s better.
But what is alcohol really doing to your sleep?
20% of Americans utilize booze at the end of a long day to unwind and get to bed, but the common sleep aide might also be what’s keeping us up most of the night.
How does drinking before bed impact your sleep? Alcohol does some rough things to your biological clock, which we’ll get into later, but a nightly glass of bourbon helps you sleep so much faster. That’s worth it, right?
Alcohol does reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, that’s something most of us can agree on. The problems start after you’ve hit the hay, though.
Alcohol changes the structure of your sleep patterns—the first few hours of sleep will typically see you in deep sleep, but not REM like you should be. REM is the kind of sleep that you need to commit experiences to memory and restore your mental function, losing out on it can lead to a rough couple of days. The longer you’re asleep, the more alcohol is metabolized and your body starts to go into a “rebound” effect. The sedative effect wears off and pushes your body into a more active mode.
You might find that you wake up too early when you’ve been drinking and can’t get back to sleep the rest of the morning for this reason.
How does alcohol impact your circadian rhythm? Regularly consuming alcohol can have an adverse effect on your sleep, but once you understand why, you can plan your drinking around your natural circadian rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm regulates just about all of your body’s important functions—from metabolizing your food to falling asleep and waking up. It’s really important not to disrupt your typical pattern, because it has a domino effect on other ares of your life. In a recent study, hamsters were exposed to certain levels of alcohol and monitored to see what the impact would be on their daily schedules. The hamsters that had alcohol had a tough time realigning their schedules and reacting correctly to light exposure. Responding appropriately to light cues keeps our circadian rhythms on track and prevents disjointed functions.
The really interesting aspect of the study was how long the hamsters struggled to get back to normal. They remained affected for a few days after the initial alcohol consumption.
Alcohol impacts other areas of your sleep, too. Depending on the time of day, your body will react to alcohol differently, so two things can start to happen.
Alcohol is pretty good at suppressing melatonin production (We all have those friends that seem to rally no matter what, never tiring themselves out!) which tells your body it’s time for bed. Alcohol can reduce your melatonin production by nearly 20% which completely disrupts your sleep-wake cycles.
Alcohol can also boost your adenosine levels, which tells your body to go ahead and pass out at odd times, throwing your cycles off even more.
How much alcohol will hurt your sleep? Your mileage may vary, of course, but it’s easy to build up a tolerance to alcohol and need more to get to sleep each night. The more you drink, the harsher and longer-lasting the effects are on your sleep-wake cycle.
So how much is too much?
Even as little as one drink can negatively impact sleep so spreading out your after work happy hours and night caps are key to maintaining a healthy sleep routine. Limiting your alcohol intake to a few nights a week instead of daily can drastically reduce sleep disruption. Sleep is incredibly important to your overall health, so using alcohol as a sleep aide might not work out.
Looking for ways to sleep without relying on alcohol? Check out a few guides here.