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We all know that alcohol can affect our mood, whether it’s the elation of a few drinks with friends or the depressive effects of a hangover. But how does alcohol really affect sleep and our overall health? From its impact on different sleep stages to its long-term effects on the body, let’s look at how alcohol affects your sleep and health.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body?
It’s no secret that drinking too much alcohol can have serious long-term health consequences. Regularly drinking more than the recommended amount (up to one drink per day for women and two drinks for men) can lead to a weakened immune system, changes in sex drive and sexual function, certain types of cancer, pancreatitis, memory and concentration problems, and increased risk of injury or death. Consistently drinking more than what’s good for you can also lead to:
- Increased risk for liver disease
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk for liver cirrhosis
- Heart disease
- Increased risk of hyperglycemia
While it may help you dance like no one’s watching, excessive drinking has disastrous effects on your health and well-being and can even cause problems in your romantic relationships, friendships, and your work.
So it’s bad for your body. But what does it do to your sleep?
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Alcohol affects sleep in more ways than one. First, it affects melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in your circadian rhythm. It signals to your brain that it’s time for bed and plays an important role in keeping your 24-hour circadian rhythm in sync.
In a study conducted by Dr. Rupp and colleagues found that a moderate dose of alcohol consumption in men and women an hour before bed lowered melatonin levels by 15% and 19% respectively. Since melatonin helps to regulate your circadian rhythm, a disruption in the production of this hormone means your circadian rhythm will be negatively impacted. This will make it significantly harder to keep a set sleeping schedule, which coincidentally is also important for maintaining a proper circadian rhythm. It’s like self-inflicting a vicious cycle on your sleep.
Next, alcohol acts as a sedative to help you fall asleep quicker and initially helps you to sleep more soundly. However, this disrupts your natural sleep cycle, which affects your quality of sleep later in the night.
While you may initially sleep deeply during the first half of the night, you’ll be plagued by disruptions the rest of the night and will probably wake up early and unable to fall asleep again. Sounds familiar? Perhaps during your years of college soirees, you may have noticed that you woke up early in the morning despite partying all night. Even if you weren’t an early bird. Useful when you needed to catch that dreaded 7 am class, but not so useful when you’ve only had 4 hours of sleep.
So what does alcohol do to your sleep cycle?
Alcohol and Your Sleep Cycle
evening? It all depends on how much you drink and when it is consumed. To understand how alcohol affects your sleep, let’s look at your sleep cycle and its stages. Your sleep cycle comprises four stages that repeat up to four times during eight hours of sleep.
Stage 1: Lightest non-REM (N1)
Stage 2: Light non-REM (N2)
Stage 3: Deep non-REM (N3) also known as slow-wave sleep
Stage 4: REM (R)
Each stage occurs at different times throughout a good night’s rest. The first stage is when you first fall asleep. It is the shortest sleep stage and also the stage where you’re most likely to be woken easily. The second stage is where the magic starts to happen. During this stage, your breathing and heart rate will slow down, your muscles begin to relax, and your temperature will start to drop. Stage 2 lasts between 20 and 40 minutes before stage 3 takes over. During stage 3, your heart rate and breathing are at their lowest and your muscles are totally relaxed. This stage is where most of your deep sleep occurs and it’s crucial for tissue repair and muscle and bone growth. This is when hGH is produced – an essential hormone for repair and immune support.
According to board certified emergency physician and certified age management practitioner, Dr.Todd Dorfman, “It’s all about good sleep because when you sleep, you rebalance your hormones and secrete certain hormones like growth hormones only at night".
Finally, you’ll enter stage 4 of your sleep cycle, which is the REM or rapid eye movement stage of the sleep cycle. This is also the stage where most of your dreams will happen. During the REM stage, your heart rate and blood pressure will increase, your eyes will rapidly move from side to side, and your body will temporarily go into paralysis. While temporary paralysis sounds scary, its purpose is to prevent you from acting out your dreams. Quite handy when you share a bed with your spouse and you happen to dream that you’re a world-class Muay Thai champion.
So how does alcohol affect these sleep stages?
During the initial N1 and N2 stages, alcohol can help you fall asleep faster and enter the deep sleep phase. However, this disrupts your natural sleeping patterns since it delays the REM stage of your sleep cycle. As the night progresses, the disruption to your natural sleep pattern causes you to spend more time in the N3 stage and less time in the REM stage. Since the REM stage is important for memory consolidation, creativity, and problem-solving, you’ll miss out on the positive effects of REM sleep.
Studies have also found that alcohol increases the percentage of N1 sleep during the second half of the night. This means you’ll spend more time during the lightest sleep stage and miss out on deep restorative sleep and may wake up feeling tired and groggy. Alcohol effectively robs you of the sleep you need to wake up feeling restored and rested, all while negatively impacting crucial cognitive processes that can only happen during your REM sleep. And of course, you’ll struggle to stay asleep or may wake up too early and may struggle to fall asleep again. Hello alcohol induced insomnia.
The lack of quality sleep will undoubtedly nudge you to the strongest cup of java you can find to wake you up and help you function. Unfortunately, stimulants are terrible for sleep, so you’ll end up struggling to fall asleep the next night. And so the vicious cycle continues.
How Much Is Too Much Alcohol For Sleep And Health?
Well, this depends on who you ask. The current recommendation from the CDC is up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. However, Dr. Topiwala and colleagues have found even moderate amounts of alcohol have widespread negative effects on your brain. While a few drinks on the odd occasion won’t cause liver disease or cirrhosis, it is best to keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum.
Does This Mean I Can’t Have A Drink If I Want Good Sleep?
Not necessarily. Moderate amounts of alcohol won’t significantly affect your quality of sleep as long as it’s not consumed too close to bedtime - say 3-4 hours beforehand would be ideal. This is because alcohol remains in your bloodstream for longer periods of time as your liver works hard to metabolize it. So, the sooner you stop drinking, the more time your liver has to clear the alcohol out of your bloodstream before bed. However, everyone handles alcohol differently. You may find even one drink in the evening disrupts your sleep, even if you stop drinking well before your bedtime.
When you start making changes to improve your overall health, you may notice you have less of an inclination toward a drink. Part of this is because when your body starts getting the rest, the nutrition and exercise it craves to feel healthy, it no longer craves the sugars that come from alcohol.
This change, also, occurs when you begin to bring your hormones into balance, as happens when you are using The Rebalance System. Many men and women who have been taking their three lozenges consistently report that not only don't they need a morning coffee, they also don’t have a desire for an evening cocktail. And some have even said that when they do have a drink, they really notice how it messes with their sleep.
So, if you want to improve your sleep and increase your overall health, it might be time to reconsider not only what you eat, and the time you spend on screens, but what you drink on a regular basis. A drink is for a moment, but your health makes or breaks a lifetime.