‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: Alcohol and Sleep

Last Updated on July 31, 2019

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

(All except those, of course, who were up all night from too much alcohol.)

Sleep is in the news a lot lately—mostly comments on how little sleep people actually get, compared to how much they really need. The fact is that most people need a good 7-9 hours. Those who try to get by on less generally pay a price in mood and performance the next day.

Many factors can contribute to lack of sleep: anxiety about work, money, or family matters can keep the mind racing. Having a large holiday meal without sufficient time to digest, watching television without time to wind down, or other activities that increase adrenalin will discourage calm that encourages a restful slumber. And of course, caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, and over-the-counter products like pseudoephedrine (e.g., Sudafed)—can negatively affect sleep.

It’s no surprise that alcohol is usually one of the worst offenders. In a comprehensive article for the NIAAA, two scientists documented the effects of alcohol on the brain activities required to get quality sleep—the kind that restores you, preparing you for the next day. In their article “Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use,” Timothy Roehrs, Ph.D. and Thomas Roth, Ph.D. go into great detail about the effects of alcohol.

Recent studies have focused on sleep apnea, and the ability of alcohol to halt breathing during sleep. If that sounds slightly scary, it is.

During the night, people go through various stages of sleep, climaxing with the deepest, the REM phase (Rapid Eye Movement), which is also the most restorative. In addition to alcohol’s effects on getting to sleep in the first place—and staying there—researchers have found that “alcohol consistently affects the proportions of the various sleep stages.” Meaning, you may not be getting the right amounts of each stage, to properly refuel your brain.

Further, while healthy people may experience a mild sedative effect from alcohol, those with insomnia may find that alcohol only increases that condition.

Meditation, quiet—and setting aside your smartphone before bed—are all good strategies. A little herbal tea or warm milk can help, too. At Ria Health, as part of our program to help you deal with the desire for alcohol, our counselors will talk with you about how to get to sleep without it.

For further reading:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use”

National Sleep Foundation: How Alcohol Affects the Quality—And Quantity—Of Sleep

Sleep.org: Alcohol’s Effect on Sleep

How Alcohol Messes With Your Sleep—And What You Can Do About It

What Are the Effects of Alcohol on Sleep

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