How Alcohol May Be Disrupting Your Sleep

A popular sleep aid for many people, both those who have alcoholic traits and those who do not, is an alcoholic beverage before bed.

The sedative effects of alcohol on the body and brain were believed to be beneficial for those who suffer from stress and/or insomnia. Many believe that alcohol has a calming effect on the central nervous system, allowing for relaxation and instant relief from worries and stresses of a busy life. This may not only be a false premise, but a concern for increased problems of insomnia and loss of restful sleep among those who consume alcohol before going to sleep.

Scientific research done on various aspects of sleep disturbance has been ongoing. Now it is known that alcohol may be actually disturbing the brain's natural cycles of sleep, causing some permanent insomnia tendencies for those who drink even small amounts at bedtime for long periods, as well as for those who exhibit alcoholic drinking patterns.

While alcohol may promote drowsiness and a more rapid ability to fall asleep, it also disturbs the kind of sleep that leaves us feeling rested and restored the following morning.

How Sleep Works

The reasons are relatively simple to explain. At the onset, our bodies go into a sleep state that is somewhat shallower than the restorative sleep we achieve with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. The shallow stage of sleep is often referred to as Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep. This stage generally lasts approximately 90 minutes from the onset of sleep. During this stage, the body does not receive full rest and little or no dreaming occurs. The brain is believed to be processing and sorting thoughts and events that have occupied our daytime activity. This takes place in the more active (frontal area) of the brain.

When the body remains in the semi-restful state (NREM), most of us do not feel rested or refreshed upon waking. This leads to further insomnia and depression, along with decreased brain and body functioning. The mind needs restful (REM) sleep to feel focused and sharp.

The Effects of Drinking

Alcohol consumption within an hour before sleep has been shown to increase activity in the frontal portion of the brain, thereby disrupting the patterns of REM sleep. Activation of the frontal alpha portion of the brain causes increased agitation, restlessness and insomnia symptoms. This cycle reduces restful sleep by incremental stages as the drinking behavior continues.

It is possible for drinkers to attain REM sleep stages on occasion but they cannot remain in that state long enough to receive full restorative benefit. They wake frequently, not returning to the deep sleep that is needed to feel rested. Sleep patterns are interrupted and neither the brain nor the body of the drinker is gaining needed rest.

The longer the periods that drinkers continue this pattern, the worse the cycle becomes. In alcoholic drinkers who have stopped drinking, there appears to be damage that is not mitigated with long periods of abstinence. These drinkers may never regain restful patterns that bring them the benefits of deep, long periods of REM sleep.

Alcohol is shown to permanently disrupt REM sleep patterns of the brain. Alcohol use is not only unbeneficial to those who suffer from insomnia but it also seems to increase the condition over time and with continued use. The deprivation of sleep causes greater incidence of depression, loss of mental clarity, and increasing loss of healthy-body functioning. These can all lead to higher risks of heart disease and other stress-related illnesses.

References:

[1] MedicalNewsToday. Alcohol disrupts sleep despite initial sedative effect. Retrieved online from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/288193.php.

[2] National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Sleep. Retrieved online from: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa41.htm.

[3] WebMD. Mann, Denise. Alcohol and a Good Night's Sleep Don't Mix. Retrieved online from: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20130118/alcohol-sleep.


Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.

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