Using alcohol as a sleep aid is not the best idea, yet approximately 20% of Americans use alcohol to help them fall asleep. Although alcohol may appear to help you get to sleep, it is actually wreaking havoc on your sleep quality and quantity. Although the perception is alcohol helps you get to sleep faster, the truth is alcohol is merely rendering you unconscious. Alcohol in the system prior to bed disrupts the sleep cycle to such an extent that one generally wakes up feeling more tired. When we look at what is happening to the brain and the body due to an alcohol induced sleep state, we can see why this is all happening.
What you may not know is that alcohol is a sedative. Once in the brain, it binds with certain brain cells, called neurons, sedating them and slowing the proper functioning of those cells. Eventually, with enough alcohol, you become drowsy and you are sedated out of wakefulness. This state is very different from being asleep. This alcohol induced “sleep” state is lighter and less restorative than having gotten to sleep naturally. During a natural sleep, we sleep in stages where our brains vary in levels of activity, but we are unconscious and less responsive to the things happening around us. For example, we may actually sleep through a mild earthquake or thunder storm. In contrast, an alcohol induced sleep state is similar to that of a light sleep stage. This is very different from the brainwaves seen in deep, restorative sleep that is rejuvenating for the brain and body. This kind of deep sleep is like a deep cleaning for the toxins in the brain and body. If you don’t get into these deeper sleep stages it can lead to serious health consequences.
Alcohol induced sleep creates fragmented sleep with multiple awakenings, many of which you won’t be aware of. These microarousals lead to spikes in cortisol levels which drive our body into the fight or flight response, and if this happens consistently over months or even years, the sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in an “on” position. Chronic “fight or flight” increases our risk for many disease processes such as heart disease, cancers, as well as psychological issues such as depression and anxiety. Alcohol induced sedation keeps you in sleep stage 1 or 2, which is light sleep. In stage 1 sleep, your eyes are closed, but you are still able to wake easily. In stage 2 sleep, your heart rate begins to slow and your body temperature drops; the body is preparing for deep sleep. But under the influence of alcohol, it will never get to the restorative deep sleep we need to restore our bodies, our cells, and for hormones and body processes to function effectively. The point is with fragmented sleep, your sleep is not restorative. And in the case of this series, the body is not getting to restore itself enough to build and restore immunity.
Sleep is a very important part of the body’s ability to function at optimal levels. During this time, the body has an opportunity to restore itself, repair tissue damage, and secrete the necessary hormones for various processes in the body. The sleep cycle under the influence of alcohol suppresses the REM sleep stage.You may know of REM sleep as the dream state of sleep. What you may not know about REM sleep is that it is also important for memory consolidation, memory integration and association. Collectively, this means it greatly improves your ability to learn and remember things. So, not only is alcohol not allowing you to get into restful, restorative sleep, and fragmenting sleep, it is also greatly reducing your ability to learn and memorize new things because of its suppression on REM sleep.
So, when is the best time to consume alcohol? Of course, abstinence is the best course of action, however, if you so choose to consume alcohol do it as early in the day as possible. It takes many hours for your body to degrade and excrete alcohol, and even a small amount of alcohol in the body can affect your sleep in the ways we mentioned above.
If you are managing your sleep habits well and you still find you are struggling to get a good night’s sleep, this may be an indication of a sleep related or breathing disorder. Please call to schedule an appointment or schedule virtual consultation. It’s time to make sleep a priority in our lives!