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Understanding the consequences of alcohol on sleep

Alcohol will make you sleepy, but you won’t sleep well for about an hour after your first alcoholic drink, your brain is stimulated to release dopamine, the so-called “happy hormone”. When you consume more alcohol though, it switches from being a stimulant to a sedative and slows down your central nervous system. Your blood pressure decreases, you become clumsy and feel sleepy.

Some people mistakenly use a couple of beers or glasses of wine to help them relax and fall asleep.  The use of alcohol as a sleep aid is a counterproductive because alcohol reduces sleep quality and you can easily slip into a pattern of consuming more and more.

During the second half of your sleep period, when the alcohol has been metabolised, alcohol withdrawal effects set-in and sleep becomes lighter and more disturbed. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during sleep include sweats, feeling thirsty, waking up to urinate more than usual and waking early in the morning and not being able to fall back to sleep. You might also experience intense dreams or nightmares.

Alcohol consumption can trigger new sleep disorders or exacerbate existing ones, for example by making it difficult to fall and remain sleep (insomnia). Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the head, neck and throat, which causes snoring and, in  some people, difficulty breathing and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

 Alcohol tolerance and sleep

If you drink every day for many weeks, your body is likely to develop a tolerance and dependence to alcohol, both physically as well as psychologically. Your brain adapts to expect alcohol before bedtime and relies on it to get you to sleep. You may find yourself drinking increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve the same sedating effects.

Once you’ve reduced or stopped drinking, it will take a few days for your brain to unlearn that habit of depending on alcohol. During this time you may not sleep well and feel very tired. When your brain has recovered, you’ll be able to sleep much better, obtain more deep sleep and have more energy during the day.

Alcohol and the body clock

The body clock has powerful over the way our bodies function and is disturbed by alcohol consumption. This is one reason alcohol has such widespread negative health consequences, affecting sleep and damaging other systems, including liver function and contributing to low mood and depression.

How to reduce alcohol consumption

  1. Enjoy the benefits of not drinking

Even a small amount of alcohol can result in sleep disruption and tiredness, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating the next day. Set yourself a goal of not drinking for a month – you will be surprised at just how much your energy levels improve.

2. Don’t exceed the recommended limits for alcohol consumption

It’s safest for both men and women to not regularly drink more than 14 units each week. That’s equivalent to six pints of average strength lager (4% ABV), or six medium glasses of wine (175ml, 12% ABV).  Spread your units out over the week and take several drink-free days.

  1. Stop drinking earlier and follow each alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink

The closer to bedtime and the more alcohol you drink, the more pronounced the effects on sleep and the more severe your hangover. Try and stop drinking earlier, for example by skipping the last drink. Every drink counts, so try and space out each alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink, for example a lime spritzer, non-alcoholic beer or mocktail.

  1. Don’t have alcoholic drinks easily accessible

Don’t keep a bottle of wine or beer in the fridge ‘just in case’, which that you see and need to resist every time you open the fridge door. Avoid temptation by either not having alcohol at home or store alcoholic drinks somewhere inconvenient. Instead, have some delicious non-alcoholic drink options easily available. Get inventive with no alcohol or low alcohol drinks, and there lots of alcohol-free and lower strength alcohol alternative drinks on supermarket shelves these days.

5. Make your intentions known and ask for help in avoiding situations that tempt you to drink

Tell your family and friends that you’re trying to stop drinking alcohol and explain why. Try to identify the times when you would usually drink and fill the gap with something else. If you would usually head to the pub after work on a Friday evening, you could organise to meet friends at the cinema, or exercise together.

Conclusion

Alcohol can make you sleepy, but you won’t sleep well and feel refreshed the next day. During the second half of your sleep period, alcohol withdrawal effects set-in and sleep becomes lighter and more disturbed. Try not drinking alcohol for a month and you will be surprised at how much better you sleep and feel.

For more advice of how to reduce alcohol consumption speak to Occupational Health or use the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). You might also find these websites useful:

Drinkaware

https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

https://www.health.harvard.edu