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Is alcohol bad for sleep?

"Alcohol helps me relax", "I sleep much better when I've had a drink", "I can't sleep without a nightcap". These are all quotes I've heard time and time again in clinic. Some people rely on alcohol and really struggle to sleep at night unless they have had a drink. Others may not necessarily rely on alcohol but definitely feel they can fall asleep quicker and stay asleep for longer having had a drink. In reality, alcohol is just as bad as caffeine for disrupting sleep! Best drank early in the morning or not at all if you want healthy, restful sleep. Unfortunately, you might get a few funny looks drinking alcohol early in the morning and social celebrations are almost always in the evening.

When we sleep, our muscles relax and our brain is resting. Alcohol is a sedative, it makes us feel relaxed, meaning after even just a small amount of alcohol we can be on our way to drifting off. However, sleep involves complex processes to help us rest and repair and these processes are essentially numbed with alcohol meaning that it's not happening as it should. Ever feel tired after drinking? Even if you've slept for enough hours? This is the reason why. When these repair processes are slowed down you aren't really sleeping, you're essentially unconscious. This means you can feel just as sleep deprived as if you didn't go to bed at all (depending on how much you've had to drink of course) and often wake up once the alcohol has worn off or with the need to pass all of the liquid you've taken in!

This is why, after a lot of alcohol, people can choke on their own vomit. Under normal circumstances, the feeling of sickness would wake someone up. But, under the influence of alcohol, an unconscious person can't wake up and there have been cases of drowning or aspiration of vomit.

REM (rapid-eye movement) is an essential stage of sleep best known for dreaming and its memory-boosting properties. Alcohol consumption, even in moderate amounts, suppresses REM sleep and when you don't get enough of it, a backlog of pressure to obtain more can build up. Good quality sleep is so important that in extreme cases of REM deprivation, in alcoholics for example, the overpowering need to dream can take over during the day and cause intrusive thoughts and hallucinations. Memory suffers even several days after drinking alcohol, and can make learning and concentration almost impossible no matter how hard you try.

Many people snore more when they've had a drink due to the sedative properties of alcohol. It relaxes all of our muscles, including the muscles around the upper airways which can lead to narrowing or collapse of the airways. Simple snoring might disturb your partner, or even the whole house if you're unlucky! But in a surprising amount of people snoring can be related to a condition called obstructive sleep apnoea, where the airways narrowing means you aren't breathing as much as you need to and the oxygen levels in your blood can drop. This disturbs your sleep too and can cause you to feel sleepy and fatigued during the day.

I'm not telling you to abstain from alcohol, and I enjoy a drink occasionally myself. But many people don't realise how even one glass with dinner can affect their sleep for several days afterwards and it's important to be aware of exactly how it can affect your body if you wish for better health.


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