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Alcoholism and Insomnia

Estimated reading time: 29 minute(s)

It is easy to take sleep for granted as long as you get enough sleep every night. However, people who have struggled with insomnia, a very common sleep disorder, have a deeper appreciation for how important sleep is to maintaining overall health and well-being. Research also confirms how poor sleep can put an individual at risk of multiple health problems, such as depression, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Despite the increasing awareness regarding the vitality of sleep, not many people take serious steps to improve its quality and continue indulging in bad habits that only affect it negatively; one such habit is drinking alcohol.

The relationship between alcoholism and insomnia is highly misunderstood. Most people believe it promotes sleep because it initially makes them drowsy and relaxed. While alcohol does seem to act as a sedative that slows down brain activity, it negatively impacts sleep quality.

Alcohol and Sleep Fast Facts

  • Approximately 35 to 70 percent of people who use alcohol report sleep-related issues consistent with insomnia
  • It may take up to two years for people with alcohol use disorder to recover from sleep-related abnormalities affecting their total sleep time
  • Up to 30 percent of people who struggle with insomnia attempt to use alcohol to sleep better
  • 66% of the people who use alcohol to fight insomnia incorrectly believe that it helps them sleep better
  • Most people may develop a tolerance to the sedative effects of alcohol before bedtime in as little as six days

An Overview of Insomnia

Insomnia refers to a medical issue in which an individual finds it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep or may wake up early with an inability to go back to sleep. The loss of sleep these individuals experience is for at least three nights per week for three months and is enough to trigger problems in daily life.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder across the world, with more than one-third of the American population reporting it. Studies also suggest that 10 percent of the U.S. population suffer from short-term symptoms of insomnia, and around 20 percent of them end up developing chronic symptoms which may last for years.

Despite being severely underestimated, insomnia is capable of causing severe consequences and risks and may be highly dangerous in the long run. A lack of sleep commonly leads to decreased attention and poor concentration and may lead to hypertension, depression, and heart attacks in the long run. Those who struggle with this sleep disorder routinely miss work, have low productivity and continue to live a poor quality of life.

Despite the significant consequences, insomnia is a manageable condition with professional treatment. However, many people struggling with this issue never seek medical help and instead try to self-treat it. Out of these, up to 30 percent of people report using alcohol to manage their insomnia treatment. While alcohol use can initially cause sedation and make a person feel sleepy, it also leads to significant disruptions in their sleep quality.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

As soon as an individual uses alcohol, it crosses the stomach lining and absorbs into the bloodstream. The enzymes present in the liver act on the alcohol residues to break them down; however, this metabolic process is fairly slow. As a result, alcohol keeps circulating in the blood until the liver slowly metabolizes all of it. The effects of this circulating alcohol may differ, depending on the person consuming it. Some critical factors that determine these effects include the amount of alcohol consumed, how quickly it is consumed, and the user’s age, gender, physical shape, and body type.

The relationship between alcoholism and sleep has been under investigation until the 1930s, yet scientists are yet to uncover several of its essential aspects. Research indicates that people who drink alcohol in large amounts before going to bed experience delayed sleep onset, requiring more time to fall asleep.[1] As the liver enzymes continue to break down alcohol in their bodies during the night, the blood alcohol levels drop, which makes sleep disruptions more likely. As a result, many such people end up experiencing insomnia.

To understand more about alcoholism and insomnia, it is essential to understand the different stages of the sleep cycle in humans. A normal sleep cycle includes the following four sleep stages. [2]

Stage 1 (NREM)

This is the very first stage of the sleep cycle and acts as a transition period between sleep and wakefulness. As the body enters stage one, it begins to shut down by lowering its heart rate, eye movements, and breathing rate. The muscles begin to relax, and the brain activity levels start plummeting.

Stage 2 (NREM)

During the second stage of sleep, the sleeper’s breathing rate and heart rate face a continuous downfall as the body progresses toward a deeper stage of sleep. At this point, their body temperature begins to fall, and their eyes become completely still. Stage 2 is the longest of all four stages of the sleep cycle.

Stage 3 (NREM)

During stage 3, a sleeper’s breathing rate, heart rate, and brain activity become the lowest, the eye movements cease, and the muscles become completely relaxed.

Stage 4 (REM)

REM sleep begins within 90 minutes after an individual falls asleep. During this stage, their breathing rate and heart rate increase, and their eye movements restart. It is also the stage where most memory consolidation and dreaming take place.

The four stages of the sleep cycle, including REM and NREM stages, keep cyclically repeating throughout the night. Each cycle takes around 90 to 120 minutes to complete, so a sleeper usually goes through four to five cycles during an eight-hour sleep session. NREM sleep is more dominant during the first two cycles, and REM sleep only lasts up to 10 minutes. However, the situation flips in the following cycles as REM sleep takes the lead by lasting up to 40 minutes with no interruptions.

When a person drinks alcohol before bedtime, the beverage suppresses the REM sleep cycle during the first two cycles. Because of its sedative nature, alcohol makes the sleep onset shorter in drinkers, making them fall into a deep sleep rather quickly. However, as the night progresses, such people experience an imbalance between NREM and REM sleep, leading to a decrease in the latter and an increase in the former. This imbalance negatively affects sleep quality and triggers problems like more sleep disruptions and shorter sleep durations.

Does Alcohol Cause Insomnia?

As explained above, alcohol is likely to reduce the REM stage of sleep and trigger frequent sleep disruptions in drinkers. People who consume it before bedtime often experience insomnia-like symptoms and feel incredibly sleepy the following day. This forces them to enter into a vicious cycle where they attempt to:

  • self-medication to fall asleep faster
  • use caffeine to remain awake during the day and fight daytime sleepiness
  • use alcohol to offset the effects of caffeine at night

Binge drinking i.e., consuming high amounts of alcohol in relatively shorter periods to achieve a blood concentration of at least 0.08%, can particularly trigger intense episodes of insomnia. Recent studies have revealed that people who binge drink every week are much more likely to have difficulties falling and staying asleep. These findings hold true for both men and women; experts have observed similar trends in young adults, adolescents, and older people who consume alcohol.

Alcoholism and Insomnia: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep After Drinking

If you are worried that having a glass of wine with your dinner can reduce your chances of having a restful sleep at night, follow the tips mentioned below:

Practice mindfulness and meditation

Train the body and brain to relax so that you can get rid of anxiety and stress. Once you are capable of doing this, your sleep problems related to alcohol use will become easier to manage.

Limit alcohol use in the evenings

Quit drinking alcohol in the late afternoons so it does not interfere with your sleep. As a rule of thumb, make sure you do not go near alcohol within six hours of your usual bedtime.

Work on your sleep hygiene

If you believe alcohol negatively affects your sleep, try to work on your sleep hygiene. Different ways to improve sleep hygiene include sticking to a regular sleep cycle, making your bed more comfortable with fluffy pillows and bedding, and adjusting the room’s temperature, noise, and light levels. Avoid participating in any exercise session close to bedtime as it may also negatively alter your sleep, just like alcohol.

Take a sleep supplement.

If you are generally finding it difficult to sleep or suffer from insomnia from alcohol withdrawal, using a sleep supplement may help. These supplements can be herbal or pharmaceutical and help you sleep at night. Some common supplements intended to support sleep in both alcoholics and non-alcoholics can include GABA, CBD, L-theanine, and valerian root.

FAQs

Will using a small amount of alcohol affect my sleep?

Drinking to excess will probably negatively impact sleep more than light or moderate alcohol consumption. However, since the effects of alcohol are different from person to person, even small amounts of alcohol can reduce sleep quality for some people.

One 2018 study compared sleep quality among subjects who consumed different amounts of alcohol. The findings are as follows:

  • Low amounts of alcohol (fewer than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 9.3%.
  • Moderate amounts of alcohol (two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 24%.
  • High amounts of alcohol (more than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 39.2%.

When should I stop drinking so that alcohol does not affect my sleep?

To ensure that your alcohol consumption does not affect your sleep, stop drinking at least four hours before your usual bedtime.

Is insomnia a side effect of using alcohol?

Alcohol can exert a sedative effect on the body, depending on how much of it you drink and how close to bedtime you drink. Some people who use alcohol too frequently develop a tolerance to its soothing effect. However, others continue to experience sleep disturbances and insomnia as side effects.

Why can’t I sleep when I drink alcohol?

Alcohol tends to mess with the sleep architecture, which includes the typical phases of light and deep sleep that an individual goes through every night. As alcohol enters the body, it interrupts or fragments these patterns, making such people wake up several times during the night. While the beverage initially makes it easier to fall asleep, sleep maintenance gets negatively affected as its levels drop in the body during the later stages of the night.

References

1 Park, S. Y., Oh, M. K., Lee, B. S., Kim, H. G., Lee, W. J., Lee, J. H., Lim, J. T., & Kim, J. Y. (2015). The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep. Korean journal of family medicine, 36(6), 294–299. https://doi.org/10.4082/kjfm.2015.36.6.294

2 Patel AK, Reddy V, Shumway KR, et al. Physiology, Sleep Stages. [Updated 2022 Sep 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/

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