Is Alcohol Good For Your Sleep?

Do you really need that beer before bedtime? Are you sure that having a red wine in the evening helps you sleep better? These are the sort of questions you might not have ever asked yourself, as a casual drink might just be part of your evening routine. You’ve probably always thought an evening drink is harmless.

We consume a a fair bit of alcohol in Western society, and we’re often pretty proud of that fact. Growing up as a male in this part of the world, I (and my mates) tended to equate having a high tolerance to alcohol with manliness.

Alcohol tends to make everything a bit better if you can hit that sweet spot of being just drunk enough, without being quite at the point where you’ll regret it horribly the next morning. But if you have too much, you’ll probably feel like you’ve been repeatedly hit by a sledgehammer. What’s becoming more and more clear is the negative effect that alcohol has on one of the most vital aspects of your life: sleep. I wasn’t aware of this growing up, but I wish I was, as I know that this can’t have helped the terrible sleeping issues I used to experience.

There’s an old wives’ tale going around that you’ve probably heard, that says something along the lines of “a drink before bedtime will help you have a good night’s sleep”. The truth is though, this couldn’t be further from the truth, and I’ll show you why.

Alcoholic drinks are created through a fermentation process, which results in the production of ethanol. It’s the ethanol that makes you feel a little bit more confident than you normally might and loosens your tongue a bit as well. It’s this same chemical that induces you to make the sort of bad decisions that you’ll cringe about when you’re nursing a horrendous hangover the next morning. We’ve all had those nights where we’ve said or done some things we regret when we’ve had too much to drink, but surely one or two drinks a day wouldn’t be too bad for you, would it? And lots of people say they sleep so well with a nightcap, don’t they?

The unfortunate truth is that any alcohol you have close to bedtime is likely to significantly harm the quality of that night’s sleep. This probably seems counter-intuitive to some people, as alcohol can have a somewhat sedative effect. People often say that they wouldn’t go without a drink before bedtime, purely because of the “fact” that they have a much better sleep. However, in reality, they’ve more than likely had a worse sleep than they otherwise would have.

The reason that it seems like you’ve had a good sleep when you have a drink, is that alcohol causes you to essentially forget most or all periods of wakefulness during the night. What this means is that you’ve more than likely woken up many more times than you would if you’d not had a drink, but you just don’t remember it.

Many studies have proved this and one such study can be found here. This particular study showed that, although the participants had decreased sleep latency (the time taken to fall asleep), they experienced much more disrupted sleep once the alcohol was”burned” from the system by the body’s metabolism. Importantly, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep decreased significantly.

The reason that a decreased amount of REM sleep is important is due to the fact that REM sleep is absolutely vital for recovery, as well as learning and recall. This is why you’ll often struggle to remember certain events from the evening before, if you’ve had a lot to drink. REM sleep has been evidenced in most of the animal kingdom, and we’re no different. We need REM slepp to operate at our best.

What does this mean for me?

Essentially, there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, having a drink before bed does tend to make you get to sleep quicker. This fact, coupled with the lack of recall for some or all of the moments when you were awake during the night, means that it can often seem like you’ve had a better sleep when you’ve had a drink.

Part of the key to maintaining good sleep patterns is being absolutely confident that you’ll have a good night’s sleep. So, if you think you’ve had a good sleep (even if the reality is different), that’s good for your belief that you can sleep well. However, on the other side of the coin, the fact that you’ve probably had a bad sleep will catch up with you, as you start to feel very tired later in the day (or even early in the morning). Additionally, once your brain associates a (seemingly) good night’s sleep with a drink before bed, you’ve just developed your very own sleeping crutch.

A sleeping crutch is something that you convince yourself is essential if you’re going to have a good night’s sleep. Once that crutch is taken away, people can often struggle to get to sleep or sleep deeply. There are (arguably) some sleep crutches that aren’t such a bad thing (eating kiwifruit an hour before bedtime springs to mind), but a crutch like alcohol is never really a positive one.

So, although there’s an argument to be had for alcohol-induced amnesia convincing you that you’ve slept well, you’re probably going to feel more tired than you would if you hadn’t had a drink, and this tiredness will obviously just get worse over time. It would get to the point where you would become accustomed to a lack of sleep and believe that it’s normal. This obviously isn’t ideal, as a continued lack of sleep leads to an incredible number of health issues, and describing each of those could take 100 blog posts!

Have the best of both worlds

 I’m not trying to convince you that alcohol is the enemy and needs to be avoided at all costs. The reality is that it plays a big part in our society and serves the purpose of helping in social situations. Besides, some of it tastes pretty good (I’m definitely not including tequila in that list, though) and I’ll still have the odd drink myself from time to time.

The important thing to consider is when you’re drinking. If you’re out on a Friday or Saturday night in Australia, it’s probably fairly likely that you’ll be having an alcoholic drink of some sort. If you want to try to maintain good sleep though, you should consider whether it might be beneficial to stop drinking a little earlier than you otherwise would.

If you’re at a Saturday afternoon BBQ and having a beer or wine, that’s probably going to be fine for your sleeping, as your body will have the time to metabolise the alcohol before you go to bed. If you keep drinking until late though, you’re much more likely to have a poor sleep. It’s really just a matter of being smart and being conscious of how much and when you’re drinking.
If you normally have a drink for the sake of it when you’re out for dinner or when you’re at home watching TV, you might just consider whether you really need it. Plus, if you don’t drink when you go out (or stay in) for a meal, you’ll save a fair bit of money, considering the prices of a drink these days!

So, if you like the sound of saving some money, as well as your sleep, keep the nighttime drinking to a minimum and watch your sleeping issues improve out of sight.

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