The Many Ways Alcohol Affects Your Sleep, No Matter Your Age or Gender

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A few glasses of wine or a few drinks in the evening will probably make you fall asleep faster than usual. Who among us hasn’t left the dishes for the next morning or neglected a skincare routine after dinner or a night out?

But even if you step into dreamland, chances are too much alcohol means a restless night’s sleep. That’s because alcohol disrupts what’s called your sleep architecture, the normal phases of deeper and lighter sleep that we go through each night. According to experts, a night of drinking can “fragment” or disrupt these patterns, and you may wake up multiple times as you go through the usual stages of sleep.

“You pay for it in the second half of the night,” said Dr. Jennifer Martin, psychologist and professor of medicine at UCLA. Alcohol is “initially sedative, but as it is metabolized it is very activating”.

Most experts agree that drinking will disrupt your sleep, regardless of your age or gender.

Here’s how it breaks down. In the first half of the night, when fairly high levels of alcohol are still circulating in your bloodstream, you will likely be sleeping soundly and dreamlessly. One reason: In the brain, alcohol acts on gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits impulses between nerve cells and has a calming effect. Alcohol can also suppress rapid eye movements, or REM sleep, which is when most dreams occur.

Later at night, when the alcohol level drops, your brain goes into overdrive. You can toss and turn when your body experiences rebound excitation. “As the levels go down, you’re going to have more fragmentation issues,” said Dr. R Nisha Aurora, board member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. You’ll also likely have more vivid or stressful dreams, and since restless sleep means you wake up more regularly, you’re more likely to remember them.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, a substance that increases urine production, which means you might wake up to go to the bathroom. “You’re going to have to pee more often,” said Dr. Bhanu Prakash Kolla, associate professor of psychiatry and consultant at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Moderate amounts of alcohol, especially wine and spirits, have an early diuretic effect, especially in the elderly,” he added. It’s unclear if the urge to urinate wakes you up or if you’re just more in tune with your body in the second half of the night because you sleep more intermittently.

People may also snore more after drinking. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant and relaxes the muscles of the upper respiratory tract, thereby disrupting normal breathing. Drinking can be especially dangerous for people with obstructive sleep apnea, who wake up multiple times during the night when their airways momentarily collapse.

Most experts agree that drinking will disrupt your sleep, regardless of your age or gender. And because alcohol depresses the central nervous system, experts warn against using it with sleeping pills like Ambien, Tylenol PM, Benadryl, or even supplements like melatonin.

A few glasses of wine or a few drinks in the evening will probably make you fall asleep faster than normal – but chances are that too much alcohol means a restless night's sleep.  Photography: Aileen Son/New York Times

A few glasses of wine will probably make you fall asleep faster, but chances are too much alcohol means a restless night’s sleep. Photography: Aileen Son/New York Times

“Alcohol is a sedative,” said Dr. Ilene Rosen, MD of sleep medicine and associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “I would not use any sedative hypnotics, over-the-counter or not, when drinking alcohol.”

Some people drink closer to bedtime to help them fall asleep. But it can trigger a dangerous cycle of more fragmented sleep, followed by heavy drinking. “I see a lot of people self-medicating for insomnia with alcohol, which is definitely not good practice,” said Dr. Sabra Abbott, assistant professor of neurology in sleep medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. According to her and other experts, prolonged nighttime drinking can set up disturbing patterns that can persist even after people stop drinking.

To help assess how alcohol may be affecting your sleep, experts recommend an alcohol-free reset period, or what Martin called “an alcoholic vacation,” lasting at least two weeks. “It can be very revealing to appreciate how much alcohol affects your sleep,” she said. Many people who think they have insomnia, she says, may simply be drinking too much or too close to bedtime.

Experts suggest building in a buffer zone of at least a few hours between drinking and bedtime. A nightcap is not your friend

“It turns out that if they don’t drink, they sleep much better,” said Martin, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. After the “holiday,” she said, “they can just make a more informed decision about how much and how often they drink alcohol.”

Experts also suggest building in a buffer zone of at least a few hours between drinking and bedtime. A nightcap is not your friend. “It’s probably okay to have a glass of wine with dinner four hours before bed,” Abbott said. Or maybe limit your alcohol intake to happy hour or cocktail hour.

Alcohol can also disrupt your morning routine. “People may turn to stimulants” such as caffeine, drinking coffee late into the afternoon, said Dr. Armeen Poor, a pulmonary and critical care physician at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital Center and assistant professor. of Medicine Clinic at New York Medical College.

“It makes it harder to fall asleep at night,” he said. “And then you need more of that sedative, and then it goes and goes and goes and goes.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

About Michael Brafford

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