The Effect of Alcohol on Sleep

You may have realized by now that drinking alcohol tends to make you feel sleepy. It helps you fall asleep faster due to the sedative effects of alcohol, but beware because it can also interfere with sleep later on.

Effects on Sleep

As mentioned above, drinking can help you fall asleep faster, but the problem comes later on when your body tries to enter the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. REM sleep is the second stage of sleep that is much deeper than the initial stage. It is in the REM stage of sleep that we dream, store memories, and recharge so that we are better able to concentrate, learn, and pay attention during our waking hours.

As your body starts to metabolize the alcohol, this interferes with REM sleep. You will likely toss and turn and end up negatively affecting your quality of sleep, and your total overall sleep as well. The negative effect of alcohol on sleep usually affects women slightly more than men due to the fact that women metabolize alcohol more quickly than men, and, therefore, women reach the restless, toss and turn stage earlier in the night than men do. These affects are more pronounced when women drink more than one drink and men drink more than two.

Sleep Debt

Even one night of restless sleep will add to your sleep debt. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you need and the amount you actually get. Every minute of sleep that you sacrifice adds to the debt. Eventually, the debt will have to be repaid. If you lose an hour of sleep, you must make up that extra hour somewhere down the line in order to bring your “account” back into balance.

Although, keep in mind that you will never be able to fully repair your sleep debt. Sleep professionals warn that cognitive function may still be negatively affected for some time after the debt is repaid. It is easy to see how drinking too much alcohol can not only have short term effects such as headaches and sleepiness the following day, but it can have a lasting impact on your ability to keep your sleep debt “paid”.

Moderation

The more a person drinks before bed, the stronger the REM disruption. Health and sleep experts say that moderate alcohol consumption is the key to avoid sleep disruption. Not to mention the drinking more than moderately would also have negative health effects. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. This definition is referring to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days.

Bottom Line

Don’t be tricked into thinking alcohol can help you sleep better. While one or two drinks may help you fall asleep faster, you will likely become more restless later on during REM sleep.  It is best to not drink alcohol at all, because let’s be honest…most people don’t stop at one or two drinks. The key is, if you do decide to drink, don’t have more than one or two glasses, lest your sleep pay the toll. 

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