There’s been a meme floating about on social media recently: I finally found my sleep number. It’s “6”. Six glasses of wine!
But does alcohol really help you sleep?
Alcohol has a long history of use as a sedative. It is estimated that 1 in every 10 people with insomnia self medicates with alcohol. Population surveys indicate that we generally perceive it as a safe and cost effective solution for getting some shut eye 1.
Is there any truth that a nightcap (or two) will give you a good night’s sleep?
But first, a sleep primer…
Sleep, broadly speaking, consists of two states: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM is further broken down into four sub-stages consisting of light, easily aroused states and deeper delta slow waves. This slow wave sleep is when your body does maintenance and repair work. Your blood pressure drops, breathing deepens, tissue repair, immune and hormone systems are regulated, and energy is restored.
REM sleep is when dreaming may occur and is thought to be the stage of sleep where you process you emotions and file things into your memory banks 2,3.
The split of these in healthy adults is roughly 75% NREM and 25% REM and both stages are essential for optimal health 4.
Back to the booze….
Alcohol is classified as a depressant drug and its sedating action is largely due to the suppression of the stimulating neurotransmitter glutamate. With enough suppression of glutamate you start to feel sleepy 5.
So, what does the science tell us about alcohol and sleep?
Like everything there are a lot of variables that make it a little tricky to compare the scientific studies as “beers with beers”. This includes differences in the time and amounts consumed before sleep, variances in body composition as well as genetic and physiological differences in the ability to metabolize alcohol.
However, the key message that emerged from reading the research was that:
Alcohol at low to moderate doses, consumed 30-60 minutes prior to bed reduces the amount of time to fall asleep and increases slow wave sleep but decreases REM sleep. Sounds reasonably good? Well, maybe, unless you suffer from chronic insomnia as these benefits reduce over 3-5 nights as tolerance develops. Also, this was only observed in the first half of your sleep.
In the second act of your sleep show, as your liver starts to metabolize the alcohol, you become increasingly wakeful. This is caused by “glutamate rebound” where the glutamate that was suppressed when you were drinking ramps back up again and kicks the brain into gear 6–9. Alcohol also causes you to urinate more (it suppress antidiuretic hormone) so if the increased glutamate floating around wasn’t enough to disrupt your sleep your full bladder will be 10.
The lack of restorative slow wave sleep in the second half of the night interferes with hormone regulation and leaves you feeling fatigued, less alert and more prone to anxiety and depression. This can set up a vicious circle of daytime fatigue, alcohol consumption, poor sleep, and so on. Not to mention food cravings and increased appetite that can contribute to weight gain and insulin resistance 6.
Alcohol as a sleep aid is starting to sound like a pretty poor choice.
Still not convinced?
Other ways alcohol and sleep don’t go together
Ever notice how your bed buddy snores more after imbibing the night before? That’s because alcohol relaxes the upper
airway dilator muscles and makes breathing more difficult. This is particularly important for people who have sleep apnoea where as little as one alcoholic drink before bed can significantly prolong the time to wake up after an apnoea 4. Alcohol also exacerbates other medical conditions that interfere with sleep such as restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD)6,11.
The upshot is although a small amount of alcohol will make you sleepy initially it actually is pretty bad news for achieving refreshing and restorative sleep.
Natural medicine offers many healthy choices to get your sleep back on track including acupuncture, meditation, diet, sleep hygiene, herbal medicine and nutritional supplements.
Sleep is one of the key pillars of your health so if you suffer from a sleep disorder it’s worthwhile speaking with a health professional who can address both the symptoms AND the underlying cause.
Norelle is a degree qualified Naturopath and operates a clinic in Crows Nest, Sydney. She enjoys helping people reach their optimal health and has a special interest in sleep disorders, natural menopause and digestive health. You can book a consultation with her here.
If you enjoyed these articles you might also like:
- Access Economics D. Re-awakening Australia: The economic cost of sleep Sleep Health Foundation October 2011. Sleep Heal Found. 2011;(October):14.
- Attele AS, Xie JT, Yuan CS. Treatment of insomnia: an alternative approach. Altern Med Rev. 2000;5(3):249–259. Available at: http://www.ebscoe.com.au. Accessed October 7, 2015.
- Bonnet MH, Arand DL. Hyperarousal and insomnia: State of the science. Sleep Med Rev. 2010;14(1):9–15. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2009.05.002.
- Scanlan MF, Roebuck T, Little PJ, Redman JR, Naughton MT. Effect of moderate alcohol upon obstructive sleep apnoea. Eur Respir J. 2000;16(5):909–13. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11153591. Accessed May 20, 2015.
- Thoma R, Mullins P, Ruhl D, et al. Perturbation of the Glutamate–Glutamine System in Alcohol Dependence and Remission. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(7):1359–1365. doi:10.1038/npp.2011.20.
- Roehrs T, Roth T. Sleep, sleepiness, sleep disorders and alcohol use and abuse. Sleep Med Rev. 2001;5(4):287–297. doi:10.1053/smrv.2001.0162.
- Stein MD, Friedmann PD. Disturbed sleep and its relationship to alcohol use. Subst Abus. 2005;26(1):1–13. doi:10.1300/J465v26n01_01.
- Issa FG, Sullivan CE, Prince R, Hospital A. Alcohol , snoring and sleep apnoea. Br Med J. 1982;45:353–359. Available at: http://jnnp.bmj.com/content/45/4/353.full.pdf. Accessed May 20, 2015.
- Sullivan E, Pfefferbaum A, eds. Alcohol and the nervous system: Handbook of Clinical Neurology. New York: Elsevier; 2014.
- Foster RK, Marriott HE. Alcohol consumption in the new millennium ? weighing up the risks and benefits for our health. Nutr Bull. 2006;31(4):286–331. doi:10.1111/j.1467-3010.2006.00588.x.
- Zerbib F. Medical treatment of GORD. Emerging therapeutic targets and concepts. Clin Gastroenterol. 2010;24(6):937–46. doi:10.1016/j.bpg.2010.08.009.