July 11, 2018

Whether it's an after-work cocktail with friends, a glass of wine with your favourite meal, or a cold beer at a hockey game, drinking alcohol is one of Canada's favourite pastimes. For thousands of years, people have cherished its intoxicating effects - and anyone who has enjoyed beer, wine, or spirits knows that it can leave you feeling drowsy.

It should come as no surprise, then, that alcohol is one of the most commonly-used sleep aids in Canada. But if you think a nightcap will help you sleep better - think again. It's true that alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but the relationship between alcohol and sleep is more complicated than that. Read on to find out more about how alcohol affects your sleep, and ways to enjoy it without sabotaging your slumber.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol (or ethyl alcohol, more specifically) is one of the most popular drugs in the world. It's created when yeast breaks down the sugars in various foods through fermentation. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it slows down your vital functions and can lead to slurred speech, unsteady movement, and reduced reaction times.

However, most people enjoy it in lower doses for its stimulant effect. Before its sedative effects kick in, alcohol can flood your brain with endorphins - feel-good chemicals that can make you more talkative, reduce your inhibitions, and make you feel more confident.

Depending on a variety of factors like your age, body weight, tolerance level, and genetics, the effects of alcohol can be felt within minutes of drinking it, and the effects last for about one hour per drink (one beer, a 6oz glass of wine, or 1oz of hard alcohol). The effect is compounded the more you drink - so if you have 3 glasses of wine, you'll have to wait 3 hours after your last one before the effects wear off.

Alcohol should be enjoyed responsibly - drinking too much or too often can lead to serious health problems, addiction, dependence, or even death.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep?

The relationship between alcohol and sleep is complicated. A review of 107 sleep-related studies published in 2009 found that while alcohol can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the amount of deep sleep in the first half of the night, it also contributes to a greater amount of sleep disturbances and reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep.

In other words, you fall asleep faster and sleep like a log for a few hours, but wake up drained and exhausted because the sleep you did get was not restorative - no matter how good the rest of your sleep hygiene is. Here's a breakdown of how alcohol affects your sleep:

The Good

  • Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster.Studies have shown that alcohol reduces sleep onset latency (SOL) - basically a fancy term for how long it takes you to fall asleep. It does so at all dosages and is the single biggest impact that alcohol can have on your sleep.

  • Alcohol increases the amount of "deep sleep" you get in the first half of the night.We sleep in phases, cycling between non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and REM sleep. NREM sleep is the time of night when your body works on healing itself and boosting your immune function, and is essential to our overall health. When you drink alcohol, it prolongs your period of NREM sleep until the effects wear off - then your body tries to switch back to your normal sleep cycle. Unfortunately, this often leads to a less restful sleep in the second half of the night as your body tries to work out the kinks.

The Bad

  • Alcohol reduces the amount of REM sleep you get throughout the night.Just like NREM sleep, the REM phase of your sleep cycle is essential for your health. Rapid eye movement happens in the deepest part of your sleep, when you are dreaming and your body is hard at work restoring you mentally. Without enough REM sleep, you'll wake up feeling tired, unfocused, and your mental abilities will suffer.

  • Alcohol can mess up your internal clock.When you use substances to feel sleepy when you wouldn't normally, it can mess up your circadian rhythm. Essentially, alcohol tricks your body into producing sleep-inducing chemicals before it's time. When the effects of the alcohol wear off, so does the production of those chemicals - making you wake up long before you normally would. If this happens night after night, it can lead to a serious disruption in your natural day/night cycle over time.

  • Alcohol can make your sleep disorder worse.Alcohol acts as a muscle relaxer, which can be a serious problem when combined with disorders like sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when the muscles in your throat and airway collapse on themselves at night, making breathing more difficult. Alcohol can make these effects even more pronounced - or cause sleep apnea symptoms like snoring or interrupted breathing in normally healthy people. Alcohol can also make insomnia symptoms worse, and increase your chances of sleepwalking.

  • Alcohol can make you wake up at odd times.There are many ways that alcohol can wake you up in the middle of the night. Whether you're waking up for a midnight bathroom break that you wouldn't have needed otherwise, tossing and turning due to temperature changes, or snoring yourself awake, that drink before bed isn't helping.

The Ugly

  • Your body builds up a tolerance to alcohol over time.If you make a nightcap a part of your routine, you'll build up a tolerance to alcohol quickly. That means you'll need more and more as time goes on to get the same effect, which can lead to serious health issues like alcohol dependence and addiction. And that's not to mention the damage it can do to your body over time.

  • Mixing alcohol with other sleep aids can have deadly consequences.It's always a bad idea to combine alcohol with prescription medications, but combining two depressant/sedative ingredients together is a recipe for disaster. When you combine alcohol with traditional sleep aids, the effect can be greater than either taken alone - resulting in accidents, overdoses, or even death. Just don't do it.

How To Drink Alcohol And Still Sleep Soundly

Heavy drinking is never a good idea - especially if you plan on sleeping well. But even a 1- or 2- drink a night habit can have a serious negative impact on the quality (and quantity) of your sleep! Don't worry, you can still enjoy your girls' nights out or cracking open a beer after a long day. The trick to sleeping soundly is to follow these two rules:

  1. Limit your alcohol intake to a maximum of 2-3 times per week.That way, your body will have enough alcohol-free nights to keep your day/night cycle in check.

  2. Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.This will give you enough time to process the alcohol to a point where you can fall asleep easily without worrying about getting up in the middle of the night. The lower your blood alcohol level is when you go to sleep, the better.

Sounds simple, right? It is! By reducing your overall alcohol intake and making sure you have enough time to sober up before bed, you can avoid almost all of the sleep-related pitfalls to alcohol.

It might mean changing your habits to having a drink earlier in the day or opting for a water at the end of the night instead of a cocktail, but it's worth it: you'll experience improvements in the quality of your sleep, increased energy, and a boost in your mental clarity during the day. Cheers to that!