Why Alcohol Makes You Sleepy and How This Affects Your Health
Alcohol is so renowned for making people sleepy that many people drink it intentionally as a sleep aid known as a nightcap. Others, who drink alcohol, then drive, thinking it won’t affect their focus or judgment, often find themselves falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsy driving is dangerous for you and everyone else on the road, and alcohol only makes it more so.
In some cases, alcohol can start off making you sleepy, then wake you from a sound slumber. While most people know alcohol can make you sleepy, few know why or understand the effects of this phenomenon on your health and wellness.
As noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sleep-related problems affect a third of Americans. Since alcohol plays a role in sleep disturbances and disorders, treating Americans with alcohol problems can also help reduce their sleep-related problems.
A Brief History of the Research on Alcohol and Sleep
Researchers have studied the effects of alcohol on sleep as far back as the late 1930s. The body of research on the topic since that time includes multiple studies on the effects of alcohol on how healthy people sleep. Results of these studies have included findings such as these:
• In people who drink alcohol only occasionally, both high and low doses of alcohol can improve sleep at first. High doses, however, can cause sleep disturbances later in the sleep cycle.
• Alcohol worsens the daytime sleepiness caused by other issues like sleep restriction and sleep deprivation.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain
Alcohol is considered a depressant and has a direct effect on the central nervous system. Once alcohol enters the bloodstream, it circulates to the brain, where it proceeds to slow down the firing of neurons. When neuronal firings decrease at a normal rate, it can result in relaxation, fatigue, and sleepiness. When they decrease at an accelerated or extreme rate, it can lead to a coma.
How Alcohol Tricks the Brain
It can be hard for people to realize the negative effects alcohol is having on them because of their preoccupation with the positive ones, like the feelings of relaxation and euphoria they associate with it. This is because alcohol has a biphasic effect on arousal and sleep. An agent with a biphasic effect first has one effect, and then, after a time, switches to a different one. Alcohol first has an arousal effect, specifically when levels are at low doses or still rising. Then, when levels are higher or starting to drop, it shifts to producing a sleepy effect.
Alcohol and REM Sleep
REM sleep is the most restful and restorative stage of slumber. It is not, however, the deepest stage of sleep. Drinking alcohol too close to bedtime can interfere with the amount, duration, or consistency of the REM sleep you achieve in any given night. It can cause you to spend too much time in the lightest or deepest stages of sleep or flit between the two without spending enough time in the restful, restorative REM state your body most needs to achieve homeostasis. This state of equilibrium is often called “resetting the body clock.”
The effects of disrupted REM sleep include:
• Disrupted functioning of circadian rhythms
• Less restorative sleep
• Dehydration and more frequent waking to void the bladder
• Increased sleepwalking and sleep-eating
• Increased snoring, sleep apnea and other sleep-disordered breathing activity
• Increased propensity for vivid dreams and nightmares or night terrors, particularly during the second half of the night as more alcohol exits the system
• Tiredness, trouble concentrating, and irritability the following day
Alcohol, even in moderate amounts, can produce these effects. The more alcohol you drink before bedtime and the closer to bedtime you drink it, the more it will impair your sleep.
Excessive drinking that leads a person to black out (lose memory) or pass out (lose consciousness) can disrupt sleep severely and produce these symptoms in the extreme. It can also contribute to worse hangover symptoms the following day.
Alcohol and Sleep Disorders
Alcohol disrupts the length and order of sleep cycle states. It also changes how long it takes to fall asleep and the total duration of sleep. Consuming alcohol can cause sleep disorders, such as:
• Hypersomnia – Excessive daytime sleepiness
• Insomnia – Inability to fall asleep
• Sleep latency – Delayed length of time to fall asleep
• Sleep-disordered breathing – Snoring or sleep apnea
• Sleep disturbances – Disruptions in the cycle or continuity of sleep
Sleep disturbances and sleep disorders have been associated with a number of other disorders, including substance abuse and mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Moreover, researchers have found that this correlation may be bidirectional. This means that just as mental health issues and substance use can cause and contribute to sleep disturbances and sleep disorders, sleep disturbances and sleep disorders can cause or contribute to mental health issues and substance use.
This very realization has given researchers insight into how targeting sleep disorders and disruptions may help to prevent and treat alcohol use disorders.
The Effects of Alcohol Tolerance on Sleepiness
As noted in the NIAAA study cited earlier, the lower a person’s tolerance, the fewer drinks it will generally take to produce a particular effect. This can lead insomniacs to initially turn to alcohol as a temporary sleep aid. At least 20% of American adults depend on alcohol for help falling asleep, making it the most common sleep aid in the United States. Alcohol’s effects for this purpose tend to wear off quickly, posing the danger of overuse as many people then develop a tolerance for alcohol’s sedative effects.
The higher your alcohol tolerance, the more alcohol it may take before you start to feel sleepy. This can lead to developing an alcohol dependency and excessive use pattern, including during the daytime.
If you have an alcohol intolerance, not only can the smallest amount of alcohol make you feel sleepy, but it can also give you headaches, a stuffy nose, and red facial flushing.
The Reverse Effect: Alcohol Keeping You Awake
As mentioned earlier, after initially making you sleepy, alcohol can often wake you up later and prevent you from falling back to sleep. You might even find you have trouble falling asleep to begin with after having a few drinks at night.
In both cases, this is because alcohol increases the level of a particular stress hormone in the body that acts as a stimulant. This increases the heart rate, thereby counteracting the depressant effects of the alcohol. As a result, you can have poor-quality sleep and wake up easily. This explains why some people who drink alcohol in order to feel drowsy end up sleeping badly.
Binge Drinking and Sleep
Binge drinking may be linked to sleep disorders. Researchers have found that a single episode of binge drinking could affect a gene involved in sleep regulation that is known as the clock gene or PER2. They note that, after a single night of binge drinking, you could experience symptoms of sleep deprivation. As a result, you might turn to even larger doses of alcohol to get to sleep the following night, producing a potentially endless and perilous cycle. In this way, researchers conclude, sleep disturbances could also contribute to alcohol use disorders.
Alcohol and Sleep
The effects described so far affect all users of alcohol to some degree. In people with an alcohol use disorder, other factors may also be at work. For people who drink alcohol before bedtime, certain other observations have been made. For instance:
• Elderly drinkers are more at risk of experiencing sleepiness and sleep disturbances from alcohol use than younger drinkers.
• Pre-bedtime drinking among the elderly can also be associated with an increased risk of unsteadiness and falls when awaking during the night.
• Late afternoon drinking, such as during a traditional happy hour, can cause wakefulness during the second half of that night’s sleep cycle.
• The negative effects of sleep deprivation increase the sedative effects of alcohol consumed thereafter, posing risks of creating a self-perpetuating cycle in situations such as rotating work shifts and frequent world travel.
How to Stop Feeling Sleepy Following Alcohol Consumption
The primary way to feel less sleepy from drinking alcohol is to closely monitor your alcohol consumption. Drink less alcohol over a given length of time, and stop drinking earlier in the evening to give your body more time to process the alcohol before you go to bed.
The other key way to stop feeling sleepy after drinking alcohol is to drink more water before, during, and after imbibing alcohol. The more alcohol you drink, the more water you should be drinking to remain adequately hydrated. All that water may indeed cause you to wake up more to empty your bladder during the night, but the benefits of staying hydrated while you drink alcohol outweigh the downsides. Plus, staying properly hydrated when you drink alcohol has the added benefit of reducing the likelihood or intensity of hangover symptoms the following day.
Alcohol and Sleep in Those With AUD
Sleep disorders like insomnia are common in people with alcohol use disorders (AUD) and those with other substance use disorders (SUDs). Sometimes, people enter treatment with one or more sleep disturbances associated with their alcohol use, while other people may find sleep disturbances developing during the withdrawal period following the start of treatment. Still others may develop sleep disturbances long after completing treatment and well into recovery. This often happens after experiencing a relapse into alcohol use.
Effects of Sleep Loss on Recovery
Just as alcohol can disrupt sleep, disrupted sleep can impede recovery for those with alcohol use disorder. For this reason, treating sleep disturbances must go hand in hand with treatment for AUD.
Loss of sleep can have a negative impact on the well-being of anyone, especially someone going through recovery, on a mental, emotional, and physical level. It can also interfere with treatment by worsening withdrawal complaints to the point where people are tempted to resume using alcohol to relieve their suffering.
In addition, sleep deprivation interferes with the body’s regulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential for a variety of functions. By stimulating the dopamine pathways, the body experiences a reward sensation that leads to an addictive pattern. Pursuing this reward sensation, in turn, interferes with dopamine’s ability to regulate alertness, thereby interfering with the proper cycles of sleep and wakefulness. The result is that losing sleep can impair the regulation of dopamine. This could compel you to act impulsively, such as ingesting substances like alcohol, in order to receive the missing reward and restore some version of the sleep-wake cycle.
Another effect of sleep deprivation is poor memory. Because the brain requires a high quality of sleep to consolidate new memories, a reduced quality of sleep can impede the retention and acclimation of coping skills acquired during treatment.
As nearly a century of research has shown, alcohol use disorders and sleep disturbances have a negative impact on one another. By treating one, you can help treat the other. By reducing alcohol consumption, you can improve your sleep. By improving your sleep, you can reduce your compulsions and cravings to drink. If you believe that you or a loved one has an alcohol use disorder, please contact us at BlueCrest Recovery Center.