Can We Limit Alcohol's Effect on Sleep?

Christmas and New Year’s Eve are nearly upon us and that means lots of food and probably lots of alcohol. Given how 2020 unfolded, this probably means a few extra drinks for a lot of us.


Apart from a few embarrassing attempts at karaoke or a drunken WhatsApp message - we can also most likely look forward to a poor night’s sleep and a hangover in the morning.


We all know someone who easily falls asleep after 1 or 2 drinks, and this is due to the sedative effects of brain activity slowing down as alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Conversely, consuming large quantities of alcohol has been proven to impact the quality and duration of sleep in many people.


Drinking in moderation is considered safe by most medical experts but experiences for most individuals vary when consuming larger quantities. People that suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea can experience detrimental side effects when consuming alcohol.


So is there anything we can we do to avoid having a poor sleep and exacerbating our hangovers without missing out on the fun?


How does alcohol affect sleep?

According to the NHS in the UK, drinking large quantities of alcohol results in a reduction of the amount of REM sleep which leads to a more shallow sleep during our sleep cycles.


A normal sleep cycle pattern consists of four different stages lasting around 90 to 120 minutes each repeated around 4-5 times. These stages include three non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages and one rapid eye movement (REM) stage. The REM stage of sleep is considered by the National Center for Biotechnology Information to play a key role in memory consolidation, which goes some way to explaining why we sometimes forget moments from a night out.


Those of us that fall asleep quickly after a night out may think that we’ve beaten the trap of a poor night’s sleep but according to the Sleep Foundation, the sedative nature of alcohol can send some drinkers into a deep sleep too quickly. This can lead to an imbalance between slow-wave sleep and REM sleep - resulting in less of the latter as confirmed by the NHS.


The disruption to REM sleep can cause us to feel irritable, unfocused, groggy, and excessively sleepy the day following a night out and, in more extreme cases, weekly binge drinking can lead to insomnia.


What can I do?


The easiest advice would be to say stop drinking all together and avoid the major disruptions to your circadian rhythm… but there are alternatives.


The Sleep Doctor, Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., recommends that both his male and female patients drink low volumes of alcohol 2-3 times a week. This provides enough room to enjoy an after-work drink to unwind, a glass of wine at your favourite restaurant, or a cold beer after finishing your weekend chores at home—without disrupting your sleep cycle and circadian rhythm.


As mentioned, Christmas and New Year’s Eve is a time when we tend to drink a little more - some medical professionals may even use the word “binge”. So, what can be done to at least partially combat the detrimental side-effects of having just a little too much fun?


Create a welcoming environment to come home to, which includes:

  • ensuring you have a freshly made bed and a tidy bedroom.

  • investing in black-out blinds or a black-out sleep mask.

  • setting comfortable room temperature (18.3 degrees Celsius - source: The Sleep Foundation).


Have a sleep and bedtime routine in place:

  • this will limit the impact of a wild night out.


Eat a well balanced meal:

  • protein-rich foods are great as they take longer to digest, this helps to slow the rise in your blood alcohol level. Alcohol also depletes your vitamin B-12 levels so a protein source such as salmon is a great choice.

  • carbs are also a great option as alcohol impacts your glycogen levels. Carbs will keep these levels where they should be and help you avoid a sugar crash.

  • check out The Best Foods to Eat Before You Go Out Drinking at Thrillist for more.


Drink lots of water throughout the night:

  • aim for alternating rounds between alcohol and water.

  • avoid caffeine heavy drinks - we’re looking at you Espresso Martinis and Jägerbombs!


Quit while you’re ahead:

  • drink less as the night goes on and cut yourself off around 4 hours before you sleep. You’ll thank us in the morning.


Ditch the meds for some vitamin tabs:

  • a small dose of Ibuprofen is fine but avoid anything stronger.

  • your body’s B Vitamins are reduced by alcohol so be sure to top them up.


Put your phone on silent!

  • uploading those Insta pics can wait, right now it’s time to dream.

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