Insomnia and Alcohol: How Sleep Disorders are worsened by Drinking

Insomnia and Alcohol: How Sleep Disorders are worsened by Drinking

It’s common for people to abuse alcohol as a way to help themselves go to sleep. After a night of drinking, it might feel like as soon as your head hits the pillow, you’re sound asleep.

However, if you think that just because you are unconscious you’re getting a good night’s rest, you’re sorely mistaken.

How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep

Drinking alcohol before bed has been shown to create serious problems with almost every aspect of sleep quality. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that alcohol hurts your ability to wake up feeling refreshed and well rested.

Alcohol Interferes with Your Circadian Rhythm

While it’s true that after a night of bar-hopping, you will fall asleep fairly quickly, you are way more likely to wake up at some point in the night.

One of the reasons why drinkers wake up in the middle of the night is due to alcohol’s effect on your circadian rhythm. After drinking, your body increases its production of the sleep-inducing chemical adenosine.

When adenosine levels are high enough, you can pass out at the drop of a hat. However, once you stop drinking, adenosine levels plummet so low that you’ll wake up well before your brain and body are ready.

Alcohol Blocks REM Sleep

Drinking alcohol before bed also impairs your brain’s ability to enter into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The REM stage of sleep is widely considered to be the most important stage of sleep. If you don’t enter the REM stage, it won’t matter if you get a full eight hours of sleep: You’ll still wake up feeling unfocused and groggy.

Alcohol Leads to Late-Night Bathroom Trips

Alcohol acts as a strong diuretic, which means more trips to the bathroom. If you drink alcohol too close to your bedtime, you’ll likely wake up in the middle of the night with a full bladder.

Interrupting your sleep to go to the bathroom throws the natural sleep cycle out of whack. And good luck falling back asleep once your hangover sets in.

The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Sleep

Chronic alcohol use can negatively affect your sleep even after getting sober. After you make the decision to give up booze, your body is likely to go into a state of withdrawal. Because withdrawal produces a number of unpleasant side effects, many recovering alcoholics experience insomnia from alcohol withdrawal.

When an alcoholic goes into withdrawal, he or she experiences a number of changes in quality of sleep, including:

  • Frequently interrupted sleep
  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Sleeping for longer than normally required
  • Entering into REM sleep more frequently, but for shorter durations

It may take a year or longer for recovering alcoholics to re-establish healthy sleeping patterns. This is because years of alcohol abuse have resulted in serious changes in brain structure.

Alcohol, Sleep Problems and Relapse

Withdrawing from alcohol and insomnia go hand in hand. A common cause of alcohol relapse is an inability to manage the sleep issues associated with one’s newfound sobriety. Too many alcoholics think that they need to drink in order to fall asleep. When they try to get sober and start dealing with issues like insomnia, they use that to justify drinking alcohol as a sleep aid.

Obviously, this logic is ridiculous. In all likelihood, they weren’t actually sleeping well when they drank, it just appeared that way. Drinking alcohol while in withdrawal will quickly make the unpleasant symptoms of alcohol detox go away, so of course they’ll have an easier time falling asleep. This relief is only temporary, however. They will quickly run into the same problems with sleep that they had before.

The reason many alcoholics claim to drink just to sleep better is simple: They’re in denial. After all, telling your friends and family that you get buzzed every night because it helps you sleep sounds a lot better than telling them it’s because you have a serious chemical dependency.

Once you accept the fact your alcoholism is about much more than just helping you sleep, you can then start addressing the true sources of your drinking problem.

The Link Between Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Although it’s estimated that roughly 20 percent of Americans suffer from at least one form of sleep apnea, only 10 percent have received a formal diagnosis. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by a person’s airway becoming blocked to such an extent that he or she cannot breathe normally. If the airway remains blocked for too long, the individual will wake up, at least momentarily, to correct the problem.

Research has shown that sleep apnea caused by alcohol consumption is incredibly common in moderate and heavy drinkers. One study found that men who regularly consumed more than one alcoholic drink per day were more likely to display the signs of sleep apnea than men who don’t drink at all. Each additional daily drink raised the odds of showing signs of sleep apnea by 25 percent.

Sleep Apnea from Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is especially dangerous because a person can experience sleep apnea while being too intoxicated to wake up in time to correct their breathing. In extreme cases, alcohol-induced sleep apnea can cause a person’s blood oxygen levels to drop drastically, a condition known as oxygen desaturation. It can also increase the levels of carbon monoxide in the body to potentially fatal levels.

Whether drinking causes a person to develop sleep apnea or makes one’s existing sleep apnea worse, it’s important to realize that alcohol’s effect on sleep is potentially deadly.

Quit Drinking and Sleep Better!

What’s your take on alcohol and sleep health? Is alcohol really helping your insomnia if you have to drink every night just to fall asleep?
Do you think that those using alcohol as a sleep aid are in denial about their addiction, or do you think that, for some people, drinking every night is the right choice?

Join the conversation now by answering these questions in the comment section below or by clicking over to our forum to let us know what you think!

See Our Alcohol Addiction Fact Sheet

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