Have you ever looked for sleep at the bottom of a wineglass? Sometimes, we’re just so tired and stressed out, minds racing from an endless list of to-do’s, that it seems like a good idea. It may be tempting to knock back a drink (or two or three) to unwind, melt muscle tension and drift to sleepy shores, but, sadly, using alcohol as a sleep aid can really erode sleep quality.
WHY WE USE ALCOHOL TO FALL ASLEEP
As a stimulant, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a neurotransmitter that trips the reward circuitry, making us feel buzzed after taking a swig. However, alcohol is also a sedative, and it’s this quality that we seek when we want to fall asleep. Science is still uncertain about the exact mechanism of how this works, but they think alcohol impairs our brain’s ability to metabolize glucose, the sugar that is usually our brain’s primary fuel. However it works, alcohol is pretty effective at making us nod off quicker.
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4 WAYS ALCOHOL SACRIFICES SLEEP QUALITY
Just because you can fall asleep faster after a boozy drink or two doesn’t mean you’ll get quality, restorative sleep. When you slumber, your brain and body undergo many important physiological functions such as muscle growth, tissue repair and memory consolidation. Having alcohol in your system can really thwart some of those processes. Here are four ways that alcohol can be just as disruptive to your rest as repeatedly hitting the the snooze button on your alarm clock:
1. YOU GET UP TO USE THE BATHROOM
Our body meticulously keeps its fluid balanced using a series of hormones, one of which is antidiuretic hormone. ADH is released by the pituitary gland and helps you retain enough water to keep your blood pressure normal. Alcohol blocks ADH’s action; this can result in you waking up mid-snooze to bolt to the bathroom.
2. YOU SWEAT LIKE MAD
Alcohol is a vasodilator at moderate amounts (Think: 1–2 drinks), meaning it causes your blood vessels to widen, releasing heat. To cool itself, your body starts producing sweat, which can be pretty darn uncomfortable. Night sweats could be another reason why you toss and turn.
3. YOUR BLOOD SUGAR TAKES A NOSEDIVE
Even though you’re sleeping, your body still needs calories to repair cells and maintain normal functions like breathing. During sleep, your body turns to fat to fuel most tissues and to glucose to fuel your brain. Unfortunately, alcohol hampers the body’s processes for generating adequate amounts of glucose for the brain, which will likely cause you to wake up with major carb cravings in the middle of the night.
4. YOU GET A SKIMPY AMOUNT OF REM SLEEP
Moderate doses of alcohol have been shown to reduce the amount of time we spend in rapid eye movement sleep. Why is this important? Sleep is divided into REM and non-REM sleep. It’s believed that REM sleep is important for learning, memory consolidation and brain development, which is why infants spend more time in this type of sleep than adults do. One study shows the adverse impact of REM sleep deprivation on learning: Participants who were taught a new skill and deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they learned after sleeping, but those deprived of REM sleep could not.
A good night of shut-eye is essential to allowing your brain and body to recharge. It’s important to get a minimum seven hours of sleep per night and to ensure that those hours are as restful as possible. Because alcohol can negatively affect your sleep, try to enjoy it as far from snooze time as possible. If you do want to drink close to bedtime, try to cap it at one standard drink (e.g. 12-ounces of beer or 5-ounces of wine).
Written by Trinh Le, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. For more, connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.