How alcohol is bad for sleep – and why a bedtime drink on Christmas Eve might be smart!

Spending 20 years as an ER doctor, I could list dozens of reasons why alcohol isn’t really good for you! Heck, I think we all know and acknowledge that alcohol is dangerous, thus the caution to “drink responsibly”.

Well, what about alcohol and sleep?  About 20% of adult Americans report using alcohol to help them fall asleep.  Falling asleep at “the wheel” is a really bad thing  … but a drink, at home, when you are spending a minute to relax before bed is responsible and kind of nice.  And, most people will absolutely report that they were able to fall asleep quickly!  So, what’s the problem?

Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine reported the results of a 5 year study on the relationship between alcohol consumption and sleep.   The study looked at social and binge drinking, not at subjects who were alcohol dependent (“alcoholics”).
Here are some of the key findings:
●   Alcohol affects “sleep homeostasis”  –  the brain’s built-in mechanism that regulates sleepiness and wakefulness.
●   Sleep homeostasis is how the body balances the need for sleep based on feedback from the entire body.
●   Different levels of a particular communication and metabolic molecule (adenosine) will be circulated in the bloodstream during proper times of wakefulness and sleepiness.
●   Alcohol directly disrupts this “normal” circulating levels of adenosine.
●   Alcohol consolidates and increases the quality and quantity of Non-REM sleep in the first half of a normal sleep cycle.
●   Alcohol causes sleep disruption in the second half of the normal sleep cycle, when  the majority of REM sleep occurs.

What does this mean for us?  Alcohol may help us fall asleep faster but we decrease the amount of restorative REM sleep.  During REM sleep, most of our body repair mechanisms are activated.  When REM is disrupted, physical health is negatively impacted.

Based on this study, one might conclude that we should never drink alcohol!  I really think this goes back to “drink responsibly”.  Be aware and use good judgment.  In Karen’s blog she suggests that we should have our last drink (or maybe our only drink) about 4 hours before bedtime.  That is good advice.  However, there may be a very good exception to that rule  …. Christmas Eve!

If you have small children, or a house full of guests, you know that you’ll be getting up very early on Christmas morning.  It’s a beautiful time of day!  The problem too often is that by the time you do everything you need to do after the kids are asleep, and before they come excitedly knocking on your door  …. usually before dawn  …. you are not going to have a full night’s sleep!  A Christmas Eve drink to close the day might be a good idea!  Hey, if it helps you fall asleep faster, and you are not going to get much REM sleep anyway, go for it!  Now could be a good time to treat yourself to a festival hot toddy, or some eggnog with a splash of rum or bourbon, or a great glass of wine.  Merry Christmas!  Have a good winter’s nap!

Additional Resource:

Disrupted REM Sleep

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