How Drinking Affects Your Sleep

Holiday Pressure to Drink Affects Sleep

Our evidence-based advice about drinking too close to bedtime may help you sleep better and be of good cheer. But does it really matter whether you snore?

Friendly Alcohol-Scheduling Advice for the Holidays

From office parties to family gatherings to college bowls, the holiday season brings you many more opportunities to imbibe than usual—and perhaps much later into the evening than usual.

Meanwhile, all the additional social obligations of the season are cutting into regular routines and ratcheting up the stress. You may end up getting less rest as a result. But don’t be too quick to reach for your favorite beer stein or stemless wine glass to help you wind down at night. Although we associate alcohol with relaxation, it doesn’t really help us sleep well.

Eye Movements, Growth Hormone, and a Lousy Night’s Sleep

In fact, evidence that alcohol impairs patterns of sleep has been growing since the 1930s. One of the first sleep researchers was University of Chicago physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman. His book Sleep and Wakefulness looked at how body temperature and responsiveness are affected when a person consumes alcohol an hour or less before hitting the sack.

By the 1960s, new technology enabled researchers to monitor the rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) that attend the various stages of slumber, and thereby gain insight into how sleep helps reset both mind and body. REM sleep is thought to be important for how our vital organs and nervous system work together to manage involuntary functions like breathing and heartbeat. And one thing investigators learned is that alcohol consumed within an hour of going to sleep has a suppressive effect on the REM stages.

Drinking shortly before bedtime can also disrupt body chemistry. The brain’s pituitary gland operates on a time-release schedule, secreting most of our growth hormones during sleep cycles. Scientists have linked consumption of alcohol—even just a couple of drinks—to reduced secretion of growth hormone during periods of sleep.

But isn’t it true that alcohol acts as a sedative? Yes, it does. But it’s also true that your body develops a tolerance for that effect. Indeed, a study in the early 1970s showed that the sleep-inducing effects of drinking alcohol become harder to attain after just three days.

Alcohol and Snoring

A simpler way that alcohol spoils your sleep is by making you snore. The sedative effect that helps you nod off early in the night can also relax your tongue into a position that blocks your airway. How much your sleep is disturbed depends on how much your throat is obstructed. Even light snoring can disrupt your sleep by causing congested breathing. Heavy snoring can be a sign of a more serious condition, like sleep apnea.

There can also be risks to your mental health too. Medical studies have shown again and again that alcohol can foster a vicious cycle of feeling low and suffering from insomnia.

If the holidays stress you out, well, you’ve got company. Most adults feel some additional pressure during the holidays. But imbibing too close to bedtime won’t help you get the good night’s rest that you need to cope with annoying relatives or one-too-many bake sales. So try to sip the Merlot at least a couple of hours before you turn in.

You’ll get a more restful night’s sleep. And you’ll wake up with a rosier disposition, maybe even a merry one.

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