Drinking Alcohol Before Bed Is Ruining Your Sleep Quality, According to a Neuroscientist and a Neurologist

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A glass of wine may help you wind down after a long day at work, but it's definitely not doing you any favors in the bedroom. The truth is drinking alcohol affects your sleep quality, which can have a number of effects on your health and wellness. That's why when you stop drinking alcohol, you might actually notice that your mood improves, your skin clears up, and you feel more rested. So, if you rely on a glass of wine to relax and fall asleep, know that even just one drink greatly diminishes the quality of that sleep, says neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier, PhD, and author of the book Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power.

Even a few ounces of alcohol changes the basic structure of normal sleep. Having a drink to help you fall asleep is an ineffective sleep strategy that can lead to a multitude of sleep disturbances, including insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and alterations in sleep architecture, says Dr. Willeumier. "The most prevalent changes in sleep architecture occur early in the evening when blood alcohol levels are high," she says. "While alcohol is initially sedating, once it is metabolized it can lead to disrupted, poor quality of sleep later in the night."

In other words, if you think it helps you fall asleep, you’re probably right, but the quality of sleep you’re getting isn’t good, says sleep doctor Temitayo Oyegbile-Chidi, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of Neurology at UC Davis Health. "You'll usually wake up a little earlier or have more tossing and turning after about an hour or two of sleep. Your sleep then tends to be quite fragmented."

With that in mind, let's talk through how alcohol affects sleep quality, and what you can do about it.

How does alcohol affect sleep quality?

Dr. Willeumier, explains that while the sedative properties of alcohol increase deep sleep during the non-rapid eye movement phase (NREM), it also reduces the time spent in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase. "REM sleep is critical to healthy brain function as it is essential in emotional regulation and the consolidation and retention of memories," says Dr. Willeumier.

Getting a good night's sleep can do much more than prevent you from feeling tired the next day."Sleep is essential for the preservation of brain energy, facilitation of learning and memory, support of cognitive capacity, emotional regulation, and clearance of toxic waste," says Dr. Willeumier. "Alcohol consumption disrupts restorative sleep and can result in impaired immune, cardiovascular, and cognitive health. Furthermore, insomnia increases your risk for mood disorders and substance abuse."

Still, there are a few things you can do to improve your sleep quality even when alcohol is part of your routine, says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi.

How to improve your sleep quality around alcohol

1. Limit your consumption

One of the most important steps is to reduce how much alcohol you drink in a given timeframe. "Have a glass of wine, maybe two," says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi, but that doesn’t mean every night.

"Alcohol should not be consumed on a regular basis if your intention is to live a brain-healthy lifestyle," says Dr. Willeumier. If you really want to maintain healthy sleep, says to limit your alcohol intake to one drink per week.

2. Finish drinking four to six hours before bedtime

That break between drinking and going to sleep is enough to allow the alcohol to work its way through your system, according to Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi. This means less of a chance of waking up in the middle of the night because your body is metabolizing that martini or glass of merlot.

In fact, the results of a study from Florida Atlantic University, involving 785 people who kept sleep diaries for a total of 5,164 days—found that consuming alcohol within four hours of going to sleep actually affected participants worse than drinking coffee before bedtime. The major caveat here is that people metabolize caffeine at different rates, so for some people, drinking a post-dinner espresso or coffee could lead to tossing and turning. But despite this, even when researchers accounted for factors including age, gender, weight, mental health, and schedules, alcohol was still the major sleep disruptor.

If you want to be really careful, Dr. Willeumier recommends giving yourself a six-hour window before bed. "Given that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and has a half-life of anywhere from six hours or longer depending on the type of alcohol and volume consumed, you want to drink it at least six hours prior to bed if you do not want it to interfere with your sleep cycles," she says.

3. Drink lots of water

Because alcohol is a diuretic and dehydration can decrease your sleep quality, having some H2O afterward will help counterbalance those effects. "You can drink a couple of glasses of water to just make sure that you rehydrate and get some of that alcohol out before you go to bed," says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi.

 4. Take a break from alcohol

If you find that any amount of alcohol affects your sleep quality, you can undo the impact of alcohol on your sleep when you take a break."The good news is that your sleep architecture can be fully restored after a period of abstinence," she says. "Given that sleep architecture and efficiency decline with age, it is important to keep in mind that alcohol will further exacerbate these issues."

Wake up in the middle of the night? Here's a tip for falling back asleep quickly:

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