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.”
Dr. Willeumier, who wrote Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power, 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.”
If you really want to maintain healthy sleep, Dr. Willeumier says to limit your alcohol intake to one drink per week. “Alcohol should not be consumed on a regular basis if your intention is to live a brain-healthy lifestyle,” she says. But if that’s not something that interests you, 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.”
When you are drinking, Dr. Willeumier says to refrain from consuming alcohol prior to bed.
“Given that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and has a half-life of anywhere from six hours or longer depending on 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.
Tips for falling back asleep:
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