Emerging research is showing that sleep is actually the foundation for our physical and mental health – and poor sleep is associated with really negative outcomes, like chronic disease, lower life expectancy, and lower wellbeing. Surprisingly, we have found that many people aren’t aware of how alcohol affects our sleep and energy, so here is a quick overview.
Worse sleep quality: So many people disclosed that alcohol helps them get to sleep, and they’re worried about bad sleep if they stop drinking, while the truth is the other way around. Alcohol actually affects our sleep quality, by reducing our REM sleep. So even if it is easier to get to sleep (since alcohol is a depressant), we tend to have much worse quality sleep and wake up feeling groggy or unrested.
Early morning awakenings: Our brains do a strange thing once the depressive effects of the alcohol wear off – they have a rebound effect and get really alert. This results in the early morning awakenings we might experience after a night of drinking; waking up with all systems go, way before we actually need to get up. It’s all due to alcohol’s effect on our brain chemistry, and we will often find that we crash a bit later in the day when it catches up with us.
Hangxiety: This isn’t necessarily about sleep, but it does refer to something that happens when we’re asleep. Alcohol blocks the chemical glutamate (which is responsible for anxiety) in our brains – so when we’re alcohol affected, we’re less anxious. Unfortunately, our brains recognise this, so as we sleep they produce more glutamate to make up for this – meaning that when we wake up after a night of drinking, we often have a surplus of this anxiety chemical floating around our brains. Combined with the early morning awakenings, this can result in us feeling scattered and frazzled during the day – not a great way to start a morning.
Greater fatigue & less energy: Alcohol has a complex effect on our brain chemistry; it is both a depressant and pick-me-up.
Constantly having some alcohol in your system, even a little, is likely to be causing fatigue and less energy, even when we consider the amount of work our bodies need to do to process it. Most people find that taking a break of several weeks, to start with, helps them to understand the effect that alcohol was actually having on their energy levels and bodies. One reason that athletes don’t tend to drink when training is because of the impact of alcohol on fitness, weight, energy and mood – and this gives us a clue as to its impact on our performance.
Now that we’ve given an overview of sleep and alcohol, what next? If sleep is an issue for you, I’d recommend visiting your GP and talking through the issue. Often there is a source of sleep problems, whether this is stress or habit, and small behavioural changes can make a huge difference. You can visit a sleep specialist or get some online help to get you back on track.