Alcohol and sleep: friend or foe?

Many people associate alcohol with relaxation but what does it really do to your sleep?

photo by saseko @ unsplash.com

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Alcohol and relaxation
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Alcohol and relaxation

Drinking alcohol is part of Australian culture, and many people see alcohol as having a central role in their social lives. Alcohol is also commonly used by people to relax, or unwind after a long day. A survey conducted by the Australian Sleep Health Foundation reported that ~40 per cent of Australian adults had consumed an alcoholic beverage in the hour before sleep during the past month, with about half of these people consuming alcohol a few nights every week. This survey also found that about 20 per cent of Australian adults viewed alcohol as a sleep-aid, with use being more common for men than women.

But does alcohol affect our sleep, and is that even important?

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Sleep is important
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Sleep is important

Good sleep is vital to our physical and mental health, and to maintaining positive wellbeing. Poor sleep on the other hand is linked to a higher rate of physical and mental health problems including heart disease, depression, and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and workplace injuries due to impaired performance. While once thought of as a passive state, we now know that sleep is an active state that is important in many ways.

Over the course of a night, our sleep cycles through different stages. Early in the night we get greater slow wave or ‘deep’ sleep, while later in the night we experience more REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and dreaming. Scientists have found that deep sleep is important to restore and refresh us, while REM sleep is important in consolidating memories and new tasks that we have learnt throughout the day.

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Alcohol and sleep
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Alcohol and sleep

Many people think that alcohol helps you sleep because it makes you feel more relaxed. However, alcohol actually has negative effects on your sleep quality, and causes restless sleep particularly in the second half of the night.

This is because alcohol affects those underlying sleep stages and their cycling during the night. While small amounts of alcohol can help you to fall asleep faster, the sleep you experience is shallower and less restorative, and alcohol supresses normal REM sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning that you are more likely to get up during the night to pass urine, further disrupting your sleep. Taken together, sleep following alcohol use is likely to be of poorer quality, and shorter duration which decreases your mood, wellbeing, and productivity the following day.

The body also rapidly develops tolerance to alcohol, so people using it regularly as a ‘night cap’ may find that they have to use increasingly more alcohol in order for it to have the same relaxing effect. This can happen in a very short time (even after only a few days), and having greater amounts of alcohol, more frequently is associated with numerous chronic health effects.

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Where can you go for more information or help?
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Where can you go for more information or help?

If you would like more information about this topic, you could listen to the ‘Sleep Talk’ podcast, which includes Turning Point researcher Dr Rowan Ogeil, talking about the impact of alcohol and sleep.

If you are having troubles with your sleep, or feel that your alcohol use is impacting upon your sleep, help is available.

  • You can talk to your doctor, psychologist, or health professional about your troubles sleeping.
  • You can visit Australasian Sleep Association and Sleep Health Foundation for more information including a useful factsheet, or for help finding a sleep specialist.
  • You can chat to one of our counsellors who may be able to give you some helpful sleep tips or you can call the National Alcohol and Drug support line on 1800 250 015 – both services are free and available 24/7.
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About Dr Ogeil
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About Dr Ogeil

Rowan is the Reporting and Stakeholder Team Leader, National Addiction and Mental Health Surveillance Unit at Turning Point. He was awarded his PhD in 2012, and his research interests are centered on understanding how alcohol and other drugs affect sleep and mental health outcomes. Rowan has held prestigious awards including a Peter Doherty Fellowship from the NHMRC, and a Harvard Club of Australia Fellowship, and to date has published >70 peer-reviewed articles many addressing sleep and/or drug use issues. Rowan is a member of the Australasian Sleep Association, the peak scientific body working to promote healthy sleep in the region, and he also plays significant roles in community engagement and teaching at Turning Point. You can find out more about Rowan here.