There are all sorts of things that can impact our sleep – a late-night cup of coffee, spending too long scrolling through Instagram in bed, or a bad case of Sunday-night anxiety. And, added to that list should also be a glass of wine or two.
Many of us know how alcohol can make us feel drowsy or tired, and a significant number of us actually use its sedative effects to help us get to sleep on a regular basis. But as research into the subject continues to grow, experts are warning that drinking can impact the quality and quantity of our slumber in ways we’re probably not aware of.
Aggie Connor is a sober coach and the founder of Fresh and Fab in Southsea. She offers lifestyle coaching and advice to those who want to give up alcohol and has seen how drinking can influence our night-time routines.
“A lack of good quality sleep is a big problem for around 90 percent of all the people I work with,” she explains. “For many of them, the issue gets resolved relatively quickly when they start to reduce their alcohol intake, but the effect it can have on their physical and emotional health is very noticeable.”
As a former binge drinker herself, Aggie has also experienced this first-hand. “The quality of my sleep was horrendous – on those evenings when I drank I would just pass out,” she says. “I wouldn’t even call it sleeping. My body was working hard to filter the poison out during the night, and so I wasn’t giving it the chance to rest and recuperate. It meant I’d wake up feeling really shattered and anxious as a result.”
But it’s not just moderate and heavy drinkers that can suffer. Research published in the journal JMIR Mental Health suggests that even just one drink can impair sleep quality. So, what exactly does alcohol do to our body to impact it in this way?
“I used to wake up at 1am every morning”
Lucy*, 34, used alcohol as a way to cope with feelings of anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. Here, she tells us how stopping made her feel so much stronger – and helped her sleeping patterns…
“I don’t know if I ever had an addiction, although I do know that I struggled when I tried to stop drinking. I started when I was a teenager, and at first it was just weekend drinking, but it soon built up.
After I split from my husband, I moved back in with my parents and then to my own home. Once I’d put my two kids to bed, a bottle of wine would help me de-stress. I’d fall asleep heavily at about 10pm, but only for about three hours and then I’d be wide awake.
A lot of the time I couldn’t get back to sleep – and if I finally did, it wouldn’t be until 4 or 5 in the morning. When I woke up at around 6.30am with the kids, I’d be in a horrible mood. I was snappy and irritable all the time, and I felt like I was taking it out on my children. It was making me anxious, depressed and miserable, and so I decided to make a change.
The first few days I struggled going to bed. With the wine, I’d be flat out in minutes but suddenly I found myself listening to every noise in the house, and looking out the window for ages.
That didn’t last long, though, and within about two weeks of giving up I was going to bed between 9.30 and 10pm and sleeping through till about 6am in the morning. I felt like a new woman – and it’s helped my self-esteem too.”
*name has been changed
Why should we limit alcohol before bed?
“Alcohol affects the quality and the quantity of our sleep patterns,” explains Dr Arghya Sarkhel, lead consultant psychiatrist at the Living Mind clinic in London. “It impacts our circadian rhythms and pushes our body out of sync.”
Multiple studies have confirmed the effect this can have – drinking disrupts our master biological clock, limits the production of melatonin (also known as the sleep hormone), elevates levels of adenosine (which makes us feel sleepy when we’ve been awake for a long time) and forces our liver to work harder. All this makes for a disturbed night and a sleeping pattern that goes against the grain.
“Alcohol often has an immediate sedative effect and reduces the time it takes for us to fall asleep,” explains Dr Sarkhel. “However, it also suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is a lighter kind of sleep. Studies show that in the earlier stages of the night – when the body is metabolising the alcohol consumed – people spend more time in deep, slow-wave sleep and less time in REM.”
While this may sound beneficial, it’s not. Our sleep structure has biologically evolved over the years – and changes aren’t good for our physical and emotional health. “REM sleep is important for mental restoration, memory and emotional processing and is often when you dream. A lack of this can lead to cognitive impairment, an inability to concentrate and daytime drowsiness,” Dr Sarkhel adds.
Once alcohol has been metabolised, the body often feels the impact of the ‘rebound effect’ in the latter half of the night, and moves to a lighter slumber from which it’s more likely to be woken up. This means that those who have indulged in the evening often find themselves wide awake at 2am and unable to get back to sleep.
How are alcohol, sleep and mental health linked?
A further problem occurs if you’re relying on alcohol to help you drift off, and using its sedative quality as a sleep stimulus. “Because I was using drink to help me sleep, I found my body unlearnt its natural rhythms and so on the nights I didn’t have any wine, I struggled to switch off because my body didn’t know what to do,” Aggie says. “I was like a living zombie on certain days and my mental health was in shreds. I was really anxious, my self-esteem was out the window and my relationship with myself suffered.”
Indeed, while a lack of sleep can have negative health consequences for any of us, it’s particularly noticeable for those who struggle with stress and anxiety, or other mental health issues.
“The relationship between mental health and alcohol is rather complex,” Dr Sarkhel says. “We can broadly divide this into two categories: primary harmful use and secondary harmful use. Primary harmful use refers to those who may develop anxiety or depression as a direct result of alcohol. Secondary harmful use relates to those who may already be experiencing mental health issues and, in this instance, the use of alcohol is an attempt to cope with the distressing symptoms of these issues.
“In either situation, a lack of sleep can be particularly problematic as we know that sleep disturbance is a well-recognised trigger for many conditions, such as anxiety,” Dr Sarkhel explains. This means that it can be even more difficult to kick the habit.
How to reset your body clock
For Aggie, cutting alcohol out of her life improved her sleep dramatically. “At the beginning it was scary – and dealing with the identity crisis was really hard. But as the days and weeks went by and I started to feel better physically, I also started to feel better mentally.
After about two to three weeks, my sleep improved hugely and I was really surprised to discover that I’m an early bird by nature, which was not something I expected! I was able to regenerate during my sleep and I felt so much calmer and in control during the day.”
This is a common outcome reported by many drinkers. In fact, a recent study by the University of Sussex found that 71 percent of participants reported they slept much better when they abstained from drink for a month. Interestingly, 67 percent reported more energy, 70 percent had generally improved health and 57 percent enjoyed better concentration levels too.
To reestablish your own healthy sleep patterns, the first step may be to cut down or reduce your alcohol intake (see Aggie’s helpful tips below). Creating the right sleep environment will also help you to ease back into a regular pattern.
Make sure your bedroom is around 18°C, dark and quiet, and try to reduce the time you spend on your phone before bedtime (the blue light emitted by these devices can disrupt our levels of melatonin). If you’re suffering with stress and anxiety and this is impacting your ability to sleep – and creating a reliance on alcohol – it’s important to address this too.
So, before you reach for that nightcap, consider whether you really need it. With an increasing number of people speaking freely about the impact drinking has on their lives and the sober curious movement gaining traction, it could be time to reassess your relationship with alcohol. You may find you’ll benefit in more ways than you think.
4 ways to break the habit
If you want to limit the amount you drink, Aggie has some helpful tips…
Look for your motivation
For me, it was my daughter. I wanted to give up alcohol for her and to be a better mother, and in many cases having an external motivator makes the commitment stronger. You could also use the ‘fast forward’ technique to motivate you – imagine your tomorrow and consider if you’ll be able to do all the things you’d planned to do if you drink tonight.
Know your triggers
Triggers are individual to all of us, but it’s important to recognise and understand what it is that makes your habit stick, and try to reduce your exposure to any triggers which might prevent you succeeding.
Don’t listen to your brain
Don’t let your brain talk you out of your decision to stop drinking. This part of your body doesn’t like change, and it will tell you all sorts of lies in order not to rock the boat, but I never met anyone who said they regret giving up alcohol.
If you’re finding it hard to stop drinking, I would advise that you ask for help. So often people rely on their strong will, but sometimes this just isn’t enough and you need a little extra support. There are plenty of helpful services listed at Drink Aware.