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How Does Alcohol Impact Sleep?

Sleep is an important part of our health. It is considered to be one of the three essential pillars of health alongside diet and exercise.

Alcohol can have a number of deleterious effects on sleep.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has published guidelines and recommendations for safe alcohol intake. They state that men and women should drink no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion. The NHMRC also recommends no more than 2 standard drinks per day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

If people are having trouble with sleep and using alcohol to manage sleep night after night, over time the amount of alcohol that is needed to get people to sleep tends to increase making it quite easy to fall into hazardous rather than safe levels of intake.

What are the effects of alcohol on sleep?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant so it causes brain activity to slow down and can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. Although alcohol can help shorten sleep onset time, it is linked with poor quality sleep, and shorter sleep duration and more awakenings across the latter part of the night.

It has also been shown that even moderate amounts of alcohol are associated with exacerbating the symptoms of sleep apnoea as it causes the throat muscles to relax,, which in turn creates more resistance during breathing. This can exacerbate sleep apnoea symptoms and lead to disruptive breathing episodes, as well as heavier snoring.

It is best to avoid alcohol 3-4 hours before bed. Often people with sleep disturbance use alcohol as a sleep ‘tool’, so it’s very important to be educated about the fact that alcohol does not enhance sleep.

How does binge drinking effect sleep?

Recent studies have shown that binge drinking can result in a substantial reduction in the normal ability to either fall asleep or gain the restorative benefits that normally come from sleep.

Binge drinking is associated with disturbed sleep even when correcting for mental health problems associated with binge drinking. One study found that those that indulged in binge drinking twice a week (or more) were 84% more likely to have sleeplessness and insomnia symptoms compared to those who did not binge drink.

What then, if not alcohol, to help with sleep?

The gold standard for treating sleep problems such as insomnia is cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). The elements of CBTi focus on alterations to thinking and poor habits and can take away the need to rely on alcohol as a sleep aid.

Using alcohol to help with sleep is a common pathway to having problems with alcohol intake. It’s particularly important to educate younger people about the dangers of relying on alcohol to help with sleep, and to link them with professionals who can help with their sleep. There are also free online courses that may help.

Ultimately, alcohol is a poor tactic for better sleep long-term. It’s important that people learn to improve their sleep habits without reaching for that next glass of wine.

Dr Moira Junge is a Senior Consultant at 360Edge and our resident sleep expert! AOD professionals interested in the impact of poor sleep on client outcomes, may be interested in our online interactive workshop ‘Good Night, Sleep Tight‘ running in October!