Food Myth Friday: Alcohol Before Bed Helps You Sleep

Turning your mind off is tricky business. Oftentimes all of the swirling thoughts in your head seem to keep you up for hours on end when all your body wants is to catch a few hours of sweet sleep. Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to shut our overactive minds up is to grab a drink. That way, the warm drowsiness can lull us into la-la land. However, is this the best way to get some shuteye? Let's take a look!


*Yawn* How Does Sleep Work?

Well, sleep is actually a cycle. It runs something like this:

  • Stage 1: The transition between wakefulness sleep. It's that stage where you may have seen someone twitching right after they drift off. I have to watch out for my wife at this stage. She's been known to throw bows, and wake herself up to me in pain.

  • Stage 2: Body temp lowers, eyes stop moving, muscles relax, and breathing and heart rate continue to drop.

  • Stage 3: Heart rate and breathing reach their lowest point, and the body enters into slow-wave sleep.

  • REM Sleep: This is where your body performs memory consolidation. Your eye movement will restart, your breathing rate and heartbeat increase, and most of your dreams will happen during this stage. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes or so before you go back to Stage 1 sleep.


What Does Alcohol Do To This Cycle?

What it does is make Stage 1 a breeze! The sedative qualities of alcohol make us fall asleep quickly. The trouble doesn't hit until your liver enzymes start metabolizing the alcohol in your system. This can wake you from your deeper stages of sleep, disrupting your sleep cycle and causing restlessness for the rest of the night. On top of that, you may experience daytime drowsiness as well as all of the other fun side effects of alcohol the night before. Wait until those mid-thirties young 'uns; it's a treat...

The biggest threat to your health comes when you start a cycle of drinking to speed up your sleep cycle. Like anything else, you'll build up a tolerance and have to consume more and more to achieve the same effects. That brings us to what amount of alcohol constitutes "heavy" drinking.

  • 1 oz. liquor or distilled spirits with 40%+ alcohol content

  • 12 oz. beer with 5% alcohol content

  • 5 oz. of wine with 12% alcohol content

Rookie numbers. If you think the same, that might be why you're tired right now. However, if these numbers look right to you, then let's examine what even small amounts of alcohol will do to your sleep versus what heavy drinking does.

  • Low alcohol consumption decreases sleep quality by nearly 10%

  • Moderate alcohol consumption decreases sleep quality by 24%

  • Heavy alcohol consumption (more than two servings per day for men and one serving per day for women) decreases sleep quality by almost 40%

The whole women to men ratios have to do with women usually weighing less than their male counterparts. However, it also has a lot to do with women typically having less water content in their bodies. Alcohol travels in the water of our body; thus, women usually become intoxicated after fewer drinks.


So, that's busted. However, what about the myriad of sleep medications? Surely those can help where alcohol fails me! A surprising number of consumers do not realize that companies are just repackaging the same drug in a different brand to "help you sleep." You're pretty much taking Benadryl to sleep (sometimes with alcohol added). These antihistamines mimic your body's sleep cycle by blocking histamine release. This is a natural function that works to induce NREM sleep. Antihistamines also block other neural functions from happening, thus affecting the quality of your sleep cycle.

If you really want to get some sleep, then check out this link for sleep hygiene. Sleep helps in muscle growth, mental clarity, wakefulness during the day, mood, and energy levels. You absolutely want to make sure you're getting enough sleep. If you don't do it for yourself, do it for the gains.

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