There’s no doubt that alcohol makes you drowsy: alcohol has been used as an informal sleeping aid for ages.
Some people with chronic sleep problems even come to rely on drinking to help them drift off. In fact, studies estimate that as much as 20% of the adult population of the United States relies on alcohol in order to fall asleep every night.
This problematic habit can make people psychologically dependent on alcohol for sleep and can make it even more difficult for them to fall asleep without it. This habit also puts people at serious risk of becoming physically dependent on, or even addicted to, alcohol.
How alcohol contributes to disrupted sleep
Not only are these serious risks, but a new study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine suggests that relying on alcohol as a sleep aid may also be misguided. This research found that alcohol disrupts the body’s ability to regulate sleep, so drinkers are more likely to have a disrupted sleep experience even if the alcohol helps them to nod off initially.
The study showed that alcohol disrupts an individual’s sleep homeostasis, which is the system that the body uses to determine how long it should remain awake and how long it should sleep. Alcohol alters the body’s normal period of sleeping and waking, causing a person to wake frequently during the night or to wake early and be unable to fall back to sleep. Alcohol also reduces the amount of time that a person spends getting healthy sleep, which is sleep that naturally cycles between rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep, and non-rapid eye movement sleep.
Alcohol withdrawal also causes sleep interruptions
The Missouri study also examined the effects of alcohol withdrawal on sleep regulation and found even more significant sleep disruptions. Subjects experiencing alcohol withdrawal were often able to fall asleep normally but woke after a very short period and suffered from insomnia the remainder of the night unless they consumed alcohol.
This suggests that people who do become physically dependent on alcohol after relying on it as a sleep aid will have even more difficulty sleeping once they try to break from their alcohol habit. This reappearance of their old sleep problems could in turn make it much more difficult to stay on track when it comes to staying sober.
The study was not able to demonstrate exactly how alcohol use disrupts sleep patterns, but it laid the groundwork for future research to explore the physiological mechanisms by which alcohol interferes with sleep regulation.
Researchers warn against relying on alcohol for sleep
Relying on a highly addictive substance in order to sleep every night is always a dangerous course of action. The results of this study show that using alcohol as a sleep aid is ineffective in addition to being risky. Instead of relying on alcohol, the authors of this study advise people who suffer from chronic sleep disruptions or insomnia to consult a doctor and get a prescription for a genuine sleep aid.
Mahesh Thakkar, Ph.D., director of research at the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Neurology Department, led the study team. The results were published in Alcohol, an international biomedical journal.