12 Tips for Better Sleep: Part 4—Avoid Drinking Alcohol
It seems that writing these posts doesn’t really make me the “cool kid.” Last time, I told you to stop drinking caffeine and to quit smoking. And now, I’m telling you to stop drinking alcohol. I understand if you don’t want to invite me to your next party. But the joke’s on you, because I’ll be at home getting the best sleep of my life.
Now, onto our next tip to help you improve your sleep and ruin parties: avoid alcoholic drinks.
It might sound counterintuitive to avoid alcohol in order to improve your sleep. After all, alcohol is a depressant, so it actually makes you sleepy. So, if you want to fall asleep quicker, shouldn’t you have alcohol before bed?
While it’s a common misconception that alcohol helps you fall asleep easier and gives you a sounder sleep, drinking actually leads to lower sleep quality. You only think you slept like a log because you can’t remember all your night awakenings … you know, because of the alcohol.
If you’re still skeptical, let’s dive into how alcohol works.
How Alcohol Works
Spoiler alert: alcohol is a lot more than just social lubricant. While it has the potential to make you the life of the party, it also has the potential to destroy your sleep. Let’s take it step by step:
Step 1 – Prefrontal Cortex Sedation
Alcohol sedates your prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls impulses and behaviors. That’s why people often drink to “loosen up.” It can help relieve social anxiety, making you a little less controlled and a little more extroverted.
Step 2 – More Brain Sedation
Your prefrontal cortex is already asleep (but not real sleep), so the alcohol turns to the rest of your brain. This is the point when you start dragging and feeling sluggish. Your brain is literally turning off, and you want to fall asleep.
Step 3 – Loss of Consciousness
Eventually, alcohol will cause you to lose consciousness. When we say “lose consciousness,” it doesn’t mean you fall asleep. There’s a difference between passing out and sleeping. When you lose consciousness as a result of alcohol consumption, your brain translates the “sleep” as a light form of anesthesia. So, even though your body looks like it’s sleeping, it actually isn’t getting the benefits of sleep.
Step 4 - Awakenings
We’ve all had those nights where our sleep feels constantly interrupted, and then when it’s time to get up in the morning, it feels like you didn’t sleep at all. Well, that’s what alcohol does to your sleep. Alcohol fragments sleep. It causes brief awakenings throughout the night, which means you don’t get the restorative sleep you need to function the next day. But the drinker thinks they got deep, uninterrupted sleep simply because they don’t remember anything after they passed out.
Step 5 – Suppressed REM Sleep
Alcohol suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the sleep stage when you have the most vivid dreams. It’s also the most important sleep stage for cognitive functions, like memory, learning, and creativity.
When the body metabolized alcohol, it releases chemicals that block your brain’s ability to generate REM sleep. That means you don’t dream. It also impairs your brain’s ability to form and recall memories. And if you are deprived of dream sleep long enough, it can lead to all kinds of crazy problems (e.g. hallucinations, delusions, disorientation).
Most of the other sleep tips we’ve shared come with some exceptions. Don’t drink caffeine; but if you do, have it in the morning. Don’t exercise at night; but if you do, don’t exercise right before bed.
So, if you’re going to drink alcohol, start drinking in the morning. Just kidding! That’s terrible advice. Don’t do that.
The truth is, if you want to lessen the effects of alcohol on your sleep, you need to abstain from alcohol. I know; it’s a total bummer. But if you want better sleep and brain function, avoiding alcohol is the only guaranteed way to do that.
If you missed our first three sleep-tip posts, check them out here:
Part 2—Exercise at the Right Time
Part 3—Avoid Caffeine and Nicotine