Alcohol ruins your dream sleep

After a long night of partying and drinking, the usual stop at late night, and the seemingly endless walk back to your dorm room, nothing sounds better than rolling into bed for a good night's sleep. The idea of a “nightcap” has long been recommended as a means of falling asleep, but most people are unaware that alcohol can actually have negative effects on sleep quality, according to a new study published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The sleep cycle is an intricate process made up of five distinct stages.

  • N1: This is a transition between state of wakefulness and sleep. The N1 stage only makes up about 5 percent of the total night’s sleep.
  • N2: In this second stage heart rate and breathing slow.
  • N3: This stage involves the deepening of sleep and the introduction of slow-wave sleep. The body and brain need this time to recover and repair.
  • N4: Slow-wave sleep is continued in the N4 stage. Energy is restored both physically and mentally. This stage is the key to feeling refreshed.
  • REM: REM sleep is the stage in which dreams occur. It is the peak of brain activity, and it is the deepest part of the sleep cycle.

It is true that alcohol can promote the first stages of the sleep cycle, as it is known to reduce the time required to fall asleep. However, each stage of sleep is important in its own right. In the first part of the cycle, alcohol actually promotes rest, but over the course of the night, alcohol can take a toll on the night’s sleep patterns. Alcohol decreases REM sleep, the deepest sleep, along with the other stages of deep sleep.  It also shortens the total sleeping time due to waking in the night as alcohol is metabolized.

The stages of deep sleep are key to storing memory and learning. They are essential for a strong immune system, and they are important in the physical restoration and healing of muscle, tissue, and bone.

Robyn Priest of Boston College’s Office of Health Promotion has been working to promote the value of sleep through the Office of Health Promotion’s “Sweet Dreamzzz” Campaign. The motto of this yearlong effort is “Sleep for health. Sleep smart. Sleep for 8.” These three main messages are conveyed across campus in the form of graphics and posters.

Photo courtesy of BC Office of Health Promotion

Photo courtesy of BC Office of Health Promotion

The “sleep for health” stage of the campaign focuses on the benefits of sleep and the risks and impacts associated with a lack of sleep. The “sleep smart” effort has been centered on eight main tips for improving sleep, and one of these tips is actually to avoid alcohol around bedtime. The “sleep for 8” stage will be revealed after Easter Break, and it will be helpful, considering that most BC students get around six to seven hours of sleep, which is not ideal.

Dr. Roxanne Prichard of the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota’s Psychology Department has researched the effects of alcohol on sleep. Prichard said that it is important to know that “going to bed tipsy or drunk actually disrupts two nights of sleep. The first night, sleep is fragmented and REM sleep is reduced." She added, "The second night, your body makes up for the lost REM sleep in a phenomenon known as ‘REM rebound’ in which you can have more intense or disturbing dreams.”

Prichard also clarified that deep sleep is suppressed by alcohol because of the fact that it is a depressant. “It acts like the neurotransmitter GABA in many ways, and tricks the brain into being more inhibited than it normally is," she said. "With all that inhibition, the brain has a harder time activating itself to the highly active REM sleep state.”

The most important factors to take into consideration when studying the effects of alcohol on sleep quality is the amount of alcohol ingested and the time elapsed between drinking and sleeping. A drink or two may not pack as much of a punch as several cans, according to Prichard. However, “one or two drinks consumed close to bedtime will still change sleep architecture in many people. In other words, the timing of when someone is in deep slow wave sleep and active REM sleep will be altered,” she said.

When going to sleep after a night of drinking, it is important that the effects of alcohol have worked off to give each sleep stage a chance to run its course. Be sure to keep all of this in mind for a healthy sleep next weekend!

 Feature photo courtesy of calispera/Flickr



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I'll pack my favorite red slippers when I become an astronaut. Colored pencil enthusiast, mother of parasites, part-time pilot. Runs in large circles and obsesses over dogs.