Hangover? Insomnia?
January 29, 2005 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes after a night of drinking, I will wake up after sleeping only about six hours, sometimes less, and no matter what I do I can't get back to sleep. What's going on? [+]

Last night was a good example. I had five beers, enough for me to get a little drunk (what can I say, I'm a light-weight), but certainly not enough that I was passing out or that I was hung over this morning. I went to sleep around 1:00, and then woke up at 7:00. Because I knew I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep, I just went ahead and got up. Here is what I have learned from the other times it has happened:

Right now I have a schedule where I am getting up at 7:00 every day during the week, so that's the obvious culprit, but even when I'm not having to get up early this will happen.
When this happens, it is always around 6:00-7:00 that I wake up. When I do not have anything to drink (or only a little), I always sleep for at least 8 hours, and can sleep in as late as 10:00 if I have been up late enough. I have never had problems of any kind with sleeping.

When this happens, no matter how long I stay in bed, I cannot get back to sleep. Last time it happened I went to bed at 3:00 and woke up at 6:00 (that was the most extreme example). I stayed in bed for 2 hours and finally gave up.

I am not waking up because I have to use the bathroom. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

Does anybody know what's going on, or have a similar experience? This doesn't really bother me because I only ever drink on the weekends, and I just take a nap later in the day if I feel like I need it, but I am really curious about why this happens. Thanks.
posted by Who_Am_I to Food & Drink (20 answers total)
Although alcohol is a depressant it also dehydrates you. This means that generally you will fall asleep (or pass out) after drinking, but there is a rebound effect that will cause you to wake up because your body craves water. Try drinking water after drinking, although as you noted, this makes some people wake up having to go to the bathroom. Alternatively, keep a bottle of water by the bed and drink it when you wake up, it may help you fall back asleep.

Do you feel hung over when you wake up?
posted by sic at 4:49 AM on January 29, 2005

sic: I usually drink quite a lot of water during the day (about 2 liters/day), although that may still be it. But no, I definitely don't feel hung over when this happens.
posted by Who_Am_I at 4:58 AM on January 29, 2005

I don't have an explanation, but I can relate that something similar happens to me too. The only differences are that a) I usually wake up around 3-4 a.m., and b) I can get back to sleep after 1-2 hours awake. But yeah, it's the same kind of thing you describe: go to bed maybe a bit drunk, not hung over when I wake up.

The only other thing I've noticed is that it's more likely to happen if I've also had a late-night "snack" (more likely approaching "small meal" than actual "snack") along with my drinking. I think the full stomach may have something to do with it.

On the plus side, I caught a good part of the Roddick-Hewitt match at the Australian Open live early Friday morning (Friday evening Australian time).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:09 AM on January 29, 2005

could it be because you've had a pile of carbohydrates just before you went to sleep? maybe the alcohol is good enough to get you zzzs for a few hours, but when it wears off you're body is still saying "oooh, energy!". i know that if i eat carbos just before going to bed i have a hard time getting to sleep, even if tired. also, i find a couple of beers the night before helps my running next morning, which could be the same thing (coming soon - the beer-based training plan).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:26 AM on January 29, 2005

ps and wine doesn't have the same effect on me (don't drink much spirits), which is supporting evidence, perhaps.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:27 AM on January 29, 2005

Alcohol disturbs sleep cycles. From Dreamdoctor.com [link is a bit dodgy]:

Avoid alcohol 4-5 hours prior to sleep. Alcohol helps us fall asleep more quickly, but it always disturbs sleep later in the night. If you suffer from difficulty maintaining sleep during the night (insomnia type #2), alcohol consumption should be your first line of inquiry. Alcohol reduces REM and deep sleep, and causes frequent arousals in the latter part of the sleep cycle. Thirty million Americans used alcohol to “help” their sleep last month—but the results always are the same. More “wide awake at 3 a.m. syndrome!”

For my own part, I have found, like andrew cooke, that wine does help me sleep more soundly, but I should qualify that. Only red wine helps me and only if I haven't had too much of it (more than 2-3 glasses will cause the same phenomenon above). The sugars in white wine seem to have the opposite effect on me.
posted by psmealey at 6:00 AM on January 29, 2005

I can't back this up with anything, but I heard/read/saw somewhere that when your body metabolizes alcohol, one of the side products is adrenaline, and that's what screws up your sleep.

I have the same problem unless I get completely blotto the night before. Then I can sleep fine, but the world is one big throbbing problem when I finally wake up the next morning.
posted by jennyb at 6:58 AM on January 29, 2005

Wow, thanks folks (especially psmealey)!
posted by Who_Am_I at 7:58 AM on January 29, 2005

I've also found that alcohol reduces the amount I have to sleep. One beer won't do it - it needs to be around 4 or 5 drinks to have the effect. When I awake after 5 hours or so, I am refreshed and don't need to sleep any more; usually if left to myself I'll sleep 8.5 or 9 hours.

I am a neurologist and have studied quite a bit about sleep architecture, but I am at a loss to explain this. It's not a negative effect, or being dehydrated, or having to get up to urinate - it's a matter of sleep being more efficient.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2005

I have had the same experience as ikkyu2. As long as I drink more than a couple (I hardly drink beer, so that would be wine or spirits), pace it well, and don't have so much as to be hung over, I can go to sleep quite late and wake up after a lot less sleep than I would normally get. And it's refreshing sleep - when I get up I can start right in on the day's work, which I can't do very well otherwise (I need a lot of time to wake up and adjust; I'm not a morning person). Later on I'll probably need to crash out and nap a bit, but that doesn't have any adverse effect.

I found when I lived in Spain that the cultural schedule worked excellently with this - eat dinner late, go out and party, wake up the next day, do whatever, get a siesta after lunch, get back up and do more, then out to socialize and eat dinner late again. I always wondered how people there managed on shorter stretches of sleep until I was doing the same thing myself. It does seem to make your sleep more efficient. I too am curious to know why, but find it interesting that there are cultures that seem made to take advantage of this phenomenon.
posted by Melinika at 9:31 AM on January 29, 2005

A 20 minute review of Medline on the topic shows a great deal about alcohol's purported harmful effects on sleep, including next-day performance reduction. One study shows decreased sleep latency and increased deep sleep; REM was decreased. This was done in insomniacs and the study seems to suggest they were benefited by moderate alcohol.

Studies in middle aged healthy men, young people, and general adults suggest sleep effiency is impaired; studies of diagnosed chronic alcoholics show, expectedly, that their sleep efficiency is not very good.

So that really doesn't answer our question, does it?
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:37 AM on January 29, 2005

I can't back this up with anything, but I heard/read/saw somewhere that when your body metabolizes alcohol, one of the side products is adrenaline,

Not true. IAAB. (I am a biochemist. OK, not a practicing one, but I do have a biochemistry degree.) Alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase; acetaldehyde is converted to acetate by a number of enzymes, primarily aldehyde dehydrogenase 2. Acetate is basically non-toxic and produced naturally in the body by a host of other reactions as well. The two reactions also involve the conversion of the coenzyme NAD+ to NADH, which also occurs in a whole host of other metabolic processes not involving alcohol. Adrenaline doesn't enter into it at any point.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:00 AM on January 29, 2005

this will explain everything
posted by fake at 10:24 AM on January 29, 2005

Alcohol intake causes a boost to our circulating levels of estrogen, which has many neurostimulatory effects and in excessive levels is a potent sleep disruptor. This is one reason why male alcoholics tend to have feminizing characteristics as their disease progresses. And it's this effect that is why perimenopausal women or women who have strongly disruptive hormone cycles are advised to avoid alcohol intake.

(And yes, both men and women have estrogen--you guys produce yours as post-menopausal women do: via your adrenal glands. )
posted by salt at 10:25 AM on January 29, 2005

I took a substance abuse class a long time ago and we were told that all drugs have a rebound effect. The initial high is mirrored by a low when it wears off and vice versa.
Alcohol, being a CNS depressant, puts you to sleep and as it wears off the rebound effect keeps you awake.
posted by prjo at 10:58 AM on January 29, 2005

I was reading an article called Good Sleep, Good Leaning, Good life. It mentions why alcohol might lead to alcoholics insomnia or inability to fall back to sleep.
posted by bobadoci at 11:40 AM on January 29, 2005

Thanks, DevilsAdvocate. I'll stop spreading that little nugget of misinformation!
posted by jennyb at 1:28 PM on January 29, 2005

Alcohol intake causes a boost to our circulating levels of estrogen... via your adrenal glands. )

Maybe that's where jennyb's adrenaline story got started...
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on January 29, 2005

I had five beers, enough for me to get a little drunk (what can I say, I'm a light-weight)

I know you were being facetious, but you're not a light-weight -- you're just normal. I have a friend who has such a high functional tolerance that even after ten beers the only perceptible sign of inebriation is a bit redness in her eyes. She's also an alcoholic. Being able to hold your drink is not, to me, a sign of strength.

As for the sleep issue, I become insomniac on liquor. On beer, I get incredibly tired. After the first beer I become a serial yawner; it's so bad that when I reach for the fifth or sixth beer, I can barely keep my head up. (I'm known as the guy who falls asleep in stairways.)
posted by gentle at 12:27 AM on January 30, 2005

It's not the case that you drink a shot of whiskey and suddenly you get a "boost" of estrogen and grow breasts. Chronic alcoholics show gynecomastia because of liver and testicular damage; the liver enzymatic pathways that deal with sex steroids are disrupted.

Alcohol intake does acutely alter brain levels of GABA, norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and serotonin, but this effect is neurotransmitter-mediated.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:05 AM on January 30, 2005

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