Why does alcohol disrupt my sleep? And what can I do about it?
February 24, 2008 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Why does alcohol disrupt my sleep? Is there anything I can do to minimize this disruption?

When I drink too much, to the point of becoming obviously drunk, I often sleep poorly. Typically, I crash for two or three hours of deep sleep and then I wake up and am unable to get back to sleep. As the day wears on, I find myself increasingly tired and irritable. My sleep patterns are screwed up for a couple of days afterward. It's not pleasant at all. I mean, I can live with the other, classic side effects of drinking. But this drives me nuts. I've also started working out seriously; the lack of sleep makes my workouts suck. So what should I do? Are there any ways to minimize this sleep disruption, to get back to sleep after waking up?

Many thanks in advance.
posted by jason's_planet to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It might be making you snore, among other things, which can ruin your night's rest without you even knowing. I don't know what you can do, apart from sewing a tennis ball in the back of your pyjamas (if any) to stop you sleeping on your back.
posted by Phanx at 8:52 AM on February 24, 2008

This is what alcohol does. What you're describing is normal, even down to the first-half/second-half pattern. And being tired and irritable is the normal consequence of not getting enough sleep. You're not going to get around this.

Google "alcohol sleep" and you'll have hundreds of results saying the same. Might as well read the first one from the National Institutes of Health.
posted by Askr at 8:54 AM on February 24, 2008

This is typical of alcohol. Most people just don't remember it. Alcohol *does* disrupt your sleep, look it up on the web if you don't believe me.
posted by 6:1 at 8:55 AM on February 24, 2008

Umm, ditto Askr.
posted by 6:1 at 8:56 AM on February 24, 2008

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa41.htm covers most of the reasons why this would occur, but to my knowledge it's not particularly avoidable, alas.
posted by Sparx at 8:59 AM on February 24, 2008

I don't know if this is obvious but I think alcohol disrupts sleep because it makes you too relaxed to sleep.

The answer is to get drunk in the morning and by bedtime the relaxation effect will wear off and you can sleep.

Or if you want to drink with friends, don't go to bed when you come home from partying. Stay up til noon and then crash.
posted by cda at 9:07 AM on February 24, 2008

Best answer: to directly answer the question (and it is easily google-able): yes, indeed alcohol does disrupt your primary sleep patterns, specifically deleting or negatively impacting the REM phase (which is the most 'necessary' or 'restful' phase of sleep; insomniacs and those with sleep apnea typically have damaged REM states as well). EtOH intoxication also increases sleep apnea events, even in those who usually do not snore or experience sleep apnea, and additionally (which no one else mentions) the biggest detrimental affect that I tend to notice is the mild to moderate dehydration - this is, incidentally, the most profound trigger of 'hangover' symptoms (i.e. nausea, pounding headache, dry mouth, etc...).

Minimization strategy: When drinking, always, always continue drinking water. This has a twofold effect: the volume of the water keeps me from drinking 'too much' or getting as intoxicated due to sheer capacity issues. Also, it combats the dehydration. If you drink water with your booze, you won't get AS drunk, you won't get drunk as quickly, and you will suffer less hangover symptoms which will lessen the Day 2... impacts as well.

or as all my chemistry nerd friends tend to preach: "The solution to pollution is dilution".

Now, if you're simply drinking for the intoxication effect? I don't think I can help you with that.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:09 AM on February 24, 2008

Best answer: The sleep-disruptive effect of ethanol will be in the first few pages of any sleep textbook. It is attributed to its effect on neurotransmitters, particularly GABA-A receptors. Alcohol activates these receptors potently but then leaves the body quickly, producing a withdrawal syndrome that includes disordered sleep.

Some people have noted that benzodiazepines or barbiturates mitigate this effect. I read one novel where the hard-drinking protagonist took a Seconal, a long-acting barbiturate, before bed to avoid this problem. The trouble with these combinations is that benzos or barbs in combination with alcohol can produce unpredictable severe reactions such as depression of consciousness and respiratory depression. Combine these with a little vomiting to obstruct the airway and you have a recipe that has killed thousands of people, including Jimi and Janis to name just two.

Are there any ways to minimize this sleep disruption

Don't drink so much alcohol. Consider not drinking any.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:17 AM on February 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Also, the waking event after 2-3 hours of deep sleep is a typical 'stress' pattern. I don't have a good cite handy but I have read (coaching physiology) that for whatever reason a body under stress (whether work-related, alcohol-related or exercise induced) will shun REM sleep. It's a typical stress/exhaustion cycle. "Overtrained" athletes (under exercise induced stress) often complain of the "4AM wake cycle" meaning they fall into an exhausted, dreamless (non-REM) sleep pattern, then wake suddenly at 3 or 4 AM, unable to return to sleep. I myself have experience this both after a night out on the town and as a result of overtraining. It's like someone turns on a light in my brain or something, and I can't get back to sleep.

It's a personal hypothesis, and one I can really only say is anecdotal or shaky, but my theory is that if you stress your body, whether with the typical "fight-or-flight" brain chemistry of a horrid job or competitive exercise, or a slug of EtOH, for whatever reason the body thinks it's under attack and doesn't feel it has the 'luxury' of REM-state sleep. Whatever, it seems to be a pattern. Dunno if that helps, but it's what I've noticed.
posted by lonefrontranger at 9:17 AM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Its also worth noting that you may have sleep apnea and may not know it. Alcohol makes it much worse.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:06 AM on February 24, 2008

IANAD, but many years of experimentation and observation have taught me that most mood-altering drugs have a boomerang effect. For example, people who take stimulants for the "up" often feel depressed as those drugs wear off. I believe this is caused by our systems' attempts to re-establish equilibrium overshooting the goal.

When you get drunk and crash, you're entering a state of unconsciousness that is, at least partially, alcohol induced. As the alcohol wears off, you wake up.

I think the best way to avoid this, is not to go to bed drunk, or at least, not to drink a lot right before bed. Taper off toward the end of the night, then go for a walk or get something to eat before you finally hit the sack.
posted by timeistight at 10:24 AM on February 24, 2008

I stay away from anything mixed with Coke or Energy Drinks if I'm drinking at night. The caffeine and suger causes even more havoc with my sleeping.
posted by cholly at 7:52 PM on February 24, 2008

Best answer: Take mirtazapine (generic Remeron). It's classified as an antidepressant, but it's used most often for sleep problems. I have sleep issues without alcohol. Remeron is known to increase the amount of REM sleep. For me, it seems to put me into REM sleep immediately and I stay there all night. Since I like dreaming this is usually good. And it doesn't leave me groggy the next day like Benadryl does. With insurance, a bottle of 30 generic pills costs me $5.00.
posted by muzzlecough at 8:39 PM on February 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

From the National Institute of Health's (NIH) page on mirtzapine:

"It may take several weeks or longer for you to feel the full benefit of mirtazapine. Continue to take mirtazapine even if you feel well. Do not stop taking mirtazapine without talking to your doctor."

Are you sure you want to take a chronic medication?

It would be simpler and safer to drink less and so not cause the sleep disruption in the first place; among other things, mirtzapine has a small chance of increasing suicidal tendencies in people under the age of 24, according to the link above.
posted by zippy at 1:23 AM on February 25, 2008

I doubt many people would agree you're working out seriously, if you regularly binge drink (which in your case also disrupts your sleep).

Q. Will alcohol effect my muscle gain?

A. Alcohol is very fattening and it also retards muscle growth. Not only due to hangovers lowering your workout intensity, but it actually lowers protein synthesis by twenty percent! There are several reasons why it does this. For one, it dehydrates your muscle cells. As many know, hydrated and even over hydrated muscles (like when you take creatine) allows for a much higher anabolic environment. Because your cells aren't holding as much water, it becomes much harder to build muscle.

The second reason why alcohol can severely hurt muscle growth is because it blocks the absorption of many important nutrients that are key to muscle contraction, relaxation and growth including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and potassium.

The third way that alcohol actually lowers testosterone and increases estrogen! Yes, you read that right. In one study, men's testosterone levels were measured before and after consumption of alcohol. At the most intoxicated state, testosterone levels had dropped to an average of 25% lower.

To Conclude: Alcohol and bodybuilding do not mix and will cause you to gain fat and lose muscle in the long run. from
posted by ersatz at 3:01 AM on February 25, 2008

Best answer: Alcohol supresses REM sleep. There are two types of sleep; slow-wave or deep sleep, and REM. Slow wave sleep (SWS) is most prevalent early at night. REM pressure increases as the night proceeds. What's probably happening is that as you're coming out of one of your periods of SWS, your brain wants to go into REM but the alcohol is blocking it. So you wake up. The sluggishness and irritability is just a function of sleep loss.

The secret is to drink less. Sorry, but there it is.
posted by Eideteker at 5:47 AM on February 25, 2008

Zippy: I recommend caution when using any drug, prescribed or not. My personal policy is informed experimentation.

For me, mirtazapine works within an hour. No need to build up. I don't take it every night. Often I take half a 15 mg pill. The next morning, the only sign that I've taken it is a restful sleep with a lot of dreams. No mood changes at all.

Drug warnings aren't indicative of a normal (?) person's experience. Think about the propaganda on marijuana. So even the cautions should be read with caution.
posted by muzzlecough at 12:52 PM on February 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you all very much for your help with my question.
posted by jason's_planet at 3:03 PM on February 25, 2008

ersatz: "To Conclude: Alcohol and bodybuilding do not mix and will cause you to gain fat and lose muscle in the long run. from"

That's a site with lots of anecdotal sayings but little proof, FYI.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 5:14 PM on February 25, 2008

The quotes that have references on that site don't say anything about alcohol making you lose muscle and gain fat.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2008

Nope. But they say alcohol should be avoided.
posted by ersatz at 3:07 PM on February 26, 2008

I disagree strongly with the suggestion to use mirtazepine to combat the sleep disruptive effects of alcohol. The reason is that I do not agree with the philosophy of using drugs to combat the effects of other drugs.

Mirtazepine comes with side effects of its own. Are we to then pile on a third neuroactive compound to mitigate those side effects? What about the side effects of the third drug? Do we add a fourth drug to deal with those?

One look at a patient with tardive dyskinesia, or oculogyric crisis, or neuroleptic malignant syndrome ought to be enough to convince anyone not to use a neuroleptic like mirtazepine unless it is strictly necessary.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:09 AM on February 27, 2008

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