Today I have been alcohol free for 183 days and if you were to ask me what the biggest benefit has been, I would say sleep, sleep and more sleep. I have suffered from insomnia for years – often waking in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep, or spending the entire night simply staring at the ceiling, not getting a single wink. Everything looks worse at 4am, problems spin around your head, and lack of sleep leaves you anxious and out of sorts.
One of the reasons I started to drinking too much was because I was using alcohol as a sleep aid. I am not alone. A recent survey found 20 percent of adults in the UK rely on alcohol to fall asleep. But the truth is, drinking regularly – even moderate drinking – is much more likely to interfere with your sleep than assist it.
Alcohol alters our circadian rhythms, suppresses melatonin and significantly disrupts sleep and dreaming. Studies have found that while alcohol helps induce sleep, it reduces the period of REM or rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after we first drop off. It’s the stage when people dream and it’s thought to be restorative. If our REM sleep is disrupted it’s likely to cause daytime drowsiness and poor concentration. Irshaad Ebrahim from The London Sleep Centre says, “the immediate and short term impact of alcohol is to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, and this effect may be partly the reason some people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid. However, this is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night.”
During the second half of your normal sleep period, alcohol causes what’s called a “rebound effect.” This is the body’s way of snapping back to normal after the alcohol that initially helped you fall asleep is processed. Instead of being drunkenly sleepy, your body bounces back to life, making you highly sensitive to your environment. Light coming through your window, the sound of a car horn outside – once the alcohol is gone from your bloodstream, the tiniest thing can jolt you awake, even though you need more rest. That’s why we often wake up crazy early for no apparent reason after having a few glasses of wine.
Alcohol is a fast-acting drug, entering the bloodstream quickly and reaching the brain within minutes. It’s a central nervous system depressant which is why it makes people feel calmer, more relaxed, and acts as a sedative. But the effects are short lived. The liver quickly metabolises the alcohol. After a short time, your body will start trying to wash it out, because it views alcohol as a toxin. This process is accomplished by pulling water from cells and flushing it out through the kidneys and bladder – making you need to pee – another reason your sleep is disrupted.
Alcohol is a potent diuretic, making you urinate more than you would when drinking the equivalent volume of non-alcoholic drinks. The reason for this is that it suppresses a hormone known as vasopressin which regulates the amount of water absorbed by the kidneys. When this hormone is low, instead of storing water, the kidneys dump it into the bladder, causing the urge to pee. And as if this wasn’t enough, alcohol can also increase the acidic content of your urine, irritating the lining of your bladder. This can make your bladder feel fuller than it really is, creating the urge to make repeated trips to the bathroom – making for some potentially very sleepless nights.
If you are someone who suffers from sleep problems, why not try the 90-day or 365-day challenge? Most people who decide to go alcohol free start seeing improvements to their sleep pattern within a few weeks. You may toss and turn a bit at first – and these problems can be worse if you have been a heavy drinker – but stick with it and the benefits are huge. The sleep you get will leave you feeling more refreshed and sharp the next day, plus your mood will improve dramatically. I’ve been sober for six months and I am sleeping better than I have in years. Before that, I had tried literally everything – Nytol, magnesium, camomile tea – you name it, I’d tried it. Going alcohol free is the first thing that’s really worked for me.
by Daisy Steel
An entrepreneur and former senior oil broker, Ruari gave up drinking after excessive consumption almost cost him his marriage, and worse, his life. Going alcohol-free improved his relationships, career and energy levels, leading to him founding OYNB to provide a support network for others.