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New Study Shines Light on Alcohol and Sleep

Sleep researchers have long warned that drinking alcohol can wreak havoc on your ability to get a good night’s sleep. This is in direct contrast to the prevailing wisdom that having a nip or nightcap before turning in helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. Now researchers from the University of Missouri in Columbia are publishing the results of a five year study on the relationship between drinking alcohol and sleep, and their conclusions are shining a bright light on exactly what the mechanism is that makes alcohol the enemy of sleep.

The study was published in the journal Alcohol, and lead researcher, Dr. Mahash Thakkar says that their work revealed “that alcohol actually promotes sleep by affecting a person’s homeostasis, the brain’s built-in mechanism that regulates your sleepiness and wakefulness.” What this means is that when alcohol is consumed, it may make you fall asleep more quickly, but in the long run it disrupts sleep and can lead to insomnia by interfering with the body’s internal ability to regulate their body clock.

Despite the belief that Alcohol promotes sleep, it's actually sleep's enemy Despite the belief that Alcohol promotes sleep, it's actually sleep's enemy

This internal ability is known as homeostasis, and it is a process that recognizes how long a person has been asleep so that it knows when you need to wake up, and vice versa. The way that it does this is through the detection of the level of adenosine that is present in the body. Adenosine is a chemical that the body produces. It increases during times that you are awake and drops back down when you’re asleep. This cycle provides an adjusting factor so that if you go to bed earlier than you’re used to doing, the level of adenosine shifts earlier as well and you are likely to wake up in the middle of the night or extremely early. This self-regulation ensures that we get the proper amount of sleep each day, but alcohol has an effect that lifts the levels of adenosine, thus making you feel sleepy. According to the study’s co-author Dr. Pradeep Sahota, who is chair of the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology, “It’s clear that alcohol should not be used as a sleeping aid. Alcohol disrupts sleep and the quality of sleep is diminished. Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your need to go to the bathroom and causes you to wake up earlier in the morning.”

The scientists also looked into what happens when alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, as is the case following a round of binge drinking. They found that though the drinkers would fall asleep quickly, they also were awake within a few hours, and largely unable to get back to sleep. The researchers have estimated that insomnia caused by insomnia is impacting approximately twenty percent of the American public, and that the “societal costs of alcohol-related sleep disorders exceed $18 billion.”

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