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Night Time Alcohol and Its Impact on Sleep

If you’ve been finding yourself inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night and unable to easily fall back to sleep — and especially if this is happening in the second half of the night — then you might want to check and see if your night time drinking habits might be the cause. Though many people think that having a glass of wine or a nightcap before bed is a good way to send themselves off to sleep, it turns out that doing so may actually be what is responsible for your late night awakenings or that sense of not being well-rested that you’re experiencing in the morning.

Alcohol has long been used as a way to relax, and there’s no question that it has a pleasant, sedating effect. But it turns out that the price that you pay for being able to fall asleep more easily and quickly is a significant decline in the quality of the sleep that you get during the rest of the night. Studies have shown that when you drink alcohol in the evening it reduces the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that you get. REM sleep is the stage of sleep that occurs about ninety minutes in to each of the several sleep cycles that we experience during the course of the night. It is the time when we experience dreams, and is thought to be the most restorative part of each night’s sleep.

According to Dr John Shneerson, head of the sleep centre at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, "Deep sleep is when the body restores itself, and alcohol can interfere with this. As the alcohol starts to wear off, your body can come out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from. That's why you often wake up after just a few hours sleep when you've been drinking." Dr. Shneerson says that when you have been drinking, there’s a high likelihood that instead of having several episodes of REM sleep throughout the night, you may only have two or three, and that’s one of the reasons that those who drink may be feeling so tired in the morning – they’re missing out on the cycle that is bound to make them feel most refreshed.

In addition to disrupted, lower quality sleep, those who drink alcohol at night are far more likely to experience episodes of sleep apnea or to awaken their bed partner with loud snoring. It is also likely to have you up in the middle of the night for the simple fact that you need to go to the bathroom in order to get rid of the extra fluid in your body. Sleep experts say that it takes about an hour per unit of drink for alcohol to burn off, so it’s best to keep your drinking to at least a couple of hours before your bedtime.

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