When you are having difficulty getting to sleep, have you had a drink to relax you and make sleep more likely? This is understandable. In fact, alcohol is a depressant and sleep is more likely. Unfortunately, there are serious issues with using alcohol as a sleep aid.
Insomnia is a risk factor for alcoholism precisely because people use alcohol to help them sleep. Unfortunately, over time, as the insomnia worsens and the body develops a tolerance to alcohol, it takes greater quantities of alcohol to send people to sleep. It’s a slippery slope to alcoholism.
There is a second problem with alcohol use as a sleep aid: it affects sleep architecture. What is sleep architecture? Sleep architecture is the technical term used for the cycle of sleep stages that you pass through each night in your sleep. As you sleep, you move between different stages of sleep, from the lightest levels of sleep as you first fall asleep, to the deepest levels of sleep where healing and restoration occur. Dream sleep is another stage of sleep you move through each night. When a person uses alcohol as a sleep aid, this cycling between stages is effected. Many prescription drugs and substances such as alcohol and marijuana affect sleep architecture, or how people cycle through their sleep stages. In the case of alcohol, it begins acting upon the body as a depressant which helps sleep. At this same time, however, it also suppresses REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep in which most dreams occur.
REM or dream sleep is important to human functioning and one reason we know this is that the body protects it. That is, if the body is deprived of REM sleep, the brain makes up for this shortage at the first opportunity. This is called REM rebound. When a person consumes alcohol, it has the effect of suppressing REM sleep in the first half of the night. Knowing about REM rebound, can you guess what happens? That’s right, in the second half of the night, more of the person’s sleep is spent in the REM stage of the cycle, making up for the lost dreaming in the first half of the night. (And if you are a person who suffers from nightmares, odds are good that the second half of your night will be plagued with nightmares).
There’s an additional drawback to the use of alcohol as a sedative and sleep aid: it turns on you. Because of the way alcohol is metabolized within the body, about half way through the night, the alcohol turns into a stimulant. People who use alcohol as a sleep aid often find themselves wide awake half way through the night. The very substance which seemed to help defeat sleep-onset insomnia at the beginning of the night is now the cause of sleep maintenance insomnia or early awakening insomnia.
Please know that I’m not saying the one glass of wine you have with dinner is problematic. What is important is that you be aware that purposefully consuming alcohol in order to fall asleep is a sleep tactic which has significant drawbacks, not least of which is raising the risk of developing alcoholism.
If you rely on alcohol to help you fall asleep at night, I invite you to call me. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia is a proven and effective treatment for sleep problems that can free you of any reliance on alcohol for sleep. Let’s set up a 15-20 minute session to talk about this. You can do this online through the client portal or by calling me at (816) 226-4678.