Alcohol interferes with the brain’s built-in system for regulating sleep, and this can result in insomnia, according to new research from the University of Missouri published in the international biomedical journal Alcohol.
Alcohol is known to be a powerful sleep inducer. But the new research, which looked at the relationship between alcohol consumption and sleeping patterns in lab subjects over a five-year period, found that alcohol interferes with the brain’s mechanism for regulating the need for sleep.
“The prevailing thought was that alcohol promotes sleep by changing a person’s circadian rhythm the body’s built-in 24-hour clock,” said Mahesh Thakkar, the study’s lead researcher. “However, we discovered that alcohol actually promotes sleep by affecting a person’s sleep homeostasis.”
Sleep homeostasis is how the body balances a person’s need for sleep depending on how long he or she has been awake. If an individual loses sleep, the body produces adenosine, a naturally occurring substance that increases the need for sleep. When a person goes to sleep early, the sleep homeostasis is shifted and he or she may find themselves waking up in the middle of the night.
According to Dr Pradeep Sahota, a co-author of the study: “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 research also looked at how alcohol withdrawal affects sleep. It found that after long periods of frequent drinking subjects would fall asleep as expected, but then wake after only a few hours and be unable to fall back asleep. When not given alcohol, the researchers found, the subjects showed symptomatic insomnia.
They also discovered an increase in wakefulness with a reduction in rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement sleep, causing insomnia-like symptoms and suggesting an impaired sleep homeostasis.
These new findings provide an important insight into the link between alcohol consumption and sleep, the lead researcher says: “Approximately one third of our life is spent sleeping. Coupled with statistics that show 20 percent of people drink alcohol to sleep, it’s vital that we understand how the two interact.”
The lesson is clear, concludes Thakkar: “If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, don’t use alcohol.”
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | February 26, 2020