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How Alcoholism Affects Your Sleep — and, in Turn, Your Life Expectancy

Do We Fall Asleep Better With Alcohol?

No, it’s the reverse!

Many may attest to the idea that alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, but its presence in the body actually disrupts sleep cycles. With prolonged use, heavy drinking can compromise the duration and quality of REM sleep, which, in turn, threatens our holistic health in many ways and compromises our quality of life.

Alcoholism is an incredibly difficult disease to -talk about and break away from — there can be little doubt on either point. But the degree to which alcoholism affects -our waking lives and voluntary and involuntary bodily functions is less widely known — and something on which our collected knowledge continues to evolve. One of these effects is sleep quality.

Among its other deleterious health effects, the influence of alcoholism on our sleep patterns is especially unheralded in -our ongoing talks and debates about fighting addiction and substance abuse — and it poses a serious risk to -our life expectancy.

How the Research Has Changed Over the Years

As it was with the venerable egg, even professional medical opinions have changed over the years when it comes to the purported healthfulness of ingesting alcohol regularly. Among other claims, conventional wisdom used to hold that drinking “moderate” — as subjective a term as one is likely to hear in a medical setting — amounts of alcohol could reduce a person’s chances of suffering from heart disease during their lifetime.

Modern research sheds serious doubt on these claims and has added a number of other concerns, besides. The latest word from the community indicates that, in a number of ways, alcohol consumption is almost universally detrimental to our long-term health, to the continuing functionality of our bodies, our mental health and, central to it all, the quality of our sleep at night.

This is true of all but the most reasonable “doses” of alcohol — to or three drinks — and over all but the shortest of short-term usage periods. Physicians are now issuing shocking warnings that drinking just one pint of beer can reduce the human lifespan by the same amount as smoking just one cigarette: 15 to 30 minutes of life.

-But how? As it turns out, a surprising number of the ways alcohol whittles down our healthy years involve sleep. And perhaps it’s not surprising after all, as sleep is the time we count on to recharge our batteries and time our bodies need to reset, re-center and repair themselves. Human brings rely on quality sleep in ways few of us are actively aware of, which makes understanding its relationship with alcohol hugely important.

Alcohol Use, Sleep Patterns, and Quality of Sleep

Understanding the effects of alcoholism on our sleep is critical -if we want to achieve a more complete understanding of this disease. Unfortunately, the collision of scientific inquiry and “conventional wisdom” means many people -have come to use alcohol in ways that reduce its already small number of possible health benefits. For example: consuming two to three alcoholic drinks before bedtime promotes sleep, but diminishing returns set in quickly -and don’t last very long.

After just three days, these benefits tend to evaporate entirely. At that point, alcohol begins to have the opposite effect as -its user likely intended, with many long-term users of alcohol reporting bouts of chronic insomnia -instead. Healthcare professionals define chronic insomnia as any difficulty falling or staying asleep that lasts for three weeks or longer. And while insomnia can have many causes – including medical complications, depression, anxiety, lifestyle changes, stress, caffeine consumption and more – alcohol consumers seem particularly at risk.

Alcohol users represent between 10 and 15 percent of all people who live with chronic insomnia. In a given year, around 10 million people seek clinical -and sometimes pharmacological assistance for their trouble sleeping, meaning alcohol’s “share” of this collective health worry has a large footprint indeed, and among a large cross-section of the general population, too, since -we know that roughly 70 percent of American adults admit to drinking alcohol on a regular basis.

The Stages of Sleep

Understanding alcohol’s larger effect on sleep requires a short refresher course on the stages of sleep themselves, including how and when the human body enters into them. Indeed, our bodies depends on each stage for a complete state of restfulness and focus, successful mood regulation, as well as somatic and involuntary functions such as digestion, muscle and tissue repair, and much more.

You may be familiar with the several stages of sleep. Non-REM (“NREM”) sleep has four stages ranging from light to heavy, followed by REM sleep itself, which promotes restfulness and general health in the human body. -The entire sleep cycle takes 90 minutes from beginning to end.

When used as a sleep aid, alcohol has an unpredictable influence on the time it takes to fall asleep — a factor called “sleep latency” — and makes it more difficult for patients to enter -and remain in a state of REM sleep -for the duration of the full sleep cycle. The negative influence of alcohol on REM sleep has been observed in clinical settings since the 1960s.

Because it is both a central nervous system depressant and stimulant, the likeliness of alcohol to contribute to restfulness and a decrease in sleep latency increases slightly as the dosage increases. -But only up to a very limited point. This effect diminishes the closer to bedtime the patient ingests alcohol and the longer the patient self-medicates with alcohol.

Beyond that point, the “hypnotic effects” of alcohol drop off, and continuing alcohol use stands a far higher chance of negatively affecting the patient’s sleep patterns -on an ongoing basis than it does addressing any chronic sleep disturbances they might be suffering from.

Alcohol as a Sleep Aid?

There are many reasons an individual might turn to alcohol for anxiety management or as a sleep aid. We can look to our youngest drinkers for some clue and insights.

Among college students alone, 68 percent admit they have attempted to manage their academic performance anxiety using alcohol. Only 11 percent of polled college students indicated they sleep well on a regular basis. These are some of the likeliest individuals to abuse alcohol, too, with far higher rates of intoxication and binge drinking reported among college students than other people around the same age.

All of this adds up to a perfect storm for students as well as anybody else who spends most of their time in high-pressure, high-stakes environments with a combination of some real, and some less concrete, time and social pressures — and other mental obstacles.

How Sleep Disturbances Compromise Life Expectancy

So — whether alcohol dependency or some other factor directly causes our sleep disturbances — what is the role restful sleep plays in our holistic health?

According to research conducted, peer-reviewed and duplicated over the decades, we have a lengthy list of potential health concerns that can arise from a lack of quality sleep, clinical insomnia or merely inconsistent sleep patterns. -The list includes:

  • Impaired daytime focus and job performance
  • Higher rates of job absenteeism
  • Dysfunctional -short and long-term memory
  • Higher risk of depression -and anxiety
  • Greater likelihood of an accident behind the wheel or while operating -heavy machinery
  • More likely to suffer a fatal stroke or heart attack
  • Chance of experiencing “microsleeps” during the day, or intense feelings of drowsiness without actually falling asleep

Research dating back to 1988 indicates that about 10 percent of all costs related to alcohol use in the United States are a direct result of insomnia, specifically. This sheds some light on the nuances of the types of harm alcohol can create, as well as on the real-world price of addiction. Given that by 2010 the collective economic burden of alcohol abuse had risen to $249 billion — or $807 per person per year — it’s clear insomnia’s “share” of the financial burden is significant and not going anywhere.

-Sometimes, it’s only after we work out the per capita price of a particular problem that things come into sharp relief. So it seems to be going with alcoholism. The sheer variety of severity of the types of harm it represents, not least of which is sleep deprivation, make it one of the most prolific killers of our time.

Each of these conditions and situations listed above represents a high cost regarding quality of life and life expectancy — not to mention a burden on our collective health, treasury and resources. As the conversation about the future of healthcare grows louder and more impassioned, we need to remember that no solution or “reform” to our healthcare system is complete without a full accounting of alcoholism’s total social cost — including all our lost sleep.

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About Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is a health researcher and journalist from Pennsylvania. Specific topics she really enjoys writing about include mental health, addiction, women's health, and the human condition. Outside of addictionblog.org, you can find her at her blog, sowellsowoman.com.