How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep, Body and Mind

Last updated on : February 16 2021

Bar full of alcohol

The Dangers Of Alcohol

Whether it's celebrating a wonderful birthday or just having a quick drink with friends, many of us enjoy indulging in the odd beer or a glass of wine. 

But have you ever wondered what drinking might be doing to our bodies? Let's take a closer look.

A. How Alcohol Affects Our Sleep

You might have heard relatives or friends say alcohol can help us get some rest after a hectic or emotionally turbulent day. We might even know people who have come to rely on alcohol as a sleep aid. So does it work? 

Alcohol leads to feelings of relaxation, sure, and many of us will be familiar with the sleepiness that can suddenly seize us after a few drinks. 

This sleepiness is because alcohol depresses our nervous system and so leads to the quicker onset of sleep. In this sense, then, alcohol can help us get to sleep.  

Unfortunately, alcohol doesn't help us stay asleep. It does the opposite. 

1. Alcohol Interrupts our Sleep Cycles

Alcohol has both sedative and stimulant effects on our bodies. And this is why alcohol consumption will not give us quality sleep. 

We all have sleep cycles. Going through our sleep cycles entirely and with as few interruptions as possible is essential so that we get the sleep we need for our minds and bodies to feel refreshed. Unfortunately, alcohol interrupts our sleep cycles in several ways.

Sleep breaks down into four major stages, a group of three non-rapid eye movement (NREM) periods and a period of rapid-eye-movement (REM). Each cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes, and generally, we go through about four to six cycles every night of healthy sleep. 

If we've had an evening of heavy drinking, we can struggle to reach the REM sleep stage for at least a couple of our sleep cycles through the night. While not fully understood, experts believe REM sleep is essential for forming memories and maintaining our waking brainpower.

There are several things behind this interruption to REM sleep, but one reason is that alcohol appears to stop our bodies from producing as much melatonin. This hormone helps us get to sleep and aids us as we move through our sleep cycles. 

2. Alcohol Makes Us Need to Pee

That's not just because alcohol is a liquid either, but also because alcohol is a diuretic meaning it makes us want to urinate more. The need to urinate leads to more bathroom visits throughout the night, interrupting our sleep further. 

Alcohol consumption can also lead to night sweats, where we perspire despite sleeping in a cool bedroom. Frequent alcohol intake might also increase the risk of sleep apnea or interrupted breathing during sleep. 

3. Drinking Alcohol When We're Young Might Impact Our Sleep In Later Life

Research shows that for men, and to a lesser extent for women, there could be a link between heavy drinking in early to mid-life and insomnia in later years, though other factors probably also contribute. 

Sleeplessness and insomnia can lead to many health complications, including weakening our immune systems and chronic inflammation, so losing sleep because of alcohol isn't something to take lightly.

B. Alcohol And Our Bodies 

Girl drinking beer

Let's get the hard truth out of the way right up front: while a refreshing drink now and then is unlikely to cause us harm, there isn't a "safe" level of alcohol consumption and, when we do drink, it impacts every organ in our bodies.  

While we all react differently to alcohol, women retain more alcohol in their bloodstreams than men when they drink the same volume. There are several reasons for this. 

We all have an enzyme in our stomachs that helps to neutralize alcohol, but women have less of this enzyme than men, so their bodies' alcohol concentration remains higher. 

Compared to male bodies, women's bodies usually have less water and more fat, so the concentration is higher. Due to this, women may struggle to stay hydrated while drinking alcohol. 

1. Alcohol And The Dreaded Hangover

You've drunk too much, and now you have a hangover from hell. But why?

The stabbing headaches that are an easy to recognize part of hangovers come from dehydration. Being dehydrated can cause electrolyte imbalances, which can make us tired and give us fever-like symptoms. 

Nausea can also be a significant element of a hangover, and this comes from alcohol irritating our stomachs and making them produce more acid. These symptoms will usually disappear within 24 hours but can last longer, particularly as we age.  

2. Alcohol And Weight Gain

Alcohol is high in calories. If we consume more calories than we burn, then those excess calories are stored as fat. As such, alcohol drinking can lead to weight gain. 

The science on whether alcohol calories can drive weight gain in habitual drinkers is complex, and scientists believe many factors might contribute, including genetic factors.

However, there is evidence that alcohol consumption is a risk factor for people struggling with calories, mainly from high-fat diets and those already dealing with overweight or obese issues. 

3. Alcohol May Increase Heart Disease and Stroke Risk

While some research says red wine can be useful for our hearts because it contains antioxidants, doctors caution us about taking this as an excuse to drink more. 

There is a substantial body of evidence that excessive alcohol consumption raises the risk of high blood pressure 

Research published in 2020 also shows a direct or "causal" link between alcohol consumption and increased risk of stroke and peripheral arterial disease.

So we shouldn't drink to promote heart health, as the health risks likely outweigh any benefits. 

4. Alcohol's Effects On Our Liver

From everyday tasks like helping us digest our food and regulating our blood sugar to things like helping to get rid of toxins in our bodies and aiding us in fighting diseases, our livers are little superheroes. 

Alcohol, though, is like kryptonite. Every time our livers filter out alcohol from our bodies, some liver cells die. Our livers do have a nifty way of regenerating, but if we drink heavily over many years, our livers can't heal as efficiently anymore. 

When this happens, we are at risk for a range of liver diseases, including alcoholic hepatitis and liver scarring, both of which can be fatal if not treated.

5. Alcohol And Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, there is a "strong" scientific agreement that alcohol can increase certain cancers' risk. 

These cancers include: 

● colorectal cancer

● esophageal cancer

● breast cancer 

● head and neck cancers 

● liver cancer  

While undergoing cancer treatment, any alcohol consumption is also something doctors generally do not recommend because it can impact many essential body processes, including our white and red blood cell production. 

6. Alcohol And Our Skin

We already know that alcohol consumption can potentially lead to certain skin cancers. The effects are not always this extreme, but that doesn't mean they aren't visible on our faces and skin.  

One of the easiest to recognize signs of excessive alcohol drinking is facial redness. Excessive alcohol can also lead to spider veins, hyperpigmentation, and, in extreme cases, jaundice or the yellowing of our eyes and skin that indicates liver disease. 

7. Alcohol And Fertility

Alcohol reduces our inhibitions, which in turn can mean we are more open to sexual experiences. However, alcohol's depressive effect can lower sexual potency, compromising erection quality or inhibiting vaginal lubrication. 

Excessive alcohol consumption can also impair our ability to get pregnant. Some research suggests that even moderate drinking can impact a woman's fertility. 

C. Alcohol's Effect On Our Minds

Alcohol is known for lowering our inhibitions and making us feel relaxed, making us feel better at parties and other situations we might find stressful. 

With that comes a range of other effects, which become more apparent the more we drink. These can include impairing our ability to judge situations through to making it difficult to do complex tasks like driving or even walking and talking at the same time. 

1. Why We Can Still Be Drunk When We Don't Feel It

Research shows that after being drunk, we recover different skills at different rates.  

Usually, we recover our ability to coordinate our bodies faster than we regain our ability to judge situations properly. This inconsistency is why we might feel like we are okay to drive. But we mustn't do as we are still impaired and could have an accident.

2. Alcohol and Mental Health

If we have underlying mental health conditions, such as diagnosed depression, alcohol can worsen the problem because it affects the hormones that we use to regulate our moods, like serotonin

Alcohol can also interfere with medications we might be prescribed to help treat mental health conditions. This interference can range from reducing their effectiveness to interacting with them in potentially dangerous ways like raising our blood pressure. 

Drinking alcohol is also often associated with mental illness. However, the association likely works both ways. For example, people may drink because they are depressed and become more depressed because they are drinking more.

3. Alcohol Can Change our Brains, Too

Scientists have observed that the brains of people who drink heavily for long periods seem to have smaller frontal lobes. Scientists had concluded this meant that alcohol was shrinking people's brains. 

However, research published in "Biological Psychiatry" in 2019 suggests that people who have smaller frontal lobes might be at greater risk of developing drink problems.

Research also shows us that long-term or acute heavy drinking can impact our memories, lead to blackouts, and even lead to severe disorders that further impair learning and memory recall.

D. Alcohol And Us: Being Mindful

Row of alcoholic beverages

While there is technically no safe limit of alcohol, that doesn't mean that we can't enjoy a drink now and again if we are otherwise healthy adults. 

Here are a few takeaways to keep in mind:

● Don't drink every day. 

● Only have one or two small drinks.

● Try not to drink too close to bedtime as it can interrupt our sleep.

● Avoid drinking if trying to get pregnant or are on medication.

● Consider avoiding drinking if struggling with mental health. 

Even moderate drinking can impact our lives in far-reaching ways, so being mindful of when we drink, how much we consume, and the reasons we are drinking can help us make sure that we're drinking responsibly and safely.

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Editor: Charles Fitzgerald

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