Alcohol can disrupt sleep and how to drink less without even trying

I came across this report this week, which focuses on research (as yet, unpublished) which, apparently, finds that alcohol has the ability to disrupt ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) sleep. REM sleep is quite shallow sleep, and is usually the predominant form of sleep in the second half of the night. REM sleep seems to be particularly important for the maintenance of basic brain functioning and mood.

This research reminded me of a study I wrote about in 2011 which found that alcohol has the ability to disrupt the functioning of what is known as the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ during sleep. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated during rest and relaxation, and its disruption likely impairs quality of sleep too.

The report that I link to above also mentions that alcohol has the ability to help people drop into deep sleep earlier in the night, and this may promote snoring which, by interrupting oxygenation throughout the night, may contribute to a feeling of grogginess in the morning.

All this science and theory aside, what I do know is that in the real world alcohol does indeed seem to disrupt sleep quality. I have seen countless ‘drinkers’ who then drink significantly less or nothing at all for a spell report that they feel much more rested and raring to go in the morning. In fact, hardly ever is this not the case.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of drinking less or nothing at all on certain evenings. I’m a big believer that if a change in lifestyle is going to be sustainable, it must be easy and, ultimately, unconscious. For those seeking to drink less, I tend to advise focusing less on this, and more on behaviours that generally lead to less alcohol being drunk quite automatically.

In the previous blog post I link to above I suggest 3 tactics: not being hungry when we drink, not being thirst when we drink, and matching each alcoholic drink with one of water. To this, I’d like to add another tactic which is to sometimes opt for forms of alcohol we don’t especially like. The ‘nicer’ and more rewarding a drink is, the more of it we’re likely to consume. I, personally, like red wine, but I also know that even a couple of glasses plays havoc with my sleep. My default drink now is vodka, lime and soda. I don’t mind drinking it but I don’t find it particularly interesting which puts, for me, an automatic ceiling on how much of it I tend to drink. Plus, the relatively pure nature of the vodka lessens the risk of any hangover the next day.

Awhile back I wrote about motivation, and the idea that motivation to do things is easy if we perceive they will give us more pleasure and/or less pain. I know that while I prefer red wine, the pleasure I get from being sharp and alert the next day more than outweighs the pleasure of drinking a couple of glasses of red wine. With that mindset, I can honestly say I don’t ‘miss’ the red wine, and I certainly don’t miss the feeling of grogginess it tends to leave me with the morning after.

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