How Alcohol Messes With Your Sleep

Illustrated by Gabriela Alford.
Here's yet another reason your happy-hour habit might not be treating you too well. According to a few recent studies, alcohol can mess with our two basic weekday modes of living: working and sleeping. Unfortunately, this can lead to some big problems down the line.

One study, published last week in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, looked at the brain activity of 24 participants after they'd been drinking (to a peak breath alcohol concentration of 0.1%). On nights when they had alcohol, the participants showed significantly different brain wave patterns than on nights when they abstained. In particular, the drinkers' delta-wave patterns (normally seen in sleep) were more powerful. But, their alpha-waves — normally seen in awake people — were also stronger, suggesting that they might be feeling a competing attentiveness. So, although a nightcap might make it easier to fall asleep, it could also make that sleep less satisfying.

The other study, also published last week in the BMJ, was actually a meta-analysis of data from 61 other papers investigating our working hours and drinking habits. This included  results from over 330,000 participants and revealed a striking correlation between the amount we work and the amount we drink. Those who spend more than 48 hours per week working are more likely to be in the "risky" group of drinkers, which is defined as more than 14 drinks per week for women and over 21 drinks per week for men. The researchers found that the type of work a person did had no effect on the results; it all came down to the number of hours.

Combined, this research suggests that we might get into a cycle in which we work a lot, drink a lot, sleep badly, and then try to work again the next day. Which is, in turn, followed by more drinking, bad sleeping, and inefficient working. Considering what we know about hangovers and sleep deprivation, it's clear this vicious cycle is doing us harm. All the more reason to exercise moderation — if you stick to a modest amount of alcohol, you should be able to enjoy some benefits and still get those ZZZs. Which, in turn, will make your waking (and working) hours that much more pleasant.
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