Few things are more painful to hear than one of your favorite relaxing, fun, tasty habits may be help you wind down but in truth is actually hindering your sleep and your hormones. This is a bummer and unfortunately, it it is certainly the case when it comes to alcohol.
While there is some personal and individual responses to drinking and relationship to consuming alcohol, there are a few things we know about how it impacts our sleep and sadly, it’s not great news. And women are affected by hormonal changes impacting their sleep as well as being uniquely sensitive to alcohol related sleep disruptions.
This article will help you better understand the impact of alcohol on sleep and if it’s a habit you struggle with changing, hopefully it also helps you be more able to find and commit to what works best for you and your hormones. That’s the first pillar from Hangry – and it’s the first one because it sets a foundation for your nutrition, lifestyle and exercise habits. More on the Five Pillars here.
Ok, now on to alcohol and sleep.
Why Your Sleep After Drinking Is A Mess Even If You Drift Off Easily
While alcohol does help many people fall asleep, it causes a lot of sleep disruption throughout the night including less REM sleep, more frequent waking and often a much harder time falling back asleep after waking leaving us tired, less refreshed and often mentally sluggish, craving carbs and fighting inflammation (that can look like achiness, puffiness i.e. around the eyes and face, brain fog, etc.).
Less REM or lighter sleep may sound like a good thing as this is the lighter, more active stage of sleep vs. deeper, slow wave sleep stages. However, REM sleep is important for you memory and emotional processing as well as being a time when you make more testosterone which is important for muscle mass, fat burning, tissue healing and libido in women.
As well, it can push your REM sleep cycles later into the night meaning you get some deep sleep up front but you’re in a lighter sleep as the night goes. This is often called the “alcohol rebound effect” (1) and you may find yourself waking frequently and having difficulty falling asleep.
Basically, anything we do to disrupt the normal flow through the various stages of sleep that you should experience throughout the night (known as sleep architecture) is a problem. This happens with bright lights in the evening, a bigger evening meal, high stress before bed such as from a riveting TV show or an upsetting conversation, stressing over tomorrow or even an strenuous evening workout and of course, with alcohol.
So if you need a glass of wine to fall asleep, it may be helping get you there but it’s overall not the best quality sleep and in time, we do become less sensitive to this sleep latency effect of alcohol and we have even more sleep troubles.
Whacky Cortisol, Melatonin & Circadian Timing
Alcohol directly increases cortisol over the longer term (i.e. daily drinkers) but it can cause a spike in adrenaline or cortisol in the middle of the night after drinking thanks to a related drop in blood sugar.
When you have alcohol in your system, your liver prioritizes processing it above any food metabolism. The outcome is you won’t make as much glycogen (stored sugar) that should get you through the night without having to get up and raid the fridge. This causes waking in the night and difficulty falling back asleep, possibly even waking feeling hungry, anxious or wide awake like it’s morning and you’re raring to go….although it’s only 2:30 AM.
The closer you drink to bedtime, the more significant the impact on your sleep – so rethink the nightcap. (2)
But blood sugar isn’t the only way alcohol impacts your cortisol and circadian timing. Alcohol directly disrupts timing in your SNC (suprachiasmatic nucleus) which is the part of your brain responsible for sensing light cues that regulate your circadian rhythm.
For more on how light affects your natural rhythms and what you can do easily and inexpensively to normalize it and help balance cortisol, grab this free guide.
FREE Download - Dr Brooke's Stress Hormone Reset
Animal studies have shown that the normal response to bright light in the morning, which is to trigger cortisol release and you to wake up, is hindered for days after a night of alcohol consumption. So even those of you that only drink on the weekends, may find your sleep and energy – as well as appetite and cravings, see more for how to decipher these hormonal cues here – are not back on track till mid week.
While irregularities in cortisol will on their own disrupt circadian rhythms and thus sleep, alcohol also directly lowers melatonin making your hormonal balance ripe for sleep troubles. (3, 4)
Your Liver Is On The Clock Too
We’re finding out more and more about the innate, natural rhythms in our bodies (called chronobiology) that we once thought were unique to the brain. Turns out your body fat has a clock and your liver has a clock (5) for example and these natural, timed cycles are thrown off by abnormal sleep/wake cycles (i.e. shift work or travel), fed vs. fasted states (i.e. that big meal before bed) and you guessed it: alcohol.
While you’re asleep your liver should be getting to work. Ideally in an alcohol free, not full belly, dark, cool environment, your liver is working on metabolism of your own hormones, clearing up exposures from the day (i.e. detoxification) and working in tandem with your gut to metabolize food, regulate your immune system, lower inflammation, etc.
All of that is impacted when we drink so it’s easy to end up more inflamed (i.e. waking puffy, swollen or achy including headaches), having some digestive issues such as looser stools or bloating the next day and feeling foggy headed.
Because of your liver’s time table your optimal time to process alcohol is no surprise: happy hour. (6, 7) Early evening is the best time to drink to have a lesser impact on your circadian timing as well as your liver’s ability to do its job.
The worst time? Morning. So that boozy brunch of Bloody Mary’s or Mimosas is actually the hardest time for your body to deal with alcohol…not to mention it’s hard to get much else done the rest of the day!
One final way that your liver and cortisol are hit in a double whammy with alcohol is depleting B vitamin such as thiamine (vitamin B1), a vital nutrient when it comes to a host of reactions across your metabolism including detoxification by liver enzymes and your stress physiology. Without adequate thiamine you can suffer with low energy, exercise intolerance and trouble metabolizing carbohydrates. Other B vitamins are also depleted, such as B12, with regular alcohol consumption so it’s wise to support your metabolism and hormone balance by taking a B complex (such as this) or a multivitamin high in B vitamins (such as this) if you consume alcohol. Other nutrients that can be in short supply thanks to alcohol are vitamin c and zinc.
See this post for more info on how alcohol affects your hormones.
Get Dr Brooke’s supplement guidelines and healthier booze tips in this free guide. Cheers!
Alcohol Can Increase Inflammation
As you’ve probably heard me say before: inflammation is the great hormone mess maker as it will impact every hormone in your body to some degree making it harder for you to get into balance. It’s often the culprit when your lab tests show adequate levels of a hormone but you have all the low hormone symptoms in the book such as signs of low estrogen or low thyroid. Not to mention it plays a nasty role in most all of our chronic conditions such as cancer, autoimmunity and heart disease.
While the occasional glass of red wine or other alcoholic beverage has been shown in some research to lower stress and inflammation, these effects seem to be less favorable in women overall and any more than the occasional alcohol consumption can drive inflammation up.
The negative impact on sleep is one significant way alcohol can increase inflammation as we know even one bad night of sleep promotes inflammation. Who doesn’t wake up puffy and with bags under their eyes after a night of having a drink or two?
Yet another way alcohol can increase inflammation is by contributing to increased intestinal permeability, commonly called “leaky gut” (8). This happens for many reasons including an unhealthy bacterial gut bacterial balance due to a myriad of causes ranging from stress, food sensitivities and medication use (i.e. NSAIDs, antibiotics, etc.). What happens as a result is more inflammation from food reactions as well as a low grade, systemic (body wide) inflammatory state from translocation of LPS into your system.
LPS or lipopolysaccharides are endotoxins produced by intestinal bacteria can cause systemic inflammation when they end up in your bloodstream vs. staying put in your gut, as is the case with leaky gut. This is a nasty double whammy because both inflammation can cause cortisol issues which will disrupt sleep and cause alterations in circadian rhythm and inflammation itself impacts your natural circadian rhythm by suppressing your hypothalamus. This in turn impacts all of your hormones and your neurotransmitter balance.
As well, inflammation can on its own decrease REM sleep, lowering testosterone and endorphin production…just like alcohol does on it’s own. One more double whammy. Bummer.
Hormones leaving you feeling confused, frustrated or stuck?
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Alcohol Can Feel Like Caffeine For Some
Many women tell me that at least on occasion when they have a glass of wine they feel all jazzed up, anxious and like they’ve had a few cups of coffee come bedtime bed. This phenomenon often worsens as women enter their forties and upward thanks to waning estrogen and progesterone which normally boost our natural chill pills such as serotonin and GABA as well as often worsening cortisol balance and heightened inflammation.
However, some of those alcohol jitters or anxiousness can happen at any age because alcohol contains a couple of uppers.
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut or Kombucha as well as wine are high in histamine. While commonly associated with allergy only, histamine has many functions in your body and one of them is that it plays a role in your sleep-wake cycle as a stimulating neurotransmitter. This is why certain antihistamines (those that cross the blood brain barrier) make you sleepy. Alcohol contains histamine as well as blocking the DAO enzyme in your intestines that naturally degrades histamine.
As well, aged and fermented foods – like wine – also contain tyramine, another stimulant.
If you feel agitated, flushed, sweaty or just have trouble sleeping after a glass of wine or worse: wine and charcuterie plate of aged cheese and meats this may be why! This is often worse for women suffering with histamine intolerance.
And finally alcohol elevates levels of adenosine which is a chemical messenger that has various functions including regulating heart rate and vasodilation as well as being an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your central nervous system.
Adenosine naturally rises the longer you are awake, thus it should be highest at night making you sleepy at bedtime. One of the ways caffeine keeps you up is that it binds adenosine receptors, blocking adenosine from making you tired.
So if you have alcohol in the early to mid-evening, as most of us do, you’re boosting adenosine and getting sleepy earlier throwing off the normal timing of your natural sleep-wake cycle. This means you may feel sleepy and all warm and fuzzy after an early evening glass of wine, but more wired yet tired at bedtime having trouble falling sleep or staying asleep.
To sum up, alcohol can impact your sleep in many unfavorable ways so if you’re struggle to sleep and have covered your sleep hygiene basics (for more on that see this post and this podcast) and you enjoy drinking alcohol, it may be time to reevaluate the habit. Or at least know that if you drink, your sleep will suffer and then you can make a more mindful, conscious choice whether or not to indulge. I’m not about feeling regretful of making a dietary choice that doesn’t work well for you, it happens. But I am a huge proponent of being more mindful and thoughtful about making those choices – this is so much of what Hangry is about!