The Matt Walker Podcast

#09: Sleep & Alcohol - Part 2

November 22, 2021 Dr. Matt Walker
The Matt Walker Podcast
#09: Sleep & Alcohol - Part 2
Show Notes


On last week’s episode, we learned about the three main ways alcohol can harm our sleep: 1) alcohol results in sedation rather than naturalistic sleep, 2) alcohol causes sleep fragmentation, and 3) alcohol impairs REM sleep. 

Today, Matt dives into each of these negative impacts, explaining exactly how and why alcohol disrupts our sleep in these specific ways.

First, alcohol is a class of chemicals called “the sedatives,” and sedation is not natural sleep. Healthy sleep is a very active, highly coordinated event within the brain, unlike sedation. As a result, alcohol can result in you waking up and feeling unrestored and unrefreshed by that non-normal sleep. 

Second, we normally need to shut off our fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, and shift over to the calming, parasympathetic nervous system, in order to stay asleep soundly across the night. However, alcohol reactivates the fight-or-flight nervous system, forcing the brain and body back into a more hyper-alert state. 

This increases the chances of you waking up and staying awake, causing your sleep to become more fragile and prone to fragmented awakenings throughout the night. Alcohol also triggers the release of several stress-related chemicals, including cortisol. This stimulates the fight-or-flight nervous system and emotional centers in the brain, also making it more likely that you will wake up and stay awake.

Finally, alcohol significantly reduces the amount of REM sleep the brain can produce. Specifically, the metabolic byproducts of alcohol degradation within the body disrupts and impairs the generation of REM sleep. Without that REM sleep, we can suffer impairments to our cognitive brain function and emotional stability. We can also experience a heightened amount of negative moods, such as anxiety. REM sleep is also the time when we hit our peak in the release of important hormones, like testosterone, which is critical for both men and women.

While Matt acknowledges that this news may not be especially encouraging or popular, he closes out today’s show with a reminder that life is to be lived. It is not his intention to tell anyone how to live their life. Instead, Matt’s goal is to simply lay out the scientific evidence regarding the relationship between sleep and alcohol, so that you can make an informed decision about how to best structure your own sleep schedule and find an enjoyable life balance.

Please note that Matt is not a medical doctor and none of the content in this podcast should be considered as medical advice in any way, shape or form, nor prescriptive in any way.

The episode is sponsored by the wonderful folks over at Athletic Greens, who are providing a discount and free product if you use the link above. Athletic Greens is a comprehensive daily nutritional beverage containing 75 vitamins, minerals, and whole food-sourced ingredients, including a multivitamin, multimineral, probiotic.

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