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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: How Alcohol Affects Sleep
Author: Fraser Trevor
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Overview of biological circadian clock in humans. Biological clock affects the daily rhythm of many physiological processes. This diagram...
Overview of biological circadian clock in huma...
Overview of biological circadian clock in humans. Biological clock affects the daily rhythm of many physiological processes. This diagram depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). Although circadian rhythms tend to be synchronized with cycles of light and dark, other factors - such as ambient temperature, meal times, napping schedule and duration, stress and exercise - can influence the timing as well. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people who suffer sleep disorders drink alcohol to help them fall asleep.  Current research shows that this actually has a detrimental effect on the sleep/ wake cycle.  Although alcohol is a depressant and it can make you tired, it does not allow you to get the full and restful sleep of a normal sleep cycle.  It interrupts important parts the sleep cycle, sometimes makes it more difficult to fall asleep, and can shorten the time you stay asleep.  If you suffer from a sleep disorder or find it difficult to sleep on occasion, alcohol presents a double-edge sword.  In fact, it may end up hurting you in the long run.

The Sleep Cycle

Sleep is characterized by two types of sleep: fast wave and slow wave.  Slow wave sleep is the type we stay in the longest.  It is characterized by slow brain waves, and it encourages deep, restful sleep.  About 25 percent of the sleep cycle is dominated by fast wave, or rapid eye movement, sleep.  REM sleep lasts from 5 to 30 minutes, and it tends to occur every 90 minutes that we sleep.  This is the stage that most dreaming occurs in, and it is generally considered less restful than slow wave sleep.
However, REM sleep is of vital importance to the body.  Lab rats that were specifically denied REM sleep died within weeks.  Researchers aren’t sure how REM relates to our waking lives, but it has demonstrated that it is of vital importance.  Sleep used to be considered a time when relatively few things happened in the brain.  Recent research has shown that the brain is very active during sleep.  It is controlled by the lower brain stem, and it is important in the regulation of brain neurochemicals, specifically serotonin and norepinephrine.  For this reason, it is important to get sleep in its designated cycles and in the appropriate length to achieve overall health.

Alcohol’s Disruption

Alcohol primarily has an effect on the second half of sleep.  If you drink alcohol immediately before bedtime, you may experience difficulty falling to sleep initially.  Once the alcohol is processed, though, you may find that you can fall asleep.  Unfortunately, many people find that they only sleep for a few hours and wake up during the second half of the night.  They find it difficult to return to sleep, and when they do, the sleep is not as restful as it should be.
Some people drink alcohol a number of hours before going to sleep, such as with dinner.  In this case, you still may fall asleep quickly, but the second half of sleep is marked by wakefulness and fitful sleeping.  Even though the alcohol has been processed by the body at this time, some mechanism in the alcohol leads to wakefulness in the second half of sleeping.  In addition, those who use alcohol to sleep and experience wakefulness during the night are more likely to experience exaggerated symptoms of deprivation.  For instance, driving the next morning is much more difficult after consuming alcohol to help get to sleep.

Alcohol, Sleep, and Health

Although common knowledge says that alcohol can help you sleep, it is actually doing the opposite.  The sleep that you get from a drink of alcohol can lead to daytime fatigue and increased stress because it interrupts the slow wave/ fast wave cycle.  Alcohol can also decrease your ability to breathe while you sleep and induce or exacerbate sleep apnea.  Sleep apnea, or waking from sleep because you can’t breathe, can happen without your knowledge.  Alcohol makes the situation worse, which means you run the risk of breathing cessation or repeatedly waking up during the night to breathe.
Alcohol also seems to affect the neurotransmitters in the brain, and it certainly disrupts the neurotransmitters of sleep.  The affect that alcohol has on the neurotransmitter serotonin is important to understand for those who suffer from depression.  If you are not sleeping correctly due to the alcohol, the serotonin is not regulated effectively, and you suffer depression in your waking hours.  Clearly, those who have depression should not turn to alcohol as a sleep aid.  It will likely make your sleeping problem and your depression worse.
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