Researchers Find that Using Alcohol to Sleep may have Long-Term Complications

Jan 2, 2017

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Researchers at the University of Missouri have found that using alcohol to fall asleep may actually be keeping people awake.

Dr. Mahesh Thakkar is a professor and neurology researcher at the MU School of Medicine. He’s been studying alcohol’s affect on human sleep for many years. He says that 20 percent of US adults have used alcohol  - at some point  - to help them fall asleep.

But, he said, “it is a pseudo-sleeping drug.  It will produce sleep for a very short time, but then it will keep you awake all night.”

Thakkar added that this is because alcohol affects sleep homeostasis – essentially the body’s internal sleep timer.

“When you drink alcohol, what it is does is it shifts your homeostasis,” Thakkar said. “You rapidly go to sleep, but the amount of sleep that you require is the same – so you wake up in the middle of the night.”

He said this may not be an issue if drinking is done socially and sporadically, but if used as a sleep aid - alcohol can lead to serious complications down the line.

“They develop tolerance,” Thakkar said. “So the second day or third day or fourth day they will need more alcohol to go to sleep. And then the fifth day, more and more – so you increase the risk of becoming alcohol dependent.”

Or in simpler terms, it increases one’s risk of developing alcoholism.

Thakkar said he hopes that by understanding how alcohol affects sleep, medications can be developed that mimic the effects of alcohol – falling asleep quickly and sleeping without dreams – but without the risk of alcoholism.

He added this could be especially useful for patients struggling with PTSD.

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