Using circadian rhythms to minimize sleep disruption from alcohol

Sleep is one of the most important physiological events that we experience every day.  In fact if you’re doing it right, sleep will occupy 1/3 of your time on the planet from birth to death.  Both our mind and body go through various levels of repair while we’re asleep, so getting adequate sleep is crucial to health, well-being, and longevity.

If you sleep poorly on a regular basis, you may have no idea if your sleep is good or not because crappy sleep is your norm.  But for those of us who regularly sleep well, a poor night of sleep can cause us to feel dreadful in the morning.  Fortunately, I’ve taken the steps to measure it on a regular basis and plan on sharing some of my adventures with you.  Today’s entry involves alcohol.

Consuming more than 2 units of alcohol per day can have a powerful effect on your sleep, and not in a good way.  While alcohol typically causes us to become sedated and “fall asleep” faster, it actually has a pretty negative impact on sleep.  Sleep duration and efficiency often go out the window, and we lose precious REM sleep which helps us integrate daily learning and experiences in to our past learning and experiences. Note: I blogged a bit about this in my book review of Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker.  Check that out here.

A good amount of the damage that alcohol has on sleep can be attributed to the nutrients that alcohol depletes.  There’s a pretty long list of nutrients that alcohol will deplete, but ultimately it comes down to alcohol disturbing DNA methylation and the composition of bile.  Both of these issues impair the circadian clock, at the cellular and organ system level, respectively.  And with circadian disruption comes damage you really don’t want(More on this in a bit).

I must admit, I love me some craft beer, but nowhere near as much I love me some solid Zzzs.  Fortunately, I can have my cake and eat it too.  By playing around with other circadian variables, many of the damaging effects of alcohol can be mitigated, including the damaging impact on sleep.

A tale of 2 nights boozing…

I have a ton of different data points on my sleep.  I feel I’ve pretty much got the whole ideal preparations for solid sleep down to an art.  A few tweaks here and there over the course of a few months and I’ve made some definite improvements without having to make major lifestyle changes that will be difficult to maintain.  Recently my main focus has been trying to get the whole preparations for boozing thing down pat.

Yesterday I drank like a monster at a beerfest on a battleship.  But by having everything else on lockdown, I got more than 8 hours of solid sleep and nearly double the REM sleep I normally get.  In other words, the extra sleep I got wasn’t just an additional hour of tossing and turning.  It was solid, memory-consolidating REM sleep.  And I definitely needed it.  🙂

I felt amazing when I woke up from this slumber due to being on point everywhere else other than the fact that I was drinking.  But I really can’t compare this night to another night where I only got 6.5 hours of sleep or went to bed later.  It’s only useful to compare similar data points where I go to bed and awaken at roughly the same time.

Below we have a typical Saturday night/Sunday morning sleep sesh where I consume well over 2 units of alcohol, probably close to 10 given that a 16 oz can of 7.5% craft beer is 2 units on its own.  I wouldn’t consider this terrible sleep by an stretch of the imagination, but it’s nowhere near as good as the one above.

As you can see, almost 8 hours of sleep, but half the REM and a nice little nature calls wake up call a little before 5am that probably sucked up that REM sleep.

Now let’s take a look at a night where I went to bed at the same time, got a little less sleep, but my sleep architecture and REM sleep were much better.  As you can see, nature pretty much calls at the same time every day, which is probably indicative of when I get up during the week, typically by 5am.

Now, while I got 17 fewer minutes of sleep, I got 22 more minutes of REM sleep and 18 more minutes of deep sleep.  In terms of sleep architecture, I got most of my deep sleep in the first half of the night and most of my REM sleep in the second half.  Less sleep, but higher quality sleep in the proper format.  Shwing!

Image result for shwing

Image source

During both days prior to these sleep sessions I got adequate physical activity, 12k on the first and 10k on the second.  But after playing around with some different variables, I’ve identified big picture factors that seem to be helping me get solid sleep while still knocking back some craft beer on the weekend.

My big picture variables for solid sleep after drinking

First and foremost, timing is a huge factor.  As long as I stick to a regular time to bed/time to rise scenario my sleep is pretty good.  If you haven’t measured your sleep after a day/night of drinking, I suggest you do so.  I’ll almost guarantee that you’d be happy with either one of the above sleep sessions.  I know because before I started working on it, I’d pay dearly for my ill-preparedness.

Going to bed an hour later caused a pretty significant loss of total and REM sleep.  In fact, nearly the entire hour of sleep I lost came from REM sleep.  My deep sleep was pretty good, possibly because I got 20k steps the day before.

Another big factor is knowing when to start and stop.  The closer you drink to bedtime, the more your sleep will be affected.  I’ve played around with numerous timings on this, and if I’m processing alcohol at all when I go to bed, my sleep takes a hit.  For me, I’ve more or less identified when to start and stop.  As long as I’m not going like a lunatic all day long, sticking to my schedule pretty much guarantees me quality sleep.

Timing of light exposure and eating is also important.  On the battleship beerfest night where I got more than 8 hours of sleep, I was outside all day long because it was an outside event.  This made me nice and sensitive to melatonin so that when I blocked it at night I was able to go to sleep very easily.  I also stopped eating within a reasonable amount of time.

This part is key, your gut needs a break.  All food causes damage to the gut, and if your gut doesn’t get a break you’ll get rot-gut in the morning.  It’s also important to point out that if you plan on drinking 2 days in a row you have to do your due diligence.  When you eat the next day is determined by what went on the previous day.  Same with coffee.  It’s smartest to plan both days out so you can enjoy both, most people just wing it and pay the price for it.

Does all of this stuff sound familiar?  Sounds like I’m beating the circadian rhythm drum again, doesn’t it?  Well, that’s because many of the damaging effects of alcohol come down to circadian disruption, as you can see from the illustration below, taken from a study you can read here.

Image result for alcohol circadian disruption

Alcohol disrupts the clock at the cellular level, and chronic alcohol consumption depletes a large number of nutrients important for stabilizing the clock at the cellular and organ level.  It also causes dysbiosis and leaky gut, which will further alter nutrient status of these key nutrients.  Nutrients that you should be on top of are the B vitamins, choline, fiber, glycine, and taurine.  If you just do a little digging, you’ll see why getting adequate amounts of these nutrients is important for reducing the damaging circadian disrupting effects of alcohol.


Consuming alcohol, particularly when we get older, can have a pretty devastating effect on our sleep.  While we can tolerate it when we’re in our 20s, from 30 onward it’s a slippery slope.  Many of the negative health consequences of alcohol can be attributed to circadian disruption.  For this reason, alcohol can disrupt many processes other than sleep including digestion, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, energy levels, cognition, and our mood.

Because of this, it’s important to dial in your circadian rhythms over the long term.  If you develop a robust rhythm by sticking to a consistent schedule over the long term, the circadian disrupting effects of alcohol can at least be minimized.  It’s important to fit your alcohol consumption in to your standard schedule rather than go to bed at 9:30pm during the week and stay up til 3am on the weekends.  A person in their 40s will feel that no matter what they do.

Get proper light exposure, observe a feeding and fasting cycle that gives your gut a break, and time your coffee right and you should be able to minimize the damage that comes with consuming alcohol.  But the important first step is getting something you can use to measure these variables so you can do some tweaking on your own.

There are a number of viable options out there including the Fitbit Charge 2 HR which is what I use.  The Oura Ring is also a popular option if you’re in to wearing rings.

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