9 Powerful Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep Hygiene

goals nutrition wellness Dec 13, 2021
9 Powerful Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep Hygiene

By Doc Mok

You are anxious, so you drink, smoke or take a pill.  However, what if I told you that the thing you THINK may be solving your anxieties, is making them worse. Substances can greatly impact your sleep in a negative way.  This week at Maximal Being we tackle 9 Powerful Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep Hygiene.



Why Discuss Harmful Effects of Caffeine, Alcohol, and Cannabis on Sleep?

Right now, are you reading this instead of drifting off into an ever-important slumber?  Well just know that you are not the only one with insomnia.  It is estimated that 28-44% of Americans do not sleep enough.  


insomnia statistics from cdc.gov


In our series on sleep, we described the science behind sleep (here) and why sleep is important (here).  Finally, we touched on great sleep hygiene techniques (HERE).  

Among these techniques, we discussed avoidance or limitation of alcohol and caffeine around bedtime. In discussing this topic with all of you out there, we at maximalbeing.com decided that diving a bit deeper into the issues would be helpful, especially now that anxieties are running high in America.  As another reason to discuss this topic, people are drinking and consuming substances at a much higher rate.


Alcohol and Cannabis Use is on the Rise

From 2006 until 2010, excessive alcohol use was responsible for 88,000 deaths.  These number have continued to rise in the last decade, doubling from 1999 until the most recent figures.  


Alcohol use on the rise in America from CDC.gov


Further compounding this situation, surveys during the present pandemic-era have demonstrated increasing sales of beer by 14%, spirits by 26.4% and wine by 27.6%.  Personal surveys also reflect this increase in consumption with 33-44% of those participating was planning on drinking MORE than prior.  


Alcohol sales are on the rise


Similar to that sentiment, cannabis use has been on the rise during our high-anxiety times with upcoming data being published soon.  


Alcohol and Cannabis as a Means for Anxiety Treatment

Though not specifically stated, this trend in rising alcohol and marijuana are most likely boredom or anxiety-related.  Yes, people may not know how to fill their time, but as a result, anxiety may be filling that gap. 

Alcohol, cannabis, and other such sedating substances (like benzodiazepines, Ativan, Xanax, etc) all act in a specific way.  They all act by calming down your nervous system.  Benzos and alcohol both work through the GABA system and cannabis the cannabinol system.  


The GABA system and Alcohol, Cannabis on Sleep


Both systems act peripherally, meaning in your muscles and the nerves that supply, them, but the most commonly understood effects are centrally in the brain.  As a result, all of these substances cross the barrier between your body and the brain, termed the blood-brain barrier.  In doing so, this is how the sedating effects work making you calm or sleepy.  When the sedating substance goes away, usually the glutamate or reticular activating system kicks in, leading to wakefulness.


The Impact of Anxiety on Sleep

When talking sleep issues, many have a hard time falling asleep (this is usually where alcohol and marijuana come in), while some wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep or suffer from low quality of deep sleep.  Taking these issues into account and the information we discussed in why we sleep (HERE), deep sleep, or stage 3 and REM sleep is where most of the regenerative properties of sleep occur. 

During these stages, you process the day including your anxieties, have your dreams and flush out all of the neurologic junk (tangles that cause Alzheimer’s dementia).  Therefore, having enough (7-9 hours), or 4-5, 90-minute cycles is the Maximal way to rest and restore your body and mind. 

The worst part of anxiety, depression, and other psychologic conditions, is that they can both cause difficulty with falling asleep and with staying sleep.  This is why many turns to alcohol, cannabis, benzos and sleep aids to help with this process.  Though most of these substances will help with falling sleep, they also will worsen the quality of deep or restful sleep.  Effects of low-quality, deep sleep will therefore prevent you from flushing out the bad stuff in your brain (that can cause neurologic disease) and your mind (that can worsen anxiety, depression, etc).  That said let’s talk specifics about the Harmful Effects of Caffeine, Alcohol, and Cannabis on Sleep.

Though most of these substances will help with falling sleep, they also will worsen the quality of deep or restful sleep

Harmful Effects of Alcohol on Sleep

Alright, you get home from a long day, pour yourself a drink to “calm your nerves,” but what happens next.  Certainly, you relax and feel relaxed.  This is due to the effects of that drink on your GABA system (above), which will lead to your muscles relaxing.  Alcohol will also blunt the response of your body to adenosine, a substance that tells you that you are sleepy by building up during the day.  

It also sedates your nervous system making your consciousness and awareness less.  This disinhibits you making the pains of the day easier to deal with and making you sleepy.  In a way is it placing a temporary fix or bandaid on the situation.  However, what comes next is the kicker. 


My sleep tracking with alcohol My Sleep Tracking without alcohol


Though your awareness is low, and you induce sleep, often staying unconscious until the morning or following afternoon, the quality of deep sleep is great effects.  In this study, participants did see a lower density of REM sleep with alcohol and the effects were additive the more nights of drinking were stacked.  


Alcohol Withdrawal Can Be Harmful to Your Sleep

Further adding fuel to the fire, when the alcohol is eliminated from your body a rebound effects or acute withdrawal is common.  During this time, your nervous system goes into overdrive above the level of awareness prior to the drink. Combine this with dehydration and you will wake up with a racing heart, sweats which can feel MUCH LIKE ANXIETY. 

Along the same lines, alcohol can lead diuresis or urination during the night.  Waking up to urinate, is YES, ANOTHER REASON why alcohol is harmful for sleep.  Limiting restful sleep can worsen anxiety, leading to a more difficult time coping with anxiety, leading to more drinking and the cycle spirals downward. 


What About Weed or Cannabis for Sleep

In a similar means, cannabis, marijuana, weed, has direct sedating properties.  As a result, many use cannabis and CBD compounds to ease muscle spasms and calm nerves.  However, like alcohol, acute withdrawal does happen as well. 

The culmination of the direct effect of cannabis lowers REM sleep.  The withdrawal period lowers slow wave sleep, restfulness, the ability to fall asleep again and can often lead to odd dreams.  

It also appears that the mechanism for delivery (vaping, skin, edibles, smoking) does not really matter and the same effects are observed almost universally. 


How to Avoid the Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep

The most obvious answer to mitigating the effects of these substances is avoidance and limitation.  I know this is easier said than done as most develop habits centered around that evening drink or smoke, but breaking the cycle is key. 


Alcohol Cannabis on Sleep


Important to tell yourself is that it takes time for that substance to be removed from your system, even weeks.  For this reason, you have to stick with the avoidance for time before judging how it will (positively) impact your life.  It also just takes one exposure to alter your sleep (as above).  So be mindful of the effect of even one drink, etc. on your sleep quality.

I may also state that if you have a true addiction, have had withdrawals like the DTs (delirium tremens), I recommend seeking professional help.  Below is a number to call should you need guidance.  No doubt, that professional would like to talk to you via phone, virtual encounter or in person.  Also, my sister’s article on How to Manage Anxiety When S*** is Hitting the Fan.





Mindfulness to Avoid the Harmful Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep

First, find your motivation.  If you like the relaxing effects, then it is time to replace that activity with something else.  Adding mindfulness practices to your daily routines such as meditation or journaling can greatly offload that high driving and stressful day that you just had.  Start today using apps like Headspace, Calm or head to Tara Branch’s website for guided meditations.  


Sleep Hygiene Should be A Priorirty for Alcohol and Cannabis


Like all things, practice makes perfect.  Making mindfulness a part of your day only takes 10 minutes and the benefits can last a lifetime.  Journaling also allows you to empty your mind before bedtime.  Also, as an important point, you have to go old school and use a pen, because as we stated here, blue light from devices is bad for your sleep.  Make a list of the day’s irritations, things you love about your dog.  Just process and there is no grade for penmanship!


Summary of the Harmful Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on Sleep

Though you may think you are helping yourself sleep with marijuana or alcohol, you are chasing your tail.  Anxiety and consumption of substances is on the rise during our present pandemic, which is a dangerous combination.  Be aware of the effects that alcohol and substances on your sleep quality.  If your issues are with falling sleep, find other avenues to work on this aspect of your sleep hygiene plan.  Make the investments by practicing mindfulness, meditation, and sleeping well at night.

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