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Don’t lose your snooze - cut back on the booze

Survey shows over half of drinkers unaware of link between alcohol and sleep problems.

Drinkers across England are losing valuable sleep and disrupting vital brain functions without knowing that their boozing is the cause, new research for the Government’s Know Your Limits campaign has today revealed.

More than half (58%) of nearly 2,000 drinkers surveyed by YouGov did not realise that drinking above the recommended daily limits can cause sleep problems, with more men (63%) than women (53%) unaware of the link.

Almost half (45%) of those surveyed admit to experiencing tiredness the day after drinking over the recommended daily limits, but it seems many people don’t realise this could be due to alcohol interfering with their normal, restful sleep.

Public Health Minister, Gillian Merron said:

"Lots of people don't realise that drinking too much can disrupt your sleep, leave you dehydrated and unable to remember parts of your evening.

“On top of this, drinking too much can affect your longer-term health, putting you at an increased risk of liver disease, stroke and cancer.

"Our Know Your Limits campaign arms people with the facts about how many units are in their favourite drinks, to help them keep a check on how much they drink each day."

Did you know?

Alcohol can be a headache in various ways, including its impact on sleep:

· Too many loo breaks… Alcohol stops the brain from releasing an important chemical, called vasopressin, which normally regulates the amount of water in your body. This dehydrates the body and sends you running to the loo all night.

· Dehydration… Booze encourages too much water to be flushed out of your body which will dehydrate you, putting your body under strain and contributing to a headache that can stop you sleeping.

· Your brain can’t hurt... Whilst you may feel like your hangover headache is caused by your brain hurting, your brain actually can’t feel pain because it has no pain receptors. In fact, while the headache may feel as if the brain is banging against the skull, the pain is actually coming from the inner lining of the skull and the blood vessels.

Contrary to popular opinion dozing off after a couple of glasses of wine or passing out after a night of heavier drinking is not the start of a deep sleep. The Know Your Limits campaign reveals that drinking late in the evening before you go to bed is actually far more likely to prevent you getting the quality sleep your body needs. Instead, you could be upsetting your sleep patterns, encouraging dehydration, and altering the blood pressure of the brain, leaving you far from fresh the next day.

Jessica Alexander, spokesperson for the Sleep Council said:

“Although many people may feel alcohol helps them get off to sleep, it is also a major culprit for disrupting your night as it can interfere with the body’s chemical processes needed for sound sleep. Waking up deprived of the vital sleep your body needs will leave you feeling drained and, if experienced night after night, can seriously affect your health and wellbeing.”

The so-called ‘drinker’s false dawn’ is caused by the way alcohol disrupts the crucial ‘REM’ stage, which is essential for a deep, satisfying night’s sleep. Alcohol stops you reaching this stage early in the night, meaning your body has to catch-up later in the night. REM sleep is also believed to be important for the creation of memories, which is one reason why heavy drinkers can sometimes wake up unable to remember parts of their evening.

The NHS recommends women do not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day (a large 250ml glass of 12% wine is 3 units) and men do not regularly drink more than 3-4 units (a pint of 5.2% beer is 3 units). Over ten million adults in England regularly exceed these limits, affecting their general day to day health, but also increasing their risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease and various cancers.

Jessica Alexander added:

“If you find yourself drinking above the recommended daily limits most days of the week, your body may be constantly trying to catch up and then it’s likely you’ll never feel fully alert or equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of daily life.”

The chemical processes of sleep are not the only function of the brain that is disrupted by alcohol, according to neuroscientist Dr Barry Gibb, author of the Rough Guide to the Brain.

Dr Gibb said: “Anyone who enjoys alcohol knows that, after a few drinks, they start to need more frequent trips to the loo. But many don’t realise this is actually a sign that they are starting to dehydrate. This can seem strange when you’re taking on more liquid than normal, but what is actually happening is that alcohol stops the brain from releasing an important chemical, called vasopressin, which normally regulates the amount of water in your body.

“With this chemical turned off, your body starts misbehaving and gets rid of the liquid in your body more quickly than it should. Water makes up about 80% of the brain and is an essential element in keeping it working smoothly, so dehydration doesn’t just cause headaches but can put stress on all of the brain’s normal processes – not helpful at a time when the body is working extra hard to get rid of toxic chemicals.”

While some people in the YouGov survey thought alcohol makes the brain ‘swell’, ‘shrink’ or even ‘pickle’, Dr Gibb explains that this isn’t the case at all.

“People might be surprised that the brain itself cannot feel pain. While the thumping, pulsing hangover headache may feel as if the brain is pressing against the skull, the pain is actually coming from the inner lining of the skull which contains numerous blood vessels with all their associated pain receptors.”

Regular drinkers keen to cut back on their intake and get a better night’s sleep – and a happier brain – should visit, where an interactive units calculator can help you keep track of how much you’re really drinking.


The Sleep Council’s Top Tips for Sound Sleep

For a sound night’s sleep:

· Avoid drinking in the evening, particularly in the few hours before you go to bed. Whether it's a hot Toddy or a bottle of beer, even a moderate amount consumed can affect your sleep. Remember – too much alcohol may make you pass out, but you won’t get a good night’s sleep from it.

· Try a hot milky drink or herbal tea instead. This will help you to calm down and prepare for sleep. Try not to have a heavy meal, spicy food or fizzy drinks before bedtime either.

· Stick to your recommended alcohol limits (2-3 units for women, 3-4 for men) so as not to let alcohol stand in your way of sound sleep.

· Your room should be dark, cool, quiet and clear of gadgetry: a haven for rest and relaxation, not work and play.

· Check out your bed: how comfortable it is will affect how you sleep and how you feel the rest of the time.

· Develop a bedtime routine or ritual that does not involve a tipple - the aim is to create an almost unconscious association between bedtime and the sensations of drifting off to sleep.

· Listen to your body; if you feel tired you probably are and will need more alcohol-free sleep. Pay off your sleep debt by going to bed half an hour earlier for a few weeks.

Notes to editors

1.      For media enquiries only please contact the Department of Health newsdesk on 0207 210 5221.

2.      Know Your Limits is a joint Department of Health and Home Office initiative, launched in October 2006.  The campaign encourages people to drink responsibly and to recognise what their limits are when it comes to alcohol. For more information, visit

3.      All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov plc. Total sample size was 1,954 adults living in England who consume alcohol. Fieldwork was undertaken between 16 – 18 March 2009. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all English adults (aged 18+). ‘Regularly’ means drinking every day or most days of the week.



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