Alcohol, THC, and Sleep

Do you use a nightly beer, glass of wine, or cocktail to ease your way to dream land? Does sleep seem to evade you unless you have a little THC in your system? While both have been widely accepted by the mainstream and some health …

Do you use a nightly beer, glass of wine, or cocktail to ease your way to dream land?  Does sleep seem to evade you unless you have a little THC in your system?

While both have been widely accepted by the mainstream and some health professionals to address difficulty falling asleep, releasing work tension and stressors, and anxiety, neither is foolproof or 100% beneficial for sleep.

Alcohol is a depressant.

THC can act as a stimulant or depressant depending upon the strain.

Both alcohol and THC are no more than a bandaid for underlying problems.  They do not address the root cause.

Before I go any further, CBD and THC are not the same substance.  While they come from the same whole plant, they do not affect our biology in the same manner.  CBD is an adaptogen, when used correctly, can provide benefits.  THC does not have the same properties or benefits.

Many people use alcohol and/or THC because they are easily obtained legal (in most states) substances to help them deal with emotional stress, pain, anxiety, depression and other medical issues.  What is not well known is the health risks and downfall for both.

Let’s start with alcohol.

Alcohol in of itself is poison.  It is a toxic substance that most people did not enjoy during their first sip or chug.  Alcohol is ethanol – made of the same substance used to fill your gas tank.  It destroys our brain, stomach, liver, immune system, hormone production and regulation, and related to more than sixty diseases.  It is addictive and your tolerance increases over time because of the way it compromises your liver’s ability to detoxify the substance and clouds your brain’s decision making.  When your body is given food and alcohol, it will always work to detoxify the alcohol first.  It’s that bad for us.  

Despite the way it is glamorized, alcohol is not beneficial to anyone.  When looked at objectively, alcohol does not keep any of the promises it makes.

This includes sleep.

The effects of alcohol on sleep have been studied since the 1930s with emerging data as each decade passed. We must first understand falling asleep and passing out are two different mechanisms.  Drinking before you go to bed does not initiate normal sleep cycles.  Long term alcohol users often have chronic sleep disturbances.  Passing out is one way your body is protecting itself from further damage.

Normal sleep cycles are disrupted by alcohol consumption and continue to decline with repeated use.

“Drinking alcohol before bed can add to the suppression of REM sleep during the first two cycles. Since alcohol is a sedative, sleep onset is often shorter for drinkers and some fall into deep sleep rather quickly. As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, resulting in less of the latter and more of the former. This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.” (REF)

Drinking alcohol before heading off to sleep diminishes the REM portion of sleep for at least the first two sleep cycles.  This is due to the sedative nature of alcohol.   REM can be severely shortened or bypassed all together, causing drinkers to fall into deep sleep quickly.  Slow-wave sleep and REM sleep become out of balance resulting in disrupted patterns.  Sleep quality diminishes, sleep becomes disordered, and time spent asleep is shortened.  

In as little as 3 days of suboptimal sleep, drastic consequences begin to surface.  You may start out tired and cranky, but the effects can grow into metabolic disorders, illness, cardiovascular disease, sympathetic nervous system dominance (your body is in a constant state of panic), anxiety, depression, and an overall reduced quality of life.  Getting enough shut-eye is so vital to our well-being, sleep deprivation is no longer allowed in the Guinness World Book of Records – it is considered “reckless or dangerous behavior”.

Alcohol shortens REM initially, but increases it later in the sleep cycle.  

Alcohol also disrupts blood sugar regulation.  In attempts to neutralize the offending agent, the liver and pancreas offer insulin as a peace-offering.  This usually results in blood sugar swings throughout the night.  

Do you wake up around 3 am after you’ve had a lively night?  This is your blood sugar response.  Sidenote:  this before the dawn blood sugar response can also happen if too many sweets are consumed before bed.  Especially in peri-menopausal and menopausal women.

What about THC?

‘Mary Jane’, ‘bud’, ‘ganga’, ‘herb’, ‘chronic’, ‘grass’, ‘dope’, ‘hash’, ‘trees’, ‘hemp’ – all common names for marijuana.  Regardless of what you call it or how you use it, it is not without repercussions.

Whether marijuana is smoked or eaten, the seeming benefits are limited and short term.  When smoked, users are also at an increased risk for chronic bronchitis due to the tar, lung hyperinflation, and the many volatile chemicals within the plant.  Similar to smoking tobacco, natural does not make it safe or harmless.  The risk for lung cancer, emphysema, and COPD are real and often eminent.

Chronic users of chronic are also have the potential to develop nausea and vomiting related to the very substance they chose to help relieve it.  Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome is most often seen in daily users.  Most people are aware of the effects when THC binds to receptors in the brain (causing someone to get “high”), but it also binds to a number of molecules in the digestive tract.  When the digestive system is disrupted by any mechanism, malnutrition and malabsorption follow.  The gastric emptying is delayed and the esophageal sphincter is affected.  

In as little as 3 months, cannabis users can present with decrease gray matter in their brain.  This finding equates to loss of fine motor function, uncontrollable shaking, and loss of cognitive function – similar to what is seen in Parkinson’s Disease.  This loss of neurons can be irreversible.

In the immediate time frame, THC can lead to further sleep disturbances, memory loss, nightmares, increased REM sleep, and less deep sleep.  The circadian rhythm continues to be disrupted the more THC is used.  It becomes a vicious cycle that some may argue is a dependency or addiction.  

It’s true THC can help you fall asleep, but it wrecks havoc on your actual sleep cycles.  Used repeatedly and frequently, THC does not improve your sleep.  

Do you want to get better sleep without accosting your lungs or liver? 

It’s really simple, and in most cases free.

  • Start in the morning.  Get 20- 60 minutes of blue light via the sun or an indoor blue light emitter.  It works best without sunglasses or regular glasses.  Windows block the blue light, too.  

  • Take breaks during the day when you are working to improve your parasympathetic nervous system responses.  Trying to go to sleep when your body is amped up does not work well.

  • Shut down all electronics 2 hours before going to bed.  If you must work or are in front of a TV, wear orange blue-blocking glasses to reduce the suppression of melatonin.  Melatonin normally begins to be released roughly when the sun goes down.  Bright electronics, regardless of contrast modes, stimulate the brain to stop the natural progression of sleep.  

  • Go to sleep when you feel tired.  Avoid the ‘second wind’ that causes you to stay awake longer.

Start today with these simple strategies for a night’s better sleep.