What happens when alcohol and the effects of sleep deprivation come together?
Ethanol, or alcohol, changes the way neurotransmitters work (‘messenger substances’ between brain cells). Several neurotransmitter systems are affected by alcohol, the most important of which are: dopamine, serotonin, glutamate, GABA, and opiate.
All neurotransmitters are affected differently by alcohol.
The neurotransmitter GABA, which causes other cells to become less active, gets boosted by alcohol. This inhibits other cells so that you feel relaxed and calm. Alcohol inhibits the neurotransmitter glutamate as well, which generally activates other cells.
In the short term, alcohol consumption can lead to a deteriorated memory, attention problems and a reduced ability to control your body. Despite this, alcohol is by far the most commonly used substance in nightlife and one of the few legal substances.
The influence of alcohol on the sleep cycle
Several studies show that drinking alcohol before bedtime affects the sleep cycle. For example, you fall asleep faster after drinking alcohol, increase the amount of deep sleep and decrease the amount of REM sleep during the first half of your sleep.
During the second half of your sleep, when the alcohol is broken down, there is a rebound effect: the body tries to compensate for the change in sleep phases. This means that your body will try to make up for the lack of REM sleep during the second half of sleep. In addition, there is an increase in light phase 1 non-REM sleep. This compensation is also associated with waking up more often during the second half of sleep.
The sleep cycle is therefore significantly disrupted after drinking alcohol and you often sleep shorter. Although people often think they can sleep better after drinking alcohol, this ultimately results in a more tired wake up.
Unity tip: do not drink alcohol before going to sleep as a nightcap.
Alcohol when going out
What happens when you are going out and the effects of alcohol and sleep deprivation are combined? Research shows that sleep deprivation has similar effects to alcohol poisoning. For example, both sleep deprivation and alcohol cause a decrease in cognitive and motor performance. For example, we can concentrate, divide our attention and control our body less well.
Although there seems to be an overlap between the effects, little is known about the combination of alcohol and sleep deprivation. Because what does that actually do to us?
Alcohol vs. lack of sleep
One of the few studies explicitly examining alcohol and sleep deprivation showed that participants under the influence of alcohol and sleep deprivation responded more slowly to various tasks than participants who were only under the influence of alcohol or had a poor night’s sleep. In addition, another study, on driving behavior and motor skills, shows that participants who were under the influence of alcohol and were sleep deprived performed worse than participants who were only sleep deprived or only under the influence of alcohol. This means that sleep deprivation contributes to a decrease in performance after drinking alcohol.
Drinking alcohol has similar effects to sleep deprivation. For example, behavioral problems can arise. For this reason, it is likely that there is more interaction than research has shown so far.
Alcohol causes a lack of self-regulation and for that reason alcohol is often associated with aggression. Also, under the influence of alcohol, it is difficult to evaluate a situation and to choose the most appropriate response or strategy, which in turn results in poor self-control.
All these consequences of alcohol consumption are very similar to the consequences of sleep deprivation and it is therefore not inconceivable that not only alcohol consumption, but also the combination with sleep deprivation is responsible for aggression and reckless behavior in nightlife.
Written by: Lizet Wilken
With the help of: Layla Deibert, Raoul Koning, Sarsani Schenk en Teun van der Velden.
- Chastain, G. (2006). Alcohol, Neurotransmitter Systems, and Behavior. The Journal of General Psychology, 133(4), 329–335. https://doi.org/10.3200/genp.133.4.329-335
- Ebrahim, I. O., Shapiro, C. M., Williams, A. J., & Fenwick, P. B. (2013). Alcohol and Sleep I: Effects on Normal Sleep. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(4), 539–549. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.12006
- Oscar-Berman, M., & Maribnkovic, K. (2007). Alcohol: Effects on Neurobehavioural Functions and the Brain. Neuropsychology Review, 17(3), 239-257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11065-007-9038-6
- Peeke, S. C., Callaway, E., Jones, R. T., Stone, G. C., & Doyle, J. (1980). Combined effects of alcohol and sleep deprivation in normal young adults. Psychopharmacology, 67, 279–287.
- Roehrs, T., & Roth, T. (2001). Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Research & Health, 25(2), 101–109.
- Verster, J. C., Van Duin, D., Volkerts, E. R., Schreuder, A. H., & Verbaten, M. N. (2002). Alcohol Hangover Effects on Memory Functioning and Vigilance Performance after an Evening of Binge Drinking. Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(4), 740–746. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.npp.1300090
- Williamson, A. M., & Feyer, A. M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and environmental medicine, 57(10), 649-655.