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How Alcohol Can Interfere With Exercise and Sleep

Here are some tips for revamping your exercise routine.

Key points

  • Exercise benefits sleep in many ways, from improving insomnia to reducing the risk for obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Alcohol’s influence on sleep is complex. It can make one fall asleep quickly but also disrupts sleep quality as it metabolizes.
  • Drinking more alcohol may blunt the positive effects of physical activity on sleep on a day-to-day basis. 
Source: giovanna/gomes

Are you revamping an exercise routine after our long, crazy year? Regardless of where you are in your exercise journey, there’s some important new information to know about the relationship between alcohol, exercise, and sleep.

When you’re trying to live a healthier life, focused on longevity and the quality of your life in the here and now, exercise is a big priority. Sleep is, too. Exercise and sleep are important on their own, and they also can have a mutually beneficial relationship, one that plays out on a daily basis.

How well we sleep affects our physical performance. That’s true for all of us, from elite athletes to recreational team sport players to those of us doing our best to fit in a 20-minute workout whenever we can.

And regular physical activity contributes to better, longer, more restful, and refreshing sleep.

This bi-directional relationship between sleep and exercise is well documented in research—and I’ll walk you through some of the most important takeaways in just a minute.

But, of course, sleep and exercise habits don’t exist in a vacuum. They happen alongside all our other health and lifestyle choices and conditions, including diet, stress management—and our adult beverage drinking habits.

Some really interesting new research published in the journal Sleep has shown that alcohol consumption may undermine the benefits that exercise confers to sleep, with effects seen on a daily basis.

The benefits of exercise for sleep

Before we look at this latest research, let’s do a quick review of how exercise can enhance sleep. There’s a large, and ever-growing body of research showing that exercise can:

Exercise can also help improve sleep for people with insomnia. Research shows that people who generally sleep well experience improvements to their sleep with routine physical activity. For people who struggle to sleep well, and experience symptoms of insomnia, exercise may make an even greater difference. Studies show that in people with insomnia, physical activity can reduce insomnia symptoms as well as prescription sleep medication. One study conducted on people with chronic insomnia showed a significant improvement in sleep after a single session of moderate aerobic exercise. And studies of the longer-term impact of exercise on sleep show improvements for insomnia as well. This 2015 study found that 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise led to significant reductions in the severity of insomnia, and significantly reduced depression and anxiety, which frequently occur in tandem with insomnia.

Among these studies in people with disrupted sleep, aerobic exercise is the most frequently examined for its sleep benefits. The impact of strength and resistance training on sleep is not nearly as well studied. But the research that does exist shows improvements to sleep and mood from strength training, including for people with sleep problems.

Physical activity also delivers indirect benefits for sleep. Exercise helps us maintain a healthy weight and avoid excessive weight gain, reducing the risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Obesity is a primary risk factor for OSA, a serious, chronic, and common sleep disorder that disrupts normal breathing during sleep.

Regular exercise helps to elevate and stabilize mood, reducing symptoms and risks for depression, anxiety, and stress. Depression, anxiety, and stress all can contribute to serious and often chronic disruptions to sleep.

Remember, sleep has benefits for exercise, too. A restful night of sleep is critical for recovery between workouts. And better sleep can improve speed, power, reaction time, and endurance, while also reducing your risk for injury.

How alcohol affects sleep

I’ve written before about the disruptive effects that alcohol can have on sleep, including how the timing of alcohol intake matters to intoxication, and the influence of chronotype and circadian rhythms over the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol.

Alcohol’s influence on sleep is complex. Alcohol has both sedative and stimulant effects. Drinking can make us fall asleep more quickly, but alcohol’s presence in the body at night leads to lighter and more fragmented sleep throughout the night, as alcohol is metabolized.

The effects of alcohol can vary from one person to the next, and the degree of alcohol’s disruption to sleep is influenced by how much we drink, how often we drink, and when we consume alcohol. Heavier drinking will be more disruptive to sleep than light and moderate drinking, for most people. However, research shows that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption—that’s one or two drinks a day for men, and one drink a day for women—can have significant negative effects on sleep quality.

And new research indicates that greater alcohol consumption not only disrupts sleep quality but also interferes with the sleep-promoting benefits of exercise.

How alcohol can undermine the good that exercise does for sleep

This latest study does something important for our understanding of how to navigate the sleep-exercise relationship, in order to maximize its benefits. In this study, scientists investigated the impact of alcohol consumption on sleep, and on the benefits of exercise for sleep. They conducted their study in naturalistic conditions—not in a sleep laboratory, but in participants’ own environments, living out their real-world behaviors. The study included 70 adults between the ages of 18-50, all of whom slept more than 6.5 hours a night, and who wore activity trackers to measure sleep and exercise, and who recorded the number of drinks they consumed each day, over a period of 7 days.

Researchers found that the people who averaged more daily physical activity throughout the 7-day study period also experienced fewer awakenings throughout the night after initially falling asleep. That tracks with what we know about how regular exercise can enhance sleep.

Here’s where things get really interesting. When the researchers analyzed how alcohol affected the relationship between sleep and physical activity, they discovered a couple of important things:

Over the 7 days, more frequent nighttime awakenings were associated with lower levels of physical activity—but only among people with higher alcohol consumption. (This further confirms what we already know: that alcohol contributes to more restless sleep.)

On a day-to-day basis, more physical activity was linked to more restful, less fragmented sleep—but only for the people with lower alcohol consumption.

The takeaway? Drinking more may blunt the positive effects of physical activity on sleep, on a day-to-day basis.

This study doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about the influence of alcohol on the sleep-exercise relationship. One important gap? We can’t see from these results the effects of the timing of alcohol consumption on sleep, among people who get more, and less, daily physical activity. But this research points toward an important, under-examined factor in our understanding of the dynamic between sleep and exercise, as it plays out in the real world.

To protect your sleep, don’t drink within three hours of bedtime. This allows the alcohol to metabolize in your body and ensures you won’t begin your night of sleep with alcohol in your bloodstream. This three-hour guideline can help you continue to drink moderately without affecting your rest that night.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM

The Sleep Doctor™

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