Drunk sleep is famously lousy. If you pass out at 2 a.m., odds are you’ll wake up at dawn, unrested and unable to go back to sleep. Even if you do sleep through the early morning hours, noon finds you no better rested. A fog envelops you as you shower, and you wash your hair for what might be the second time because, honestly, you don’t remember whether you already reached for the shampoo.
But what’s most disrupted by a night of drinking are your dreams (the actual ones, not the figurative ones — that typically doesn’t happen until after many years of drinking). This is a bad thing for lots of different reasons. “Dreaming is like the gastrointestinal tract for what you experience throughout the day,” explains Rubin Naiman, the sleep and dream specialist at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “When we dream well, difficult and negative emotions are processed and well-regulated. Without them, we become psychologically and emotionally constipated.”
Now, to blame the death of your dreams — and all of that subsequent psychological and emotional constipation — on booze may sound alarmist, but unfortunately, it definitely resides on the cost side of the cost-benefit analysis that accompanies a night of drinking. Here’s why…
How Alcohol Messes With Your Dreams, Scientifically Speaking
Alcohol is a depressant: It’s going to make you tired and want to fall asleep. But such drug-induced sleep is unnatural, and our bodies are very interested in maintaining their equilibrium. That means if you pump a bunch of downers into them, they’re going to do their best to counteract that sedative effect.
Like so, in fact: “Alcohol hits the brakes and slows us down, but that causes our bodies to put a foot on the accelerator and release adrenaline to keep us in balance,” Naiman explains. “When the booze clears out of our system, that foot comes off the brake, but the foot our bodies has put on the accelerator to stabilize us stays in place. And we get what’s called an autonomic nervous system (ANS) storm.”
This is why, after a hard night out, you’re more likely to wake up at seven in the morning, even if you were up till four. That is, ANS storms not only wake you up, they keep you awake — and prevent you from going back into the deep sleep where dreams take place. “Alcohol’s a fascinating substance,” Naiman says. “It can stimulate and relax us at the same time, but the bottom line is that even though alcohol can help us fall asleep, it will routinely interfere with REM sleep.”
And without REM sleep, there can be no dreams. “Most of what we consider to be a lack of sleep is actually a lack of dreaming,” Naiman says. “Plenty of people forget their dreams once they wake up, but this isn’t the same as not dreaming.”
It’s also all one big vicious cycle: Per Naiman, the more regularly we go to sleep drunk, the less we dream, and the less we dream, the more likely we are to be anxious, stressed and on edge — all things that anyone who drinks knows makes you likelier to drink more (and more often).
So What to Do?
That said, alcohol isn’t just used to drown your sorrows, it’s a social lubricant and mark of celebration, too. And rightly so: “One of the reasons people drink is to expand consciousness,” Naiman says. “This happens in all cultures, and it’s a positive association. People drink to celebrate.”
But the way we drink today in the U.S. is the problem: “Human consciousness inherently wants to expand,” Naiman says. “We see it in kids — they spin around until they fall over, or look at the world upside-down, it’s innate. If we could remember to look at drinking as a way to see the world differently, not to forget about it, we’d impose natural limits on ourselves and be mindful about our alcohol intake and why we’re drinking in the first place.”
Basically, we need to reframe the way we look at getting drunk.
For some reason, as a nation, we’ve been operating under the belief that the most drinks means the best time which… really? When was the last time you woke up and thought, Wow, I’m so glad I had those last two shots that pushed me into a blackout, that was critical to the amount of fun I had last night?
“Alcohol can be used in very creative ways, and can be very helpful in fostering social connection,” Naiman says. “But the reason we overdo it is because we’re trying to compensate for lost dreams. I think if we slept better, we would dream better, and if we dreamt better, we might actualize those dreams — the ones we have when we’re awake, the ones we plan out, the ones we dream about for ourselves.
“So many people already understand that they would sleep better if they stopped drinking,” he continues. “Too few, however, realize they could better manage their drinking if they started sleeping.”