Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Why does alcohol have the same effect on sleep as anti-depressants?

Do you turn to a glass of wine if you can't sleep?
Coming as a stark realisation for those who like to relax with a glass of wine in the late evening, the complex relationship between alcohol and sleep has been reviewed by Dr Ebrahim and team at the London Sleep Centre and is reported on by the media today:

"From the hundred or more studies that Dr Ebrahim's team looked at, they analysed 20 in detail and found alcohol appeared to change sleep in three ways.

Firstly, it accelerates sleep onset, meaning we drop off faster.

Next, it sends us into a very deep sleep.

These two changes - which are identical to those seen in people who take antidepressant medication - may be appealing and may explain why some people with insomnia use alcohol.

But the third change - fragmented sleep patterns the second half of the night - is less pleasant.
Alcohol reduces how much time we spend in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep - the stage of sleep where dreams generally occur.

As a consequence, the sleep may feel less restful..." Alcohol-fuelled sleep is 'less satisfying' (BBC)

I'm writing this article because we believe the human givens approach can contribute to these findings by adding information about exactly how this disruption of REM sleep can affect stress levels. Drawing ideas from the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming, we can also provide more clarity around the fact that alcohol and anti-depressants produce similar effects on sleep.

As the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming makes clear, REM sleep is Nature's solution to the problem that having emotions (also called expectations or 'emotional arousal') creates for humans and animals.

The main problem with having emotions is that each one sets up a chain of arousal in the autonomic nervous system which, if it is not de aroused by taking the necessary actions that would resolve the emotion (resolving the argument, having sex, having the money to pay the bill), ultimately leads to a build up of stress. And how do we resolve emotional stress if we can't complete the arousal pattern in our daily lives? Dreaming.

The fact that dreaming during REM sleep de-arouses our unresolved emotions (read more about this here) sheds light on how the disruption of dreaming by having an alcoholic drink can lead to still feeling stressed upon waking. If we can't resolve our emotions during good quality REM sleep, we are left feeling we've had 'less satisfying sleep'.

The answer to an intriguing paradox

It's interesting how the article points out that alcohol has the same effect on sleep as anti-depressants.

This at first seems paradoxical, how can an effect that prevents you getting good quality sleep be prescribed as a treatment to help depressed people?

The answer lies in the fact that REM sleep can, like many of our bodily processes, get out of balance.

Worrying and ruminating (generating emotional arousal about a problem or situation that has not yet been resolved) leads to an increase in dreaming as the brain desperately tries to reduce our stress level by de arousing the influx of emotional expectations that have been created in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately, too much REM sleep can leave the expectation pathways (how we motivate ourselves) and brains, feeling exhausted. This us because our brain uses as much energy during REM sleep as it does while awake.

Do you ever wake up feeling more tired than when you went to sleep?

When highly stressed, the brain devotes more sleep time to REM sleep, which takes up time that would normally be given to the slow wave sleep that restores our physical body. Ever woken up feeling more tired than when you went to bed? It's likely you had too much REM sleep, either from sleeping too long or as a result of your brain trying to de arouse a lot of worries from the previous day.

It's a well documented fact that depressed people dream more and anti-depressants work in large part by reducing REM sleep in the brain through various chemical processes.

Of course, although anti-depressants can lower stress and rebalance REM sleep, they don't combat the reason the person became depressed in the first place or help solve the unmet emotional needs that the depressed person has been worrying about.


For more information on any of the information raised in this article, please see the and

We teach all this information and offer practical help to treat depression on our Human Givens College training courses.


  1. Brilliant. HG really helps to find a happy life

  2. I just know that there are just cons of drinking alcohol. People do not know that how how long does alcohol stay in your blood and destroy circulatory system. If they know then they will surely avoid it.

  3. I noticed that a few drinks help me wake up refreshed the next morning. Although I don't drink as I am going to sleep but a few hours before.