If you’ve read our various sleep hygiene guides, you are well aware of how vital sleep is to overall health, and how it forms the foundation on which all other aspects of performance biohacking are built. Improving sleep quality is one of the most important first steps you can take on the road to realizing the full potential of your body and mind.

Despite the common cultural notion of a “nightcap,” drinking alcohol before bed has long been known to contribute to poor sleep, and previous studies have drawn a connection between binge drinking and sleep disruption. However, a new study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry, sheds new light on exactly how drinking alcohol disrupts sleep, both in normal healthy people and in alcoholics. It also reveals a disturbing effect that binge drinking has on a gene that regulates sleep.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 15 percent of adults in America binge drink four or more times per month. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking “as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours.” So it’s important to note that this threshold for what is considered binge drinking is not terribly high – there’s a good chance that you might be binge drinking without thinking of it as such.

The study, led by Mahesh Thakkar, PhD, professor and director of research in the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology, looked at not only how drinking affects sleep, but how sleep problems can also contribute to alcoholism. “Sleep is a serious problem for alcoholics,” said Thakkar in an MU article covering the study. “If you binge drink, the second day you will feel sleep deprived and will need to drink even more alcohol to go to sleep. It is a dangerous cycle. How can we stop this cycle or prevent it before it begins? To answer that question, we need to understand the mechanisms involved.”

Utilizing a mouse model, Thakkar and the other researchers assessed the effect of binge drinking on sleep patterns. The found that in healthy, non-alcoholic mice, binge drinking decreases the time it takes to fall asleep and increased both the quality and quantity of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) for four hours following the drinking. However, after four hours, they found sleep disruptions to be present, and an increase in wakefulness. The study also found that following the binge, the mice did not show an increase in their brains of the chemical adenosine, which promotes sleep, nor did they experience increase sleep pressure when subjected to sleep deprivation.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the study was the discovery that binge drinking affects the gene responsible for regulating sleep, leading to sleep disturbances. “What we have shown in this research is that a particular gene — which is very important for sleep homeostasis — is altered by just one session of binge drinking,” Thakkar said. “We were not expecting this. We thought it would be affected after multiple sessions of binge drinking, not one. That tells you that as soon as you consume four drinks, it can alter your genes.”

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