Over half of all Canadians have insomnia, the medical term for problems falling asleep, waking up at night, being unable to go back to sleep, and very early morning wakings.
People who suffer from insomnia feel tired in the morning, are irritable, have a lack of concentration and thus lower work performance throughout the day. These effects stimulate our brains to do something to make us feel better and to take the edge off. The most common go-to remedies are junk food, coffee, smoking and alcohol. All four of these things bring short-term, temporary relief but all they also worsen the insomnia in a vicious cycle. Usually the initiating factor is stress, which leads to poor quality sleep, and sometime afterwards alcohol consumption to reduce the stress.
The Trouble with Alcohol
Alcohol (or ethanol in chemical terms) is a neural inhibitor and a depressant. It inhibits communication between brain cells. This is in contrast to stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine, which increase communication between nerve cells.
Alcohol binds to our brain receptors called Gama Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) receptors. This is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical molecule that nerve cells use to communicate between each other. GABA normally inhibits nerve cells. This has a calming effect on our mind. This effect of GABA is also conducive to falling asleep and maintaining good quality sleep. Melatonin is another major compound responsible for sleep. What is important is that alcohol binds to the GABA receptor at a different site from GABA on the same receptor.
Alcohol and the Brain
So how is this connected to alcohol? Well, as mentioned above, alcohol binds to the same receptors as GABA. But here is the interesting part: Whenever you stimulate a receptor by the molecule that binds to it, the brain reacts by increasing the number of receptors. This is the foundation of what is called drug tolerance. As a person uses a drug, (in this case alcohol), it requires progressively more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. This is due to the brain increasing the number of receptors. Of course such a process takes months, as new receptors require new protein synthesis from the genetic code.
When a person drinks on a regular basis, the brain reacts by increasing the number of GABA receptors. But the amount of GABA in the brain stays the same. It is the alcohol and not the GABA that causes the increase in receptors. A normal amount of GABA in the brain will have a lesser overall effect on the brain because the number of receptors has increased due to alcohol. The consequence is that GABA will have a weaker effect. Since GABA is an inhibitory and a relaxing compound, the consequence of it having a weaker effect will be the opposite, i.e. anxiety, nervousness, and in the context of this blog, difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep. The difficulty of maintaining sleep in this scenario stems mostly from very vivid dreams.
The Vicious Cycle
So what do people reach for when they cannot sleep? Often it is alcohol. This compensates for the weaker effect of GABA due to increased receptors, and does bring relief in the form of sleep, albeit temporary. But the effect will be a hangover in the morning and further increase of receptors. This will require more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effect of “good” sleep. This is one of the ways to achieve complete alcohol dependence, otherwise known as alcoholism.
So what is the healthy solution? There is only one: Complete abstinence from alcohol so that the number of GABA receptors in the brain return to normal. This takes anywhere from a minimum of one to three months. You will be able to tell when you achieve this when you begin sleeping normally without any alcohol. Unfortunately, the first few weeks will not be fun. Without alcohol and with GABA’S weaker effect, your quality of sleep will not be good.
But look on the bright side. You are doing something extremely healthy. You are breaking away from the vicious cycle of alcohol-sleep dependence and regenerating all of your organs that have endured the negative effects of alcohol.
This is just another example of the cycle of life and the balance of nature, or as Isaac Newton said, “What goes up must come down”.
See you next time.
For more sage advice from Dr. Karol and for natural health product recommendations, visit vitarock.com.