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Alcohol, Degraded Sleep Related in Young Adults

Alcohol, Degraded Sleep Related in Young Adults

By Richard Mark Kirkner
June 14, 2022

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Sleep and alcohol consumption in young adults seems to follow a “vicious cycle,” as one observer called it. Young adults those who drink more go to bed later, sleep less, and have worse-quality sleep than those who drink less, and those who went to bed earlier and slept longer tended to drink less the next day, a study of drinking and sleeping habits in 21- to 29-year-olds found.

“Sleep is a potential factor that we could intervene on to really identify how to improve drinking behaviors among young adults,” David Reichenberger, a graduate student at Penn State University, University Park, said in an interview after he presented his findings at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

This is one of the few studies of alcohol consumption and sleep patterns that used an objective measure of alcohol consumption, Reichenberger said. The study evaluated sleep and alcohol consumption patterns in 222 regularly drinking young adults over 6 consecutive days. Study participants completed morning smartphone-based questionnaires, reporting their previous night’s bedtime, sleep duration, sleep quality, and number of drinks consumed. They also wore an alcohol monitor that continuously measured their transdermal alcohol consumption (TAC).

The study analyzed the data using two sets of multilevel models: A linear model that looked at how each drinking predictor was associated with each sleep variable and a Poisson model to determine how sleep predicted next-day alcohol use.

“We found that higher average peak TAC — that is, how intoxicated they got — was associated with a 19-minute later bedtime among young adults,” Reichenberger said. “Later bedtimes were then associated with a 26% greater TAC among those adults” (P < .02).

Patterns of Alcohol Consumption and Sleep

On days when participants recorded a higher peak TAC, bedtime was delayed, sleep duration was shorter, and subjective sleep quality was worse, he said. However, none of the sleep variables predicted next-day peak TAC.

“We found an association between the duration of the drinking episode and later bedtimes among young adults,” he added. “And on days when the drinking episodes were longer, subsequent sleep was delayed and sleep quality was worse. But we also found that after nights when they had a later bedtime, next-day drinking episodes were about 7% longer.”

Conversely, young adults who had earlier bedtimes and longer sleep durations tended to consume fewer drinks and they achieved lower intoxication levels the next day, Reichenberger said.

Between-person results showed that young adults who tended to go to bed later drank on average 24% more the next day (P < .01). Also, each extra hour of sleep was associated with a 14% decrease in drinking the next day (P < .03).

Participants who drank more went to bed on average 12-19 minutes later (P< .01) and slept 5 fewer minutes (P < .01). Within-person results showed that on nights when participants drank more than usual they went to bed 8-13 minutes later (P < .01), slept 2-4 fewer minutes (P < .03), and had worse sleep quality (P < .01).

Reichenberger acknowledged one limitation of the study: Measuring sleep and alcohol consumption patterns over 6 days might not be long enough. Future studies should address that.

A “Vicious Cycle”

Hans P.A. Van Dongen, PhD, director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, Spokane, said in an interview that the findings imply a “vicious cycle” between sleep and alcohol consumption. “You create a problem and then it perpetuates itself or reinforces itself.”

In older adults, alcohol tends to act as a “sleep aid,” Van Dongen noted. “Then it disrupts their sleep later on and then the next night they need to use the sleep aid again because they had a really poor night and they’re tired and they want to fall asleep.”

He added: “I think what is new here is that’s not very likely the mechanism that they’re using alcohol as a sleep aid in younger adults that we see in older adults, so I think there is a new element to it. Now does anybody know how that works exactly? No, that’s the next thing.”

The Penn State study identifies “a signal there that needs to be followed up on,” Van Dongen said. “There’s something nature’s trying to tell us but it’s not exactly clear what it’s trying to tell us.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provided funding for the study. Reichenberger has no relevant disclosures. Van Dongen has no disclosures to report.