Binge-drinking Alcohol Just Once Could Disturb Gene That Regulates Sleep

A single binge-drinking episode could disturb the gene that regulates sleep, scientists believe. 

Previous studies have suggested drinking alcohol to excess can affect a person’s sleep quality, so researchers at University of Missouri-Columbia set out to understand why.

The scientists allowed mice to consume alcohol in four-hour binge drinking sessions, and assessed their sleeping patterns. Binge-drinking seemed to disturb sleep by affecting the gene that regulates it, the authors of the studypublished in the Journal of Neurochemistry—noted.

They also found the mice were awake for longer periods of time and slept less. The animals showed neither an increase in adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep, nor the urge to sleep.

  alcohol-beer-stock Researchers have investigated the link between poor sleep and alcohol. Getty images

Although studies in mice can’t be used as a direct comparison to outcomes in humans, they offer scientists a useful insight into certain biological mechanisms. More research is now needed to find a causal link between binge-drinking and sleep problems.

That link could be important, considering one in six adults in the U.S. binge-drink about four times a month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In humans, binge-drinking is defined as consuming four or five drinks or more in an hour for men and women, respectively. 

Dr. Mahesh Thakkar, lead author of the study and professor and director of research in the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Department of Neurology, explained in a statement that sleep is a serious problem for alcoholics.

"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."

“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," he 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.”

The research is the latest to find an association between drinking alcohol and poor sleep hygiene. A 2015 study published in the journal Sleep indicated binge-drinking college students went to bed and woke up later, and also slept for less uniform periods of time than those who didn’t.

More widely, health officials are clear that drinking alcohol before bed is not recommended. In its Getting Enough Sleep fact sheet, The Centers for Disease Control counts avoiding large meals and alcohol before bedtime in its advice.

Dr. Ivona Bialas, a senior lecturer at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek: "The results, if they can be replicated, are astounding. They highlight the huge impact even small amounts of alcohol have on sleep."

"Sleep is hugely important in mental and metabolic health so it would be interesting if some of the adverse effects of alcohol were mediated via sleep. If even a single binge regulates genes via epigenetic effects we would have to look again at our safe alcohol limits advice with vulnerable people for example pregnant women, and young adults, etc." 

However she highlighted the study is quite small, and would first need to be replicated in a larger group of mice and then humans if the results are to apply to us, too. 

The takeaway lesson, she added, was to drink as little alcohol as possible and not after lunchtime as it will interfere with your sleep. "Poor sleep over time is a killer [due to metabolic effects], interferes with your ability to concentrate, think properly and function even the day after a few drinks." 

This piece has been updated with comment from Ivona Bialas.

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