Recording Alcohol Withdrawal

Something that some people struggle with is the concept that every drinker, no matter how occasional or light, suffers alcohol withdrawal.

They understand the concept that the brain has its own naturally occurring drugs, hormones and chemicals, they understand that the brain is involved in a phenomenally complicated and intricate balancing act whereby all these chemicals, drugs and hormones compliment and balance each other. They also understand the concept that the brain seeks to maintain this balance, and that it will take steps to preserve it, and that it can do this not only by manufacturing and releasing differing amounts of these chemicals, but also by altering the way in which it processes them (both those that are naturally occurring and those that aren’t).

Leading on from this, they can follow along the logic to the conclusion that if you regularly take a drug, for example a chemical depressant, that your brain will take steps to counter the depressive effects of this by becoming increasingly sensitive so as to operate under the depressive effects of the drug. They can also follow the logic along to its natural conclusion; that when the depressive drugs wears off the brain is left in a temporary state of increased sensitivity, which manifests itself as anxiety and restlessness in less serious cases, and shakes, depression and seizures in more extreme cases.

However although they follow the above logic on an academic level, some people can still struggle to apply it to their tireless friend and supporter, alcohol. They struggle to take the step between applying what they understand logically to their own everyday experiences. They struggle to shake off that deeply held belief that, for the vast majority of people, alcohol in moderation causes a pleasant, relaxed feeling with absolutely no short term downside.

The recent preponderance of fitness trackers is a good way of putting paid to this belief once and for all. I’m sure most people reading know what I am referring to when I mention fitness trackers, but for those unfamiliar with them, they are bands you wear on your wrist, very much like a watch, that measures your heart rate, sleep, and the number of steps you take in a day. Of course it is the first two of these, sleep and heart rate, that we are interested in.

It is widely known that alcohol is a chemical depressant (and but this, I mean that it is something that reduces or inhibits nerve activity). Therefore if someone were to drink alcohol and have no withdrawal (and by ‘withdrawal’ I mean the period of increased sensitivity and anxiety after a dose has worn off), you would expect their heart rate to slow down, their sleep to be deep and long, and for their stress levels to decrease. These fitness trackers can show us a very different story.

Someone posted some data from her fitness tracker to the Alcohol Explained facebook group recently, and very kindly gave me permission to use this for this post. She has been not drinking for some time, then went back to it for a period, so we have some very good ‘drinking’ and ‘non drinking’ data to compare. It is worth mentioning that fitness trackers aren’t the most scientifically accurate way to record sleep or heart rate, but I think we can probably agree that they are going to give us at least an indication of our bodily functions with regards sleep and heart rate.

With this in mind the first thing that is worth looking at is the sleeping pattern when not drinking:

What we can see here is good sleep, cycling through the alternating sleep types (deep, light and REM). The vertical axis shows there various sleep types and the horizontal axis shows time passing. Again I would emphasise that this probably isn’t the most scientifically accurate analysis of sleep, but the overall pattern is lower down on the vertical axis, showing rest and relaxation.

Compare this with the following which is her sleep after drinking:

Now you can see no REM sleep at all. Again I acknowledge that it is probably not the most accurate analysis, but you have only to compare the two to see they very pronounced effect drinking has had. More information on the impact of alcohol on sleep and the relevance of the different sleep cycles can be found here.

Now let’s consider two further pictures. This particulate fitness tracker records stress levels (essentially calculated by increased heart rate that is not associated with increased physical activity; when you do physical activity your heart rate increases, this is perfectly normal and to be expected, but if your heart rates increases without any associated physical activity, this means something is wrong, either stress or a physiological reaction of some kind).

So below we have ‘stress’ levels overnight while not drinking:

Below we have ‘stress’ levels after drinking:

I don’t think this really requires any commentary on my part, the pictures speak for themselves.

These fitness trackers can be an excellent way to record visually your bodies physiological reaction to alcohol. Remember, alcohol is a depressant, its effect is to slow things down. The expected response from a dose of it would be decreased heart rate and deeper sleep. If you see an increase in heart rate or disturbed sleep, this is your bodies physiological reaction to the alcohol, or, to use another word, the withdrawal.

As I say I completely acknowledge that these fitness trackers aren’t the most accurate of instruments, and this is a record of one person’s experience, but I still think that the results are still telling.

If anyone else has any such comparisons they can share I would be very interested to see them. You can either email them to alcoholexplained@gmail.com, or post them to the Alcohol Explained Facebook page. What I think would be particularly interesting would be if there is any significant number of people who don’t show this withdrawal (ie increased heart rate and disturbed sleep) when drinking. After all the generally accepted view is that alcohol withdrawal is extremely unusual and only affects the very heaviest of drinkers. I think it’s time we put that view to the test, and with the number of people out there wearing fitness trackers I think we’re in a unique and ideal position to do so.

If you have any moderate / occasional drinking friends or acquaintances who wear fitness trackers please pass this to them and see if they would be prepared to share their data.

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One Response

  1. I don’t have a fitness tracker but I can absolutely confirm alcohol ruins sleep for me. I have to take a sleeping tablet to increase my chance of sleeping but I still only get 5 hrs or so. And I have noticed that if I drink a lot the night before, my heart rate is elevated at least for the first part of the day. I have read a few books about sleep and am fully convinced of how important getting a good night’s sleep is. Therefore the detrimental effect of alcohol on sleep is one of the big motivators for me to abstain.

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William Porter

William wrote Alcohol Explained to share his approach on recovering from alcohol dependency.

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