Noah Brier | October 12, 2021

The Sleep and Alcohol Edition

On quantification, Oura, and patterns

Noah here. Back in January 2020, Colin had this to say in WITI about his Oura ring, sleep, and the quantified self-movement:

​​When the entire quantified-self movement started emerging in the mid-2000s, I wrote the first wave off as a bit nerdy. The Tim Ferriss-style obsessive optimization and testing just seemed a bit too on the nose for my taste. As the tech has gotten better and less obtrusive, however, I’ve started to come around. Since October, I’ve been wearing an Oura device, which looks like a discrete-looking ring but gives you …  a pretty good picture of daily activity and, more importantly to me, a deep understanding of both my sleep and recovery based on things like resting heart rate, movement (which can help determine REM), heart rate variability, and their “recovery index” which gives a ballpark of how “ready” you are on any given day. 

I’ve learned a lot from it, namely how disruptive long-haul travel is on the body and the effect of alcohol on sleep. WITI contributor and Axios correspondent Felix Salmon recently shared the same sentiment, tweeting: “I’ve been wearing a Fitbit watch for a couple of months, and the main benefit has legit surprised me. I’m not trying to maximize steps or calories or anything like that, I’m trying to maximize my sleep score. And that, in turn, has caused me to start drinking less.”

Why is this interesting?

Since Colin published this nearly two years ago, I’ve gotten my own Oura ring, and the company has gotten lots of attention. Because the ring includes temperature readings, it was found to be a decent early-warning signal for COVID and was adopted pretty widely by sports leagues and the like (though it’s always a bit hard to separate the sponsorship from the substance in these sorts of announcements).

Much like CJN, my biggest takeaway has been just how big a toll drinking can take on sleep. One of the key measures the ring is looking at is when your resting heart rate reaches its lowest point in the night. On nights without drinks or late-snacking, that will generally come in the first half of my sleep, but on nights with a beer or two, I might not hit that number until just before waking up.

Although alcohol can help you fall asleep, there’s a pretty large body of research on how it disrupts your night. In particular, there’s an idea of a “rebound effect” as the alcohol leaves your system in the second half of the night:

In the first half of the night, when the body is metabolizing alcohol, studies show people spend more time in deep, slow-wave sleep and less time in REM sleep. It may sound like a good idea to spend more time in deep sleep. Not so fast. Sleep architecture is biologically driven and finely calibrated to meet the body’s needs during nightly rest—changes to the natural, typical structure of sleep aren’t generally good for health or well being. REM sleep, which gets shortchanged in the first half of the night under the influence of alcohol, is important for mental restoration, including memory and emotional processing.

During the second half of the night, sleep becomes more actively disrupted. As alcohol is metabolized and any of its sedative effects dissipate, the body undergoes what scientists call a “rebound effect.” This includes a move from deeper to lighter sleep, with more frequent awakenings during the second half of the night. (These may be micro-awakenings that the sleeper doesn’t even remember—but they still interrupt the flow, and quality, of sleep.) During the second half of the night, sleep architecture shifts again away from normal, with less time spent in slow wave sleep. The rebound effect may include more time in REM—a lighter sleep stage from which it is easy to be awakened.

When people see the ring (I wear it during the day so I don’t forget to put it on at night), they ask me how my behavior has changed from wearing the Oura and, honestly, I think it’s mainly around the edges. I was already a pretty conscientious sleeper because I don’t function particularly well with less than seven hours. With the ring, I now have a better understanding of when I actually went to bed, how long it took me to fall asleep, and how my behavior (evening drinks and late-night snacks) affects my physiology. I’ll still have a few drinks with friends or a beer with dinner, but I’ve tried to be a little more careful about when I drink. (NRB)

Mix of the day:

Friend of WITI Sam Valenti has been doing an ongoing mix series called Herb Sundays. This edition with the DJ and theorist Jace Clayton is well worth your time. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) 

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