Navigating the Gray Area Drinking: Alcohol, Sleep, and Well-being

 In Health, Sleep

For years, the discourse surrounding alcohol consumption has largely revolved around two extremes: social drinking or alcoholism. The latter is now clinically referred to as alcohol use disorder, with varying degrees of severity. However, nestled in the middle of this scale lies a significant and often overlooked category known as gray area drinking. 

This nuanced approach acknowledges that not everyone neatly fits into the binary categorization of social drinker or alcoholic, emphasizing the need to recognize dysfunctional drinking habits that may not align with traditional stereotypes.

Recently, I had the pleasure of welcoming Sarah Rusbatch to talk about this exact topic. Sarah is a certified Women's Health and Wellbeing Coach, an accredited Gray Area Drinking Coach and a Key-Note speaker sharing her journey to Sobriety and the impact of alcohol on mental health to global audiences.  She is also the face behind Perth’s growing Alcohol-Free Movement.

After developing what she describes as 'a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol', Sarah decided to remove alcohol from her life in early 2019 and has never looked back. 

She now works with women across the globe, guiding them from feeling lost, stuck and out of control (something she fully understands herself), to a healthier and happier way of living. 

So Sarah, a former gray area drinker turned coach, grew up in an alcohol-centric culture (like most of us did), so she initially considered her drinking habits normal. However, major life changes, including relocation and motherhood, prompted a shift in her relationship with alcohol. It transformed from a social lubricant to a coping mechanism, impacting her mental health, sleep, and overall well-being.

Understanding Gray Area Drinking

Gray area drinking can be visualized on a scale from one to ten, where one represents abstaining from alcohol entirely, and ten signifies severe alcohol use disorder. Gray area drinkers, however, fall within the spectrum of four to eight. These individuals are beyond the casual or occasional drinker but have not reached the extreme end of dependence that characterizes severe alcohol use disorder.

Now, you might be wondering, how to know if you’re a gray area drinker. Identifying gray area drinking involves recognizing subtle signs that your relationship with alcohol is becoming more complex. Some indicators include consistently drinking more than intended, preoccupation with thoughts of when and how much to drink, creating rules around drinking habits, and feeling the need to justify or rationalize your drinking patterns. Importantly, gray area drinkers often find their alcohol use impacting their lives negatively, such as sleep disturbances, yet struggle to cease or reduce their intake.

The Link Between Alcohol and Sleep

One common justification we often hear when it comes to  moderate alcohol consumption is its perceived role in aiding relaxation and sleep. However, this assumption is flawed. While alcohol may induce initial drowsiness, it significantly disrupts the sleep cycle. Sarah explains that the brain responds to alcohol-induced sedation by releasing cortisol, the stress hormone, to counterbalance the heightened levels of GABA (a calming neurotransmitter). This imbalance leads to disrupted, fitful sleep, often accompanied by middle-of-the-night awakenings and increased anxiety.

Studies suggest that even moderate alcohol intake can reduce the number of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycles, crucial for brain health and various physiological functions. By bypassing REM sleep, individuals may inadvertently contribute to long-term health issues such as dementia, diabetes, and obesity.

Some studies suggest that if you drink even just one or two glasses of wine, you will go from having six to seven cycles of REM sleep to only one to two. Our brain is not designed to only have one to two cycles of REM sleep. It's designed to have six to seven cycles in order to do its job while we're sleeping. Sarah explains that sedation is not sleep, and that's something that we have to remember. If we sedate ourselves with alcohol, we're not actually getting restorative sleep, which the brain needs in order to do all the functions it has to do to keep us well and operating optimally. 

Another recent study shows that, for women, more than just one drink a night can decrease your sleep quality by up to 39.2%. So, gray area drinkers unknowingly compromise their sleep quality by consuming alcohol regularly.

Something to also keep in mind is the fact that women metabolize alcohol differently than men: 

  • Women metabolize alcohol differently than men due to having less water in their bodies and more body fat.

  • Women produce less of the enzyme ALDH (alcohol dehydrogenase), leading to slower alcohol metabolism.

  • As women age, especially in their 40s and 50s, the decrease in ALDH enzyme and liver changes exacerbate the effects of alcohol.

  • Women are more vulnerable to the health risks associated with alcohol, including cancer, liver disease, heart disease, and stroke.

  • Women can become addicted to alcohol more quickly than men.

  • Women in their 40s and 50s often face high levels of stress due to various responsibilities. Alcohol then becomes a common escape mechanism in the short term, leading to a vicious cycle.

Overcoming Gray Area Drinking

One of the significant challenges gray area drinkers face is the social aspect of alcohol consumption. Sarah emphasizes the difficulty of navigating a social circle that predominantly revolves around drinking. The prospect of breaking away from this norm raises questions about identity and commonalities with friends. However, she stresses that overcoming gray area drinking leads to positive changes in various aspects of life, including mental health and sleep.

Acknowledging the root causes of alcohol cravings is the crucial first step in addressing grey area drinking. For many women, alcohol is not the problem itself but a perceived solution to underlying issues such as stress, boredom, and loneliness. Strategies to break the cycle involve regulating stress through activities that soothe and calm, fostering connections with supportive communities, and creating a lifestyle that doesn't necessitate relying on alcohol for escape.

Recognizing the need for comprehensive guidance, Sarah wrote a book titled "Beyond Booze: How to Create a Happier Life Alcohol-Free" that offers practical insights. The book delves into the three primary reasons we drink—boredom, stress, and loneliness—and provides a roadmap for creating a life where alcohol is not the go-to solution. Importantly, it addresses the gap in existing literature by focusing on how to stay sober and transform your relationship with alcohol in the long term.

As a proactive measure, Sarah also created an annual alcohol-free challenge, providing you with 30 days of support, education, and tools to reshape your neural pathways and mindset around alcohol. You can join HERE.

Benefits of Reducing Alcohol Consumption

So, if you’re contemplating reducing your  alcohol intake, know that the benefits extend beyond just better sleep because better sleep leads to improved emotional well-being, positive self-talk, increased energy, and the mindset to achieve personal goals. Breaking free from the cycle of constant recovery from alcohol-related effects opens up a world of possibilities and a more profound sense of self-achievement. But you should also know that this path to transformation involves understanding the root causes, adopting healthier coping mechanisms, and fostering a supportive environment that nurtures a positive relationship with sleep and alcohol alike.

If you’re looking to learn more about Sarah or connect with her, make sure you visit her website at and connect with her on Instagram. Also make sure you preorder Sarah’s new book: Beyond Booze and get 5 FREE coaching videos

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