Welcome to my article – “How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?”
This is aimed at being a guide to the effects of alcohol on sleep and I hope to answer the many questions that you may have about drinking and sleep.
However, if for any reason I have failed to cover something more specific on your mind then please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section at the bottom of this article, or for something more private I’m happy to answer your emails personally.
I also want to add that this isn’t some type of promotional “you need to stop drinking” guide, as I am a drinker myself.
However, over the years I have seen the effects that drinking has had on my sleep, so I am far more sensible about my alcohol intake nowadays (the binge-drinking “3-night weekends” prevalent throughout my late teens and probably my entire 20s are a thing of the past – well most of the time).
So, without further ado let’s look at how alcohol affects sleep.
The Effects of Alcohol on Sleep – The Facts
If you’re someone who believes that taking a nightcap is a great way to get a good night’s sleep then I’m afraid to say you’re wrong.
I think we are all aware that consuming alcohol, no matter what your poison – beer, wine, or spirits, typically leaves you feeling a little drowsy. And it is due to this effect that many of us turn to alcohol as a way to “help us sleep”.
In fact, I have seen a number of surveys which estimate that approximately 1 in 5 of us will use alcohol as a way to help us fall asleep at night.
I will say that alcohol is a depressant and therefore it will help to induce sleep, although it will lead to a poor quality of sleep. This typically includes waking up multiple times (especially in the second half of the night), night sweats, and it will disrupt REM sleep.
Alcohol Doesn’t Actually Help You Sleep
There are various studies which prove that alcohol doesn’t help you to sleep.
The one factor that we are all aware of is that alcohol reduces sleep onset latency, which is the time it takes us to fall asleep, i.e. you will typically fall asleep faster when you’ve been drinking.
With that said, this will cause disruption to your sleep in the second half of the night by reducing REM sleep, which means you will spend more time in non-REM sleep.
You’re not actually falling asleep quickly after a particularly heavy drinking session, but what you’re experiencing is probably closer to passing out.
Additionally, I know from my own experience (of trying to use alcohol as a sleep aid) and from discussions with friends, that the amount you require to fall asleep slowly increases over time, as you tend to build a tolerance to the sedative effects of alcohol.
The reason there is so much disruption to sleep during the second half of the night is because alcohol is quickly metabolized, so you will typically feel “withdrawal symptoms” later on in the night, as your body’s systems return to normal.
There are certain symptoms associated with this “withdrawal” and these include:
- Very light sleep
- Waking up multiple times
- REM rebound – this is the increased frequency and depth of REM sleep which often happens when we have experienced periods of sleep deprivation
- REM rebound is associated with vivid dreams, nightmares, sweating, etc.
The Dangers of Using Alcohol to Sleep
If you’re using alcohol as a sleep aid this can eventually lead to dependence.
I know this started to become a worry for me.
I’m definitely no angel when it comes to my alcohol consumption over the years, but I was what I would refer to as a “weekend warrior”.
My drinking was typically kept to Friday and Saturday night, with the occasional Sunday daytime, but I very rarely drank during the week.
However, when I first started experiencing insomnia I sought solace in the arms of alcohol as a way to help me nod off.
I remember taking stock of both my drinking and sleeping habits and I was horrified that I had gone for an extended period drinking every night in order to “knock myself out”. This had to stop.
Furthermore, using alcohol to help you to sleep can also lead to a wide variety of sleep issues, such as sleep deprivation, sleep walking, and sleep talking.
Something I wasn’t aware of is that alcohol can suppress your breathing when you’re asleep at night. This can actually trigger sleep apnea, a sleep disorder which can be an extremely dangerous condition to have.
We are now aware that alcohol impairs sleep in the second half of the night, so an overall decreased sleep time and this in turn may lead to excessive daytime sleepiness.
Alcohol and Insomnia
For many of us insomnia can eventually become a chronic condition and so by using alcohol to help you to sleep you’re only making things worse.
In fact, by turning to drink there is an increased chance of alcoholism,
It’s not a road I’ve personally been down, but I do know that when I used alcohol to make me fall asleep I was shocked by how I felt and I realized I needed to find another solution.
I wasn’t drinking huge amounts, but a glass or two (perhaps 3) of wine here, or a couple of beers there, and my consumption soon totted up, especially as this was becoming a nightly occurrence.
When I stopped drinking after a few short weeks to find another way to deal with my insomnia I noticed after a few days I was missing my nightly “fix” of alcohol. Not good! In a way, you could say that a dependency had already started to form.
I had never felt like that before in my life and I was actually scared about what might happen if I continued to use alcohol as a crutch to help me sleep.
Alcoholism in itself is associated with factors such as, increased sleep onset, poor quality sleep, problems with sleep maintenance, and decreased REM sleep.
Finally, alcoholism increases the severity of obstructive sleep apnea, and this is even true for those who have no history of sleep apnea.
Drinking Alcohol Will Interrupt Your Sleep
Drinking alcohol will typically lead to a very light form of sleep and an individual waking up on numerous occasions throughout the night.
During the first half of the night, as your body is metabolizing the alcohol, you will typically spend more time in non-REM sleep.
Just in case you weren’t aware, REM sleep is required for both our physical and mental well-being, and this is usually the stage of sleep when the mind is refreshed and rejuvenated during the night.
This is actually why you’ll usually wake up after a night of drinking feeling mentally fatigued and drowsy, irrespective of how many hours you’ve spent under the covers.
A lot of people assume spending a lot of time in deep sleep may be a good thing, but in reality it isn’t good for you at all. The deep sleep cycle usually ends during the first half of the night (for people who generally sleep well and haven’t been drinking alcohol), thus allowing the cycles of REM sleep to gradually increase as the night goes on.
Our body’s are actually tuned to sleep a certain way and making sudden changes to how we naturally sleep isn’t good for our physical or mental well-being.
Once the alcohol in our system has been metabolized you would think everything would return to normal, but this isn’t the case and the second half of our night’s sleep becomes extremely disrupted.
This is when you begin to go through what is known as the “rebound effect”. The body is no longer sedated by alcohol and this leads to you going from deeper sleep to lighter sleep, as well as waking up more frequently.
More often than not, you’ll wake up in the second half of the night many times, but probably won’t even recall this the following morning. However, this will of course interrupt your sleep.
Not only does this mean poor quality sleep, but it plays around with our sleep cycles. You will typically spend longer during this period in REM sleep, which leads to vivid dreams. This is also when unexplained episodes of sleepwalking and sleep talking often occur.
The reason that you wake up so often is because alcohol interferes with the natural hormone production of sleep-related chemicals, such as melatonin.
Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that inhibits arousal and causes sleepiness. This is at its highest point when you drink alcohol and go to bed, thus making you fall asleep very quickly. However, as the night wears on, adenosine reduces and this causes constant awakenings.
Adenosine may then be produced at inappropriate times the following day, which is why you may feel sleepy in the afternoon, plus this throws your natural sleep-wake cycle into confusion.
So, you could say that this entire process has a knock-on effect on your sleeping patterns for a number of days.
What Happens When You Go To Bed Drunk?
The Effects of Alcohol on The Circadian Rhythm
I’ve mentioned how alcohol can cause disruptions to our natural sleep-wake cycle.
Firstly, before I go any further, a quick fact for you – Even a moderate amount of alcohol taken just one hour before bedtime can reduce melatonin production by 20%.
A moderate amount of alcohol is typically classed as ONE drink.
So, by enjoying just ONE drink an hour before bedtime you have already potentially decreased your chances of getting a good night’s sleep by 20%.
Basically, alcohol is reducing your internal body clock’s abilities to respond to light, which is normally what keeps you in sync over the course of a 24-hour day, i.e. alert and awake during daylight hours, tired and ready to sleep at night.
Additionally, our 24-hour internal body clock, or our circadian rhythm, is responsible for pretty much every single one of the body’s major processes that you can think of including:
- Cognitive function
- Sexual Functions
We are now aware that alcohol disrupts our circadian rhythms, although you can now see this is responsible for far more of the body’s processes than just sleep.
This may result in:
Poor liver function – the liver is the body’s natural filtration system. Its goal is to metabolize food and chemicals (which includes alcohol), as well as removing harmful toxins from the bloodstream.
When alcohol interferes with circadian rhythms this has a knock-on effect on the functioning of the liver, which in turn can lead to liver toxicity or liver disease.
Leaky gut – this is recognized as a real digestive condition, whereby toxins and bacteria are able to “leak” through the intestinal walls and enter the bloodstream.
Depression – insomnia and depression often go hand-in-hand and this is not improved if you throw alcohol into the mix.
The Circadian Rhythm Explained in 3 Minutes
Surely Alcohol Can’t Be That Bad For Sleep
If this wasn’t enough, unfortunately there’s more.
Diuretic effect – Alcohol pushing your circadian rhythms out of sync will lead to the diuretic effect.
We all know what a pain it can be to wake up in the middle of the night needing to go to the bathroom. It’s not just the hassle of getting out of bed and having to relieve yourself, but then also trying to fall back asleep again.
I know people may suffer from frequent night-time trips to the bathroom for various other reasons and medical conditions, but on the whole most of us sleep soundly through the night.
In fact, you could say that your body has learned to put your bladder to sleep for the night as well. Can you think of any other time of the day when you go a full 7-9 hours without needing to visit the bathroom?
However, alcohol being a diuretic will typically disrupt your sleep for regular visits to the restroom.
Night sweats – Alcohol plays havoc with the body’s core temperature.
You will usually find that alcohol actually cools you down at first, which makes it far easier to fall asleep. However, in the second half of the night the body’s temperature will increase.
Due to its diuretic effects, alcohol will literally force your body to lose this heat, and the easiest way to achieve this is through sweat. This will of course make you dehydrated.
Snoring and Sleep Apnea – Both these sleep disorders typically occur due to the relaxed tissues in either the nose, mouth, or throat. This in turn can cause a blockage in your airways, which leads to these relaxed tissues vibrating and making the sounds that we associate with snoring and sleep apnea.
Alcohol is a relaxant, so this is why many people snore when they have consumed alcohol. If you’re someone who already suffers from these conditions then you’re aggravating them.
Alcohol consumption can eventually promote sleep disorders such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea, or as I’ve just alluded to, make them worse.
As you can see alcohol affects your circadian rhythm and this can lead to a multitude of issues and conditions.
The lack of quality sleep will usually cause you to feel sleepy, irritable, fatigued, and you’ll experience problems with concentration and focus the following day.
Basically, the more you drink the closer it gets to your bedtime the more of a negative impact it will have on your sleep.
With that said, I’ve already mentioned that even a moderate amount of alcohol close to bedtime will still have an affect on the quality of your sleep.
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop drinking completely in order to sleep well.
I would hazard a guess that you’d like to know how much is too much alcohol in this case and when is the right time to be drinking.
When and How Much Can You Drink to Not Impact on Sleep?
An ideal amount (as a drinker obviously) is to stick to no more than 2-3 times a week.
This allows you to possibly have a couple of beers after work, enjoy a few glasses of wine during a romantic restaurant meal, share a glass or two with friends at the weekend, or simply crack open a can or bottle of something at the end of a hard week.
As to when you should be drinking – research shows that your body struggles to metabolize alcohol at specific times of the day. This is especially true in the morning and again at night.
However, it appears that consuming alcohol in the early evening, typically around the time of most “Happy Hours” (oh, so that’s why it’s called happy hour) is the ideal time to have a drink.
In a way I feel ever so slightly hypocritical writing about how alcohol affects sleep, as I am a drinker myself.
My own insomnia was caused by a combination or grief, stress, and bad sleep hygiene habits (things I was doing during the day and the evening that would affect my sleep).
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I had never really considered the impact that alcohol had on my sleep before this, and that’s even with the many extremely boozy nights out.
However, as I’ve mentioned, when insomnia started to become an issue I turned to alcohol as a solution, and for the first time EVER in my life I was drinking on a daily basis.
It actually took me nearly 2 months (initially for 3 weeks, then I stopped for a few days, and then returned to drinking every night for a few more weeks) of doing this to finally realize that I was going down a rocky path and I had to try something else to combat my insomnia.
This doesn’t mean I’ve become a teetotaler, far from it, but I’m now more aware of the impact alcohol has on my sleeping patterns.
I hope you are too.
Thank you for reading and Sweet Dreams.