If you’ve ever had a few glasses of drink too many, you might’ve noticed that your sleep quality that night has reduced. Even though initially consuming alcohol might make you somewhat sleepy, studies show that high alcohol consumption has damaging effects on our sleep and overall health. In today’s article on does alcohol affect sleep, we will go over some of the findings of the above-mentioned studies and examine in what way alcohol affects our sleep. We will also play a devil’s advocate and offer a few positive benefits of low alcohol consumption.
In addition to that, we will provide some tips on what to do to help your sleep after a night out, as well as some general tips that can help you have better sleep, including a FAQ section.
How Alcohol Affects Sleep
You might be aware of the consequences of alcohol consumption on sleep quality based on your own personal experience. Let’s see exactly which stage of sleep alcohol has an effect on and to what extent.
While some aspects of the relationship between sleep and alcohol are yet to be researched, the scientific evidence we have thus far point to the fact that alcohol has a predominantly negative impact on our sleep quality. The sleep cycle consists of four stages, three of which belong to the category of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and one REM (rapid eye movement) stage. These stages are continuously repeated throughout the night, and the average duration of a sleeping cycle is around an hour and a half. Alcohol mostly affects our REM sleep, which is known for being deep, restorative, and crucial for maintaining our mental and physical health.
Since the REM cycle is the shortest out of all four of them (it’s said to last approximately 10 minutes), you can see why the negative effects of alcohol on REM sleep might be so substantial. When we drink large quantities of alcohol before we go to sleep, the REM stage of our sleep cycles is repressed, and this continues throughout the night. Repeatedly going through low-quality REM stages in one night leads to a bad night of sleep and we wake up feeling groggy and lacking energy.
Another way alcohol negatively impacts our sleeping hygiene is by reducing our overall melatonin levels. Melatonin, also known as the sleeping hormone, doesn’t only impact our sleep, but it’s crucial for our overall health since it helps with healing, maintaining our circadian rhythm, and pain management.
Several factors impact your body’s response to alcohol, such as the quantity of alcohol you’re drinking, how quickly you drink it, your height and weight, as well as how fit you are. For instance, drinking two glasses of vodka won’t have the same effect if you drink it in the span of ten minutes and an hour.
How much you drink matters too. According to a study published in Substance Abuse, “ Lower doses may increase total sleep time, whereas higher doses may lead to short-term withdrawal, increasing sympathetic activity and sleep disruption especially during the second half of the night.” You might have noticed this yourself – drinking a glass of wine during dinner is relatively innocuous and allows you to maintain your sleep quality, whereas having a couple of glasses might lead to you waking up in the middle of the night or not being able to fall sleep.
Several symptoms are related to binge drinking before sleep. For instance, you’re more prone to suffer from nightmares, night sweats, and headaches. More importantly, drinking alcohol has also been associated with some common sleep disorders which we will discuss below.
Does Alcohol Cause Insomnia?
We can’t explore the connection between low-quality sleep and alcohol without mentioning one of its most common side effects – insomnia. Insomnia is a common type of sleeping disorder that manifests itself through having difficulty of falling asleep at night, which results in experiencing fatigue, irritability, and low energy the following day. So, how exactly does alcohol lead to that?
As we already mentioned before, alcohol reduces the overall time of REM sleep you get during the night. This, in turn, lowers the quality of your sleep and makes you more prone to waking up in the middle of the night. Many studies back up the claims that consuming large quantities of alcohol prior to going to bed can exasperate the symptoms of insomnia. The findings of a study published in Current Opinion on Psychology claim that “Alcohol misuse (heavy alcohol use and AUD) appears to be linked in a bi-directional fashion to sleep-related problems such as insomnia and circadian rhythm abnormalities”.
Not only that, but the conductors of the study also found a possible link between alcohol use and complex insomnia phenotypes. In other words, there’s a high risk that you might suffer from insomnia if you’re prone to having a couple of glasses of alcohol during the weekends. Apart from insomnia, other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea have also been reported in people who consume large quantities of alcohol.
If you suspect that you might be suffering from any of these sleep disorders, of if the consumption of alcohol has worsened your symptoms, we strongly suggest that you visit a specialist or a doctor in order to get proper treatment for your condition.
Can Alcohol Help Us Sleep?
On the other hand, there is both anecdotal and scientific evidence that support the claim that alcohol can make us fall asleep faster.
Alcohol, just like other substances, can have a sedative effect on some individuals, which can lead to us feeling drowsy and falling asleep faster. With that said, even though you may initially fall asleep faster, if you have consumed a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, you will likely experience disturbance in your sleeping cycles, which leads to lower quality of sleep overall. If you weigh in the pros and cons of drinking alcohol in order to help you fall asleep faster, the cons definitely outweigh the pros to a substantial degree. Not to mention, there are several other reasons why you shouldn’t rely on alcohol as a sedative which we will discuss below.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Alcohol to Help You Sleep
Apart from the palpable sleep-related problems that might arise as a consequence of drinking alcohol, it can also have a detrimental effect on your overall health. There are several studies that support this claim, such as the study published in Alcohol research & health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholis, “Among young people, long-term heavy alcohol consumption has been identified as an important risk factor for stroke”. Apart from having a bad effect on our cardiovascular health, high alcohol consumption has been associated with a weakened immune system, mental health problems, and even cancer.
Needless to say, treating alcohol as sleeping medication is far from being a good idea. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep at night, we recommend trying out some of the tips we go over below or consulting with a doctor who might prescribe natural supplements or medication.
How Long Should I Wait Before I Go to Bed After Drinking?
We’ve already established that drinking large quantities of alcohol can be detrimental not only to our sleep but also to our overall health. However, there are some benefits associated with low alcohol intake. For instance, according to this article on Harvard School of Public Health, light to moderate drinking can increase the risk of heart attack, strokes, peripheral vascular disease, and other cardiovascular diseases.
So, if you want to enjoy an evening glass of wine but you’re worried about the possible sleep disturbance, here is a safe way you can go about it to avoid any sleep-related problems.
The best time to consume alcohol is up to four hours prior to going to sleep. That way, by the time you fall asleep, some of the alcohol would already be flushed out of your system and metabolised and the chances of you suffering any sleep disturbance is minimised. What also helps neutralise the effects of alcohol is drinking plenty of water and drinking on a full stomach.
If drinking before bed has become a habit for you, instead of alcohol, try ending your day with a glass of milk or a warm cup of tea.
How to Sleep Better After Drinking Alcohol
The best way to prevent alcohol from causing any sleep disturbances is to not have it in large quantities. However, if you do reach a point where you fear that your sleep might be affected, here are some tips for getting better quality sleep after a night out.
Don’t expect it to go away soon. Your body takes a long time to process alcohol, so try to give yourself plenty of time to dilute its effects on your body.
Avoid alcohol that has caffeine. Many alcoholic drinks are teeming with caffeine, especially cocktails and shots. This is another sneaky way that drinking alcohol can affect your sleep. To avoid this, try to stay away from any drinks that might contain a lot of caffeine.
Use the bathroom before going to bed. Sounds obvious, but the last thing you’d want after a night out is to wake up in the middle of the night to use the toilet.
Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Before we leave you off with our final thoughts on the subject of whether alcohol affects sleep, here are some general tips you can use to improve your overall sleep quality.
Ideally, you’ll want to dim all the lights before you go to bed. Our melatonin production is optimised when there are no lights in our environment, so it’s best to turn off any lamps or electronic devices you have in your bedroom. If you love watching your favourite comfort TV show before going to bed, set a timer for your computer to turn off after half an hour or so.
Having a regular exercise regimen can also be of immense help when trying to improve your sleep quality. One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll want to schedule your workouts earlier in the day because the energy might also keep you up.
Creating a calming night routine can also be beneficial. Your night routine can be a combination of your relaxing hobbies and some self-care habits like taking a bath, stretching, reading, or journaling.
Although it’s not often talked about, waking up and going to bed at the same time each night is crucial. Even though the weekends are the perfect time to have a lie in, try your best to remain as disciplined as possible in order to maintain your sleeping schedule.
Sometimes napping can do more harm than good, so it might be a good idea to limit your afternoon naps to 20 or 30 minutes so that your sleep isn’t affected.
Can Alcohol Cause Sleep Problems?
Yes, alcohol can cause several sleep-related problems such as waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep. Additionally, it can also cause or exasperate the existing symptoms of certain sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnoea.
Why Does Alcohol Stop You From Sleeping?
While it’s true that alcohol makes certain individuals drowsy, it can also have the opposite effect – it can prevent you from falling asleep. This occurs because the REM stage of sleeping is disturbed by large alcohol consumption, which, in turn, results in light sleep and low quality of sleep.
Can Alcohol Cause Permanent Insomnia?
Some studies suggest that prolonged consumption of alcohol can lead to chronic sleep problems and even sleep disorders like insomnia.
We hope we successfully answered the “does alcohol affect sleep” dilemma. The factors that influence to what degree you will be affected by alcohol include your body weight and height, your physical stamina, and the quantity of alcohol you’ve consumed. Large quantities of alcohol disturb our REM sleep and circadian rhythm and can cause detrimental effects on both our sleep and our overall health. On the other hand, a low alcohol intake can even be beneficial in terms of our cardiovascular health, so it’s best to practice moderation.
He, Sean et al. “Alcohol and sleep-related problems.” Current opinion in psychology vol. 30 (2019): 117-122. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.03.007
“Health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption.” Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 24,1 (2000): 5-11.
Stein, Michael D, and Peter D Friedmann. “Disturbed sleep and its relationship to alcohol use.” Substance abuse vol. 26,1 (2005): 1-13. doi:10.1300/j465v26n01_01