Anyone who has a drink now and again knows that beer, wine, or spirits can sometimes leave you feeling drowsy. This makes it a great nightcap, right? Well, not really. While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it’ll also contribute to poor quality of sleep later. If you drink alcohol excessively, your sleep will be disturbed to the point that you could have a sleeping disorder. Alcoholism and sleep don’t mix well, but just how serious are the effects?
Alcohol Is Not A Sleep Aid
Although alcohol can seem to be helping you to sleep, it’s more disruptive to sleep in the long run. Irshaad Ebrahim, the medical director at The London Sleep Centre, explains that the immediate and short-term effect of alcohol is to “reduce the time it takes to fall asleep”. He suggests that this could be why people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid. However, the consequence of using alcohol to fall asleep quickly is that you’ll struggle with “disrupted sleep in the second half of the night”.1
Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist in Scottsdale, Ariz, agrees that alcohol and sleep are not a good mix. He warns that, if you rely on alcohol to fall asleep or drink alcohol excessively during the day, then you should expect to “sleepwalk, sleep talk, and have problems with your memory”.2
A lack of sleep is linked to a range of health problems, including depression and heart disease.3 As alcohol can prevent you from getting a restorative sleep, it can also lead to more serious health issues, too.
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep?
There’s a battle of sleep rhythms. Drinking alcohol before going to sleep is linked with slow-wave sleep patterns called delta activity. This is a deep sleep that allows for memory formation and learning. However, there’s another type of brain pattern that’s turned on if you drink before going to bed – alpha activity. Alpha activity doesn’t usually happen during sleep, but when you’re resting quietly.4 When both sleep rhythms are working at the same time after drinking, you’ll be kept from getting a restorative sleep.
It can interrupt your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a 24-hour clock that works in the background of your brain. It lets your body know when it’s time to go to sleep, and when you have to wake up. While you may fall asleep quickly after drinking, it’s also normal to wake up in the middle of the night. One reason for this is that alcohol may affect the normal production of chemicals in the body that trigger sleepiness when you’ve been awake for a long time. These chemicals subside once you’ve had enough sleep. After drinking, production of adenosine (a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain) is increased. This allows for a fast onset of sleep, but it’ll subside as quickly as it came. Therefore, you’re more likely to wake up before you’re truly rested and getting back to sleep can be difficult when the immediate effects of alcohol have worn off. You can read more about circadian rhythm in our article here.
It blocks REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep usually makes up about 25% of sleep time for young adults, and can last about 90 minutes.5 REM sleep is normally associated with dreaming. As REM sleep is considered the most restorative type of sleep, you’re likely to wake up feeling groggy if alcohol disrupts your sleep.
It can cause breathing problems. Alcohol causes your whole body to relax, including the muscles of your throat. According to Ebrahim, alcohol “suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep [apnoea]” and snoring.6 Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is a disorder in which the upper air passage narrows or closes while you’re asleep, causing interrupted breathing. When this happens, you’ll wake up, resume breathing, and then return to sleep. This can happen hundreds of times during the night. Although someone with OSA isn’t aware they’re waking up during the night, it can still significantly reduce sleep quality. You can read more about sleep apnoea in our article here. Research has also linked the combination of sleep apnoea, snoring, and alcohol consumption with an increased risk of heart attack, arrhythmia, and stroke.7
You’ll have more bathroom trips. Your body knows that night-time is for sleeping, not going to the bathroom. Therefore, your body has put your bladder into hibernation mode for the night. However, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases the production of urine. Therefore, alcohol can make you need to go to the bathroom more, interrupting your sleep continuously.
Avoiding Alcohol to Go to Sleep
If you find yourself relying on alcohol for going to sleep, better sleep habits will work better.
- Talk to someone you trust. If you’re turning to alcohol due to worries or issues in your life, talking to someone will ease this burden better than alcohol will. A problem shared is a problem halved. It might feel hard to start talking about how you feel, but sharing your thoughts and worries can help you feel better.
- Exercise. Regular exercise is good for both your physical and mental health. Limit your workouts to mornings and afternoons. You can read more about how exercise helps improve your sleep in our article, ‘Five Ways Exercise Helps You Sleep’.
- Think about your diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable can make a difference to your mood and energy levels.
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. Avoid alcohol and other stimulants, like coffee, chocolate, and nicotine, before going to sleep. Never watch TV, use the computer, or look at your phone or emails before going to bed. Read a book for an hour before going to sleep.
- Have a good sleeping environment. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet.
If you’re struggling with alcohol and sleep, the best way to help yourself is to talk to your doctor. They will be able to rule out any underlying sleep disorders, like insomnia or sleep apnoea, and can recommend appropriate solutions to help you get a better sleep.