How Does Alcohol Affect My Sleep?

Dr. William Beecroft

| 4 min read

Those late-night glasses of wine or tall mugs of beer may help you fall asleep faster than you would on a sober night, but there’s a good chance you’ll pay for it as the night progresses.
Alcohol’s sedative properties slow down the central nervous system, making it easier for some of us to drift off to sleep soon after drinking. The problem is, over the course of the night, our quality of sleep suffers. Consuming alcohol before bed can lead to irregular sleep cycles, more time spent in the “light” stage of sleep, and that groggy, sluggish, hungover feeling the next day.

Why do I have “light sleep’ or wake up a lot after drinking?

Just as tolerance to alcohol varies by the person, so does the substance’s effect on sleep. Factors like amount of alcohol consumed and how quickly it was consumed impact people differently. To understand the full scope of alcohol’s impact on sleep, learn more about sleep’s four stages:
  • Awake: Awake time is the time spent before – and then briefly after – falling asleep.
  • Light: Your body and muscles start to relax in the second stage as sleep becomes more regular.
  • Deep: Also known as the “Slow Wave Stage (SWS), experts believe this stage is critical for restorative sleep, meaning it allows for bodily recovery. It’s difficult to wake someone up when they are in this stage.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM): This is the stage that involves the most vivid dreams. Studies indicate that REM sleep is essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning and creativity. You do not enter the REM stage until you have been asleep for about 90 minutes.
If you drink alcohol close to bedtime, your blood alcohol levels may continue to rise during the first two stages of sleep. You may also fall into the third stage of sleep quicker than you normally would.
Drinking alcohol late at night can also lead to suppression of REM sleep and prevent us from falling into a deep sleep, which we need to maintain normal brain function, physical health, and emotional well-being.
Alcohol has very short half-life – meaning your system eliminates at least half of the substance very quickly. It binds on the GABA receptor, which causes relaxation, but when that receptor gets less alcohol bound to it is very sensitive to other excitatory neurotransmitters. In effect, this leads to a withdrawal. This then causes wakefulness. If you do this frequently enough, you change your normal circadian rhythms and your sleep cycle becomes dysregulated, causing chronic sleep problems.

Can alcohol lead to sleeping disorders?

Long-term alcohol use and alcohol use disorders (AUD) can result in insomnia – the most common sleep disorder – and other chronic sleep problems. According to the American Addiction Centers, the prevalence of insomnia for those struggling with alcohol dependence is estimated to be between 36% and 91%, a well-above average total.

At what point of the night should I stop drinking to minimize sleep disruption?

Drinking alcohol in moderation is the only way to avoid putting your health at risk. Those who drink the recommended amount of alcohol per day – which is one drink or less for women and two drinks or less for men – can minimize alcohol’s negative effect on sleep by stopping at least four hours before bedtime. Four hours gives your body plenty of time to metabolize the alcohol and get it out of your system.

How to get healthy sleep without alcohol

Avoid the one perceived “benefit” of alcohol use before bed as a sedative by replacing that habit with actual healthy ones. Here are some ideas:
  • Relax before bed by stretching, doing yoga, reading a few chapters of a book, or listening to calming music.
  • Exercise to wear yourself out during the day. Running, weightlifting and aerobic exercise in the mornings and afternoons can make you sleepier at night and increase the amount of SWS you get while asleep.
  • Try an alternative beverage like chamomile, lavender, or valerian root tea. Each of these herbal teas are free of caffeine. Studies show that herbal teas help promote sound sleep in adults without shaking up the bedtime routine.
Additionally, here are some good sleep hygiene techniques:
  • Keep a routine bedtime and waking time, even on weekends.
  • Don't exercise within two hours of bedtime.
  • Reserve your bed for sleep only, don’t eat there or watch TV.
  • Eliminate use of electronics at least one hour before bed.
  • Take a warm bath or shower – whichever you find more relaxing –
  • one hour before bed.
  • Consume a 4- to 6-ounce serving of dairy – if you can tolerate dairy – 30 minutes before bed (omit cheese).
These Michigan businesses promote a "sober curious" lifestyle:
Photo credit: Getty Images

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