How Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep?

Tara Youngblood Aug 25, 2022

How does alcohol affect your sleep

Everyone enjoys a good drink every once in a while, whether it’s a craft beer, an elaborate cocktail, or a glass of fine wine. But, the popular question usually is - does alcohol help you sleep?

Alcohol is a depressant, and one of the biggest myths about it is that a drink before bedtime can help you sleep better. But while alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, that’s the extent of its sleep-related benefits.

Right away, we can answer the question this post poses:

Yes, the amount of alcohol can hurt your sleep quality.

We’ll discuss the effects of alcohol and sleep. Plus, you can use simple yet effective approaches instead of drinking before bedtime.

Why Does it Make You Sleepy?

Anyone who’s ever had a drink or more understands that alcohol consumption can make you sleepy at night.

Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. It has a sedative effect that makes you tired and helps you relax, resulting in falling asleep faster.

Researchers have found that the sedative effect lasts only for the first part of the night. Somebody who consumes alcohol before bed doesn’t wake up as often during the first few hours of sleep. If they happen to wake up, it’s for a shorter period.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep

People often ask, “Does alcohol makes you sleepy or help you sleep?” A recent study found tha 20% of Americans use alcohol to fall asleep at night. [1] The problem with this method is that even though it might help you fall asleep, what happens afterward would not be considered a good night’s sleep.

Note: Alcohol’s impact on sleep largely depends on the individual.

1. Less Restorative Sleep

This is important. While drinking alcohol before you go to bed can generate the delta wave activity associated with deep sleep. But, it can also trigger alpha wave activity, typically occurring while you’re resting quietly, not full-bore sleeping. These competing sleep patterns mean your body and mind will not obtain the restorative night’s sleep they need to be at the peak of their powers.

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2. Physiological Changes

Drinking unreasonable amounts of alcohol may provoke acute physiological changes, including:

  • Increasing your body temperature
  • Skin flushing may occur
  • Dehydrating the body

Neither of the above items contributes to getting a restorative night's sleep!

Note: Dehydrating the body can lead to night sweats, make you feel hot, and wake you up because you are thirsty.

Read More: Why do I Seep Hot at Night

Alcohol can reduce the amount of sleep you get

3. Reduce REM Sleep

Alcohol can cause sleep disruptions and reduce REM sleep. Individuals who drink alcohol before bed can experience insomnia symptoms and potentially feel excessively sleepy the following day. Since alcohol inhibits REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) adversely affects your motor functions, memory, and more.

4. Weakened Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Determining HRV and your body temperature variations is critical to understand. Alcohol consumption complicates sleep because it weakens your heart rate variability and increases your heart rate. And according to research by the Cleveland Clinic, alcohol can accelerate the heart rate and contribute to panic attacks in some individuals. [2]

5. Circadian Rhythm Disruption

Falling asleep fast after drinking comes with a price: there’s a strong chance you’ll wake up in the middle of the night. It produces adenosine, a chemical that signals it is time to go to sleep. However, that quick (and unnatural) fix of adenosine disappears soon after it arrives, increasing the likelihood that you’ll wake up sooner than you should.

Read More: Circadian Rythm and Sleep

6. Bathroom Breaks Frequently

Drinking before bed usually leads to one or more bathroom trips at night. Generally, your body prevents the urge to go to the bathroom while you sleep. But, between the potential to disrupt sleep we’ve already discussed and the fact that what goes in must come out, consuming alcohol in the evenings means you’re going to struggle to stay asleep one way or another.

Alcohol can lead to snoring

7. Restricted Airflow and Snoring

While alcohol relaxes your mind, it has the same impact on your body. This includes your throat and jaw muscles, which at best can restrict airflow, leading to snoring, and, at worst, induce mild sleep apnea.

As you can see, there are significant disadvantages to drinking before bed. Studies show that heavy or moderate consumption can cause sleep apnea in people who don't have a sleep disorder. [3]

Did You Know: Drinking alcohol increases the risk of sleep apnea by 25%. [4]

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Sleep apnea can be a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing frequently stops and starts. Sleep apnea symptoms can include the following:

  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
  • Gasping for air while sleeping

Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms or signs of sleep apnea.

8. Potentially Cause Insomnia

Drinking alcohol can potentially cause insomnia symptoms and feeling groggy the following day and has proven to reduce REM sleep. This can interrupt your sleep cycle. People who have been diagnosed with alcohol disorders report signs of insomnia.

Did You Know: 35-70% of alcohol users report sleep problems consistent with clinical insomnia. [5]

9. Realistic Dreams

Having alcohol in your system when going to bed can increase the person's chances of having vivid dreams, sleepwalking, or nightmares. They all can diminish the quality of sleep.

Final Thought

While alcohol and sleep don't mix, it doesn't mean you should stop having a drink altogether or a glass of wine. You can take this information as far as you want. Maybe it helps you understand how it can affect your sleep.

Did You Know: Research has also associated binge drinking with disrupted sleep. [6]

You may reduce or stop drinking before bedtime on weekdays, or if you're going to track the effects of alcohol more intensely, some products track HRV and body temperature trends—then see how those measurements and others change on the nights you imbibe.

Did You Know: People should stop drinking alcohol at least four hours [7] before bedtime; this can help reduce the likelihood of someone's chance of sleep disruptions.

The most important takeaway from this post is a common refrain for those struggling to sleep: reflecting on your habits and potentially changing some of them might positively impact your sleep quality. Alcohol is simply one habit that might hurt more than help.

Citations/References

[1] Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. (n.d.). View Resource

[2] Why Am I Panicking in My Sleep? (2021, April 29). Cleveland Clinic. View Resource

[3] Simou E, Britton J, Leonardi-Bee J. Alcohol and the risk of sleep apnoea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med. 2018 Feb;42:38-46. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2017.12.005. Epub 2018 Jan 3. PMID: 29458744; PMCID: PMC5840512.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Angarita, G. A., Emadi, N., Hodges, S., & Morgan, P. T. (2016). Sleep abnormalities associated with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opiate use: a comprehensive review. Addiction science & clinical practice, 11(1), 9.

[6] Stein MD, Friedmann PD. Disturbed sleep and its relationship to alcohol use. Subst Abus. 2005 Mar;26(1):1-13. doi: 10.1300/j465v26n01_01. PMID: 16492658; PMCID: PMC2775419.

[7] Ibid.

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