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How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Learn more about how alcohol and sleep doesn't go hand in hand. Based on countless research and experts in the field.

Outline Of Alcohol And Sleep

You might be familiar with the term “night-cap,” or in other words, when you turn to alcohol as a means to wind down for the night before you go to bed. It turns out that alcohol is the most common sleep aid used — roughly 20% of U.S. adults consume alcohol before bed. Feeling drowsy enough to fall asleep may lead you to finally close your eyes, but the sentiment that alcohol is good for your sleep is actually a myth. Drinking before bed has a number of negative effects on the quality of your rest, your sleep-wake cycle, and the important processes that occur while you’re asleep.

Continue on in our post to learn about the effects of alcohol on sleep.

What’s In Alcohol?

The only type of alcohol humans are able to ingest without fatal consequences is ethanol, which is the byproduct of grain and fruit fermentation processes. It’s a clear liquid that your body absorbs through the gastrointestinal tract, and is classified as a drug due to its depressive and psychoactive effects on our body.

alcohol before bedtime
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

As such, when it comes to drinking alcohol, moderation is key. Otherwise, drinking too much before bed can seriously impact your quality of sleep and how you perform in your day-to-day routine.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Drinking before bed does more harm than good to your health, and can really throw off important natural processes that occur in your body during sleep. There are several reasons why you should avoid turning to an alcoholic beverage before bed. Although you may seem drowsier initially after drinking it, the sleep inducing effects of alcohol can quickly wear off and result in the following:

  • Alcohol is a diuretic which means it promotes the body to produce more urine. You’ll have the urge to use the bathroom more often in the night when you drink before bed, interrupting your sleep.
  • It will relax your muscles including the ones that shouldn’t relax, such as your throat muscles. When you drink alcohol before bed, you’re more likely to snore or experience sleep apnea, a condition in which your airway becomes blocked or even gives way when you’re sleeping.  Alcohol only makes the issue worse, and can lead to sleep interruptions throughout the night for you and your partner.
  • Alcohol can suppress melatonin, a natural hormone that sends signals to your body to indicate it’s time to rest, and helps to regulate your sleep/wake cycle. With a decrease in melatonin production, you can struggle with sleep latency and staying asleep.
  • Alcohol interferes with how your nervous system regulates your heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, which can contribute to night sweats and an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
  • Alcohol is known to cause sleepwalking and sleep-eating if you overdo drinking before bed, which are both potentially dangerous to an individual’s health. 
  • Alcohol reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It’s the phase of your sleep cycle when you dream — and the most restorative time of the night. Not being able to stay in the REM phase long enough makes you feel tired and groggy the next day.
  • Alcohol also disrupts circadian rhythm, an essential element to your body’s functions. The circadian rhythm is your body’s master clock, in other words, it helps to regulate your sleep/wake cycle, metabolism, moods, your immune system and more.

Alcohol, Sleep, And Weight Loss

For those who are trying to live a healthier lifestyle or are trying to lose weight, alcohol’s impact on sleep directly affects weight loss. Interestingly enough, they are all related in several ways.

Quality sleep is essential for weight loss, as a poor night’s sleep slows your metabolism and makes it more difficult to lose weight. If you’re interfering with sleep by consuming alcohol at bedtime, you’re disrupting your circadian rhythm (the body’s master clock) which regulates your metabolism and other body functions vital for weight loss.

Additionally, if you’re struggling with weight, you should know that alcohol is filled with empty calories. Consuming empty calories right before you go to bed increases your daily calorie intake, and your chances of burning off the calories at night are much lower. One beer, for example, is around 154 calories while one shot of vodka is around 97 calories — this adds up quickly if you have multiple drinks before bed.

Trying to get through the day on poor-quality sleep causes your body to release cortisol, a stress hormone. Your body could hang on to body fat as a result of a cortisol release, which is obviously counterproductive for weight loss.

Furthermore, waking up feeling groggy after a bad night of sleep may cause you to crave sugar and caffeine for an energy boost. Unfortunately, sodas, sugary snacks and certain coffee drinks are calorie-heavy and can keep you from making the progress you’re striving for in your weight loss journey.

Alcohol’s Effect On Your Sleep Stages

Your body goes through five different sleep phases when you fall asleep, counting REM sleep as the last stage. The first nREM sleep stages (one and two) are both considered light sleep periods. During these stages, your body temperature decreases and heart rate slows down while all of your muscles relax. Next come stages three and four, when your body is in its restorative state. This promotes muscle tissue growth and repair, and your brain disposes of waste. It helps ensure you wake up feeling rested, energetic and refreshed, not only physically but mood-wise as well.

About 90 minutes into falling asleep, you’ll enter the REM sleep phase which will reoccur about every hour and a half. REM sleep is the stage where you are most likely to dream, and your eyes are quickly moving back and forth under your eyelids — hence the name rapid eye movement. REM sleep is important because it contributes to memory and knowledge retention, and your ability to efficiently problem solve.

sleep after alcohol

The problem with having alcoholic drinks to promote relaxation and induce sleep is that alcohol reduces the REM sleep phase. A shorter length of REM sleep means you’ll wake up tired and groggy and may struggle with concentrating throughout the day, your motor skills, and even memory. It also affects your body’s internal alarm clock, making it harder for your body to recognize when it’s time to go to sleep.

The Relationship Between Alcohol and Sleep Insomnia

In some cases, alcohol can be disruptive enough on an individual’s quality of sleep and sleep patterns to induce insomnia, the inability to fall asleep at night. Multiple studies have found a link between alcohol consumption and insomnia, which include:

  • Insomnia is exacerbated by interrupted sleep cycle lengths from drinking alcohol before bed. 
  • Insomniacs are more likely to use alcohol to help them sleep, creating a downward spiral of poorer-quality sleep and self-medication using alcohol.
  • Insomnia increases alcoholics’ craving to drink as it becomes part of their bedtime routine.
  • Insomnia is also very common when trying to quit drinking and can make it more difficult to overcome alcohol addiction. In fact, lack of sleep is a major contributor to drug and alcohol relapse.

Alcohol’s Effect On Aging And Sleep

It’s common for aging adults to recognize changes in their sleep patterns. As one gets older, the body produces less growth hormone and as a result, spends less time in the deep sleep stage. The body will also produce less melatonin, which makes it even harder for an elder individual to receive a full night’s rest.

According to this study, older adults who consumed heavy amounts of alcohol were most likely to experience sleep latency (when you’re having trouble falling asleep), and generally had the lowest sleep efficiency percentage compared to the other age groups. They also saw a decline in the total amount of time older individuals spent sleeping, and an increase in “respiratory distress,” like snoring or sleep apnea.

How Drinking Causes Hangovers

At one time or another, you’ve likely experienced a hangover the morning after having too much to drink. Hangovers are caused by the diuretic effect alcohol provokes. As we mentioned before, diuretics increases urine production — and the more you go to the bathroom, the more you’ll need to drink water or risk dehydration. As you can imagine, going to bed drunk causes a hangover if you’re not drinking water throughout the night to stay hydrated. Side effects of hangovers range in severity, and you might experience cottonmouth, fatigue, or in more extreme cases, a pounding migraine.

What’s more, Dr. Bonnie Gasquet, Medical Director of the Wellness Jar advises that alcohol also interrupts your digestion and can prevent nutrient absorption. “Alcohol consumption can irritate the lining of the stomach and leads to you absorbing less through the stomach itself,” she notes “If you are using your enzymes to break down the alcohol, then the enzymes are NOT doing what they would normally do for your nutrient consumption. So, you aren’t using those enzymes for breaking down fat properly, or pulling the appropriate vitamins or elements from foods, etc.”

Do’s and Don’ts of Hangovers

Have you ever heard wild hangover cures? We asked Dr. Rashmi Byakodi of Bestfornutrition.com for her take what to do (and avoid) when you have a hangover:

Don’t try to sweat it out. You are already dehydrated and need to drink more water to feel better. Stay in bed, drink enough better, and once you start feeling better, you can do slight stretching or go for a walk.

Don’t take Tylenol. To get rid of your headache if you take acetaminophen, it slows down the processing of alcohol and puts pressure on your liver to work harder.

Don’t drink more to get rid of the hangover. Your hangover is not a withdrawal symptom. By giving your body more alcohol, you will create dependence, in the long run, this may turn chronic. Instead, give yourself a fresh glass of water.

Do try eating these foods that may help ease your hangover:

  • Asparagus, which helps in boosting the levels of essential enzymes that break down the alcohol after heavy drinking.
  • Bananas, which will help in restoring the potassium levels in your body and improve your muscle functions.
  • Honey is filled with antioxidants and concentrated fructose which helps in flushing out the remaining alcohol in your stomach.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse  

Recognizing your or a loved one has an alcohol problem is the first step in recovery. Signs that your or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse include:

  • Needing a drink to relax, cope, sleep or to feel like you’re functioning normally
  • Choosing to drink over responsibilities
  • Drinking alone or secretly
  • Feeling hungover or unwell when not drinking
  • Occasionally blacking out and unable to remember what you did when you were drinking
alcohol addiction effect on sleep

If you or someone you love needs assistance in overcoming their addiction, reach out to your doctor or a general practitioner for an assessment. You could follow a self-directed program, or consider rehabilitation centers to help with treatment.

Does Alcohol Help You Sleep?

At the end of the end of the day, we need to discuss the benefits of not drinking before bed. According to countless research and experts in the field, it can actually make it worse. Using natural sleep inducing remedies is a more effective way to promote sleep, and are much more beneficial for a healthy lifestyle. Here are a few benefits of ditching your drink before bed:

  • Longer, better-quality sleep
  • Better concentration and higher energy levels the following day
  • Better sleep when traveling, such as for a business trip or to overcome jet lag
  • Better sleep for individuals with mental health concerns, including veterans, military, front-line workers, and people with PTSD

For those of you seeking alternative ways to help wind you down before bed, check out our guide on 101 sleep tips.