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Drink Less, Sleep Better: How Alcohol Consumption Affects Sleep

A refreshing night’s sleep is critical to good overall health, yet up to 19% of adults in the U.S. say they don’t get enough rest or sleep every day. It’s possibly even more concerning that an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. If you’re experiencing sleep problems and haven’t found a solution, maybe it’s time to ask: How does alcohol affect sleep? Alcohol could be standing between you and a healthy sleep schedule.

The Importance of a Good Night’s Sleep

Typically, an adult needs seven to eight hours of quality sleep at night, though every person is different. In addition to getting a sufficient number of hours of sleep, it’s also essential to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Because sleep deprivation is such a prevalent problem, many people may feel tempted to downplay it and accept it as an inevitable part of life. This attitude is a dangerous stance to take, since sleep is vital to various aspects of your mental and physical health, quality of life and safety. Getting sufficient sleep can help you:

  • Fight off illnesses more effectively
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease and other conditions
  • Enhance your mood and reduce stress
  • Get along better with people
  • Focus and think more clearly
  • Be more alert with a faster response time

Conversely, a chronic lack of sleep can leave you with a host of problems. You may notice how exhausted you feel after a restless night, but you may not realize how severe the long-term effects can be when you’re consistently under-rested. Sleep deprivation can leave you vulnerable to illnesses, weight gain, diseases, mental health and mood issues and mental acuity problems.

Does Alcohol Help You Sleep?

Some people may assume alcohol is helpful for sleep, since it has a relaxing, soporific effect. Consuming alcohol can help a person fall asleep because alcohol is a depressant. As alcohol enters the bloodstream, it introduces chloride ions to neurons, slowing the neurons’ firing. The result is a feeling of relaxation or sleepiness. However, people tend to quickly develop a tolerance to alcohol’s sedative effects, so if you drink regularly, you may not feel sleepy unless you drink to excess.

While alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep for a few hours, it’s important to note that alcohol’s sedative effect wears off during the night. Still, you may think drinking before bed is a good idea if you have trouble relaxing and falling asleep.

However, the reality is that alcohol has more of an adverse effect on sleep than a positive one. If you’re drinking before bed to help with sleep, you should choose a different relaxation method that will help you achieve better-quality sleep.

Can Alcohol Cause Insomnia?

The relationship between alcohol and sleep is mostly harmful. Some people may find they can’t sleep after drinking or their sleep quality suffers, and the science backs up this reality. There are several aspects of alcohol’s effects on sleep.

1. It Interferes With Your Circadian Rhythm

Alcohol and sleep patterns do not mix well. The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock, which helps you feel awake during daylight hours and sleepy at night. A crucial part of your circadian rhythm is melatonin production — a natural sleep-inducing hormone. As it gets dark, the pineal gland starts releasing melatonin, so your body can transition more smoothly into sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin creation stops.

When you experience a lot of daytime sleepiness and feel too alert to fall asleep at night, it may mean your circadian rhythm is not functioning as it should, which could be due to insufficient melatonin production. Research shows that consuming alcohol — even in a moderate dose — an hour before bedtime can cause a notable reduction in melatonin production.

Alcohol consumption could disrupt your circadian rhythm in other ways, too. For instance, a late night of drinking followed by sleeping in the next morning will interfere with the consistent sleep schedule needed for quality rest. Research also suggests alcohol impairs a person’s response to light cues, which is a crucial part of regulating your internal clock.

2. It Delays and Diminishes REM Sleep

Consuming alcohol could also result in an imbalance in the sleep stages you experience. Most sleep is non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. This deep, slow-wave sleep is critical to getting good-quality rest. However, rapid eye movement sleep (REM) is also a vital part of the sleep cycle, since it aids in mental restoration.

When your body is metabolizing alcohol while you’re asleep, you’ll experience more NREM sleep and less REM sleep than you otherwise would. Interfering with your body’s natural rhythms will result in lower-quality sleep overall and may even cause you to wake up throughout the night. In other words, though alcohol may cause you to fall asleep quickly, you can expect a restless night ahead.

Drinking to excess before bed also plays havoc with the REM sleep stage. Studies indicate an evening of heavy drinking leads to a significant reduction in REM sleep during the first half of the night.

3. It Has a Rebound Effect in the Second Half of the Night

Research also shows that those who drink alcohol before bedtime may experience a rebound in the second half of the night. In this case, they will transition from deep sleep imbalanced in favor of NREM sleep to restless sleep with a shift in favor of longer-than-normal periods of REM sleep.

This phenomenon comes as your body finishes metabolizing the alcohol you consumed. The point at which that happens depends on how much you drank before bed. If you go to bed with a breath-alcohol concentration in the range of 0.06% to 0.08%, for instance, your body will metabolize the alcohol after four to five hours of sleep.

When your body has eliminated the alcohol, the substance’s sedative effects will have worn off, which is also why you may start to feel how disrupted your sleep is. At this stage, you’re likely to have broken sleep punctuated by frequent awakenings. You won’t necessarily open your eyes and sit up in bed. The next morning, you may not even remember waking during the night, but you’ll wake up feeling under-rested due to falling in and out of sleep repeatedly.

4. It Can Cause Trips to the Bathroom

Another way alcohol can disrupt your sleep is by causing you to make trips to the bathroom to urinate. You probably don’t drink a large volume of water just before bed because you know if you do, you’ll be waking up at least once during the night. However, you may not think twice about drinking alcoholic beverages, which will also fill your bladder and spark the urge to urinate.

To make matters worse, alcohol isn’t like water and other fluids. Alcohol is a diuretic. In other words, it can cause your body to dispel an extra measure of liquid. Alcohol in your body inhibits the release of vasopressin, your body’s natural anti-diuretic hormone. Usually, your brain releases anti-diuretic hormone as needed to tell your kidneys to hold onto water.

Suppressing this hormone can cause your kidneys to release more water than they otherwise would. In severe instances, this can lead to dehydration, leaving you with nausea and a headache. When this phenomenon occurs, you must drink a lot of water to rehydrate your body.

5. It Can Lead to Insomnia

Insomnia is an issue that leads to difficulties falling or staying asleep. For people who don’t drink often or who only drink a small amount, alcohol may not make it harder to fall asleep. However, those who regularly engage in binge drinking are far more likely than those who do not to have trouble falling asleep at night. You may also find alcohol does not help you fall asleep because you have developed a tolerance for its sedative effects.

Alcohol can also cause a person to wake up throughout the night, as we’ve seen. This form of insomnia can leave you feeling under-rested, even after what should have been a full night of restful, restorative sleep. Chronic sleep problems are common among people who abuse alcohol long-term.

Since alcohol adversely affects a person’s sleep quality, they’re likely to feel fatigued during the day, leading them to drink coffee or energy drinks to stay awake and sedate themselves with alcohol at night. These people will likely find they have to drink more and more as time goes by to overcome the tolerance they have built up to alcohol’s sedative effects. This issue creates a vicious cycle that will never leave a person feeling well-rested.

6. It Can Increase Your Risk of Parasomnia

Parasomnias are abnormal or problematic behaviors that can occur during sleep. These sleep disorders include nightmares and sleepwalking, for example. Alcohol’s disruptive effect on sleep also make a person more vulnerable to parasomnias. If alcohol is the deciding factor in causing a person to experience a form of parasomnia, you can label it an alcohol-induced sleep disorder. In many instances, alcohol may be one risk factor among others.

One type of parasomnia with links to alcohol use as a risk factor is sleep-related hallucinations. These hallucinations are not the same as dreams, though drinking before bed can cause you to have more vivid dreams associated with REM sleep. Hallucinations can be visual, auditory or even tactile. A person may feel something is genuinely happening to them and respond physically, leading to injuries in some cases.

Research also indicates that drinking alcohol makes a person more likely to experience a sleep-related eating disorder. The primary characteristic of these disorders is episodes of binge eating during the night. During these episodes, people tend to choose high-carb foods and foods that aren’t safe for human consumption, including raw meat. Whereas people with a nocturnal eating disorder are aware of their eating, people with a sleep-related eating disorder are not in control of their actions and won’t remember what took place the next morning.

7. It Can Increase Your Risk of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes breathing disruptions during sleep. In some cases, a person’s brain doesn’t send the right signals to control their breathing during sleep. The medical term for this problem is central sleep apnea. The more common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In these cases, the problem lies with the throat muscles, which relax too much, partially or fully blocking a person’s airway repeatedly during the night.

Studies show a direct link between alcohol consumption and OSA, since drinking alcohol causes throat muscles to relax. For a person who already has sleep apnea, drinking alcohol can exacerbate the problem, making for an even worse night’s sleep. If you don’t have an existing case of OSA, drinking even a small amount before bed can cause this issue.

Specifically, research shows that drinking alcohol increases your risk of OSA by 25%. The amount you drink plays a crucial role. The same increase in risk factor applies to people who typically binge drink, rather than those who only consume alcohol in moderation. Sleep apnea is a severe problem that can leave you feeling chronically under-rested.

How Should I Change My Drinking Habits to Sleep Better?

As we’ve seen, the effects of alcohol on sleep are significant. If you’re regularly feeling under-rested, heavy drinking may be to blame. So, what steps should you take to start sleeping better? If you do not have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), here are some steps you should take.

  • Drink less: Research shows a direct link between the amount a person drinks and the decrease in their sleep quality. High amounts of alcohol will result in the most severe sleep disruptions. So, if you drink alcohol during the day, be sure to drink in moderation.
  • Don’t drink in the evening: You should also refrain from drinking close to bedtime. Even limit your happy hour drinks. Give your body the hours it needs to metabolize alcohol before you go to sleep. This extra time will help you experience consistent sleep cycles.
  • Find other ways to relax: If you’ve made a nightcap part of your routine or rely on it to help you feel sedated when you’re anxious, look for healthier ways to unwind. For instance, a bubble bath or a soothing cup of chamomile tea can prepare you for bedtime without harming your sleep quality.

If you do have an alcohol dependency, you should take the crucial step of seeking professional medical help to safely treat your AUD. Trying to quit cold turkey on your own can lead to withdrawals, which can cause new health risks, such as experiencing an REM sleep behavior disorder. As you address your alcohol dependency under medical supervision, better-quality sleep is only one of the valuable benefits you’ll experience.

Begin Your Journey to Better Health at a Gateway Treatment Center

At Gateway’s addiction treatment centers, you can receive evidence-based care tailored to your specific needs. Every recovery journey is unique, but it’s universally true you shouldn’t have to go it alone. Whether through residential or outpatient treatment, you can receive treatment for your AUD that fits into your lifestyle and addresses all aspects of your addiction to bring holistic healing. Gateway understands how essential ongoing support is, and we provide that to our clients long after they’ve left our facilities.

Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options.

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