Do you find that an alcoholic drink helps you sleep during periods of insomnia, stress or anxiety?
Even if you don’t use it for those reasons, perhaps like me you sometimes just quite enjoy a glass of your favourite drink in the evening to relax at the end of a long day.
Whatever the reason for having an evening drink or nightcap, we’re definitely not alone as surveys and polls have repeatedly shown over the years.
How many people drink alcohol before bed?
In a large British survey in 2014, 16% of the respondents said they had an alcoholic drink before bedtime.
In a 2008 poll of 1000 people in the US, 8% said they drank alcohol a few nights a week to help them sleep.
In another US poll, 30% of people with persistent insomnia reported having used alcohol to help them sleep in the past year, and 67% of those said it was effective.
I suspect you probably already know how alcohol personally affects you at night. However, much of the medical advice about sleep suggests that you should avoid having alcohol before going to bed.
This advice is based on research on the effects of alcohol on the quality of sleep. There’s also evidence that drinking alcohol regularly before going to bed may lead to sleep disorders and other health problems.
But is the occasional alcoholic drink okay? And can alcohol really help you fall sleep faster?
In this article I’ll look at what the research tells us about these questions. In the end though you’ll see that it’s very much a personal lifestyle choice.
There’s a lot of research covering the effects of alcohol on sleep quality. Most of the research tends to look at three different types of situations:
- Healthy people who generally sleep reasonably well, but also occasionally use alcohol to help them get to sleep. This would also cover those who drink socially before bedtime without consciously thinking it will help them sleep.
- Insomniacs who aim to use alcohol as a sleep aid.
- People who have an alcohol dependency problem, which often goes hand in hand with sleep difficulties.
In 2013 Dr Ebrahim and colleagues from the London Sleep Center published a review of all known studies on the effects of alcohol on sleep for healthy people.
The key findings of this and other studies include:
- An alcoholic drink before bed can help you fall asleep sooner. This appears to be the case regardless of the amount you drink.
- Medium (equivalent to about 3 glasses of wine) to high amounts of alcohol do affect the type of sleep and sleep pattern. For example:
- It can reduce the amount of the important REM sleep phase in the first 3-4 hours of your sleep.
- This early REM loss might be compensated for a bit by more REM sleep later in the night, after the effects of alcohol have worn off.
- Overall you will probably get less REM sleep than your normal sleep pattern.
- It can also increase your initial deep sleep, but can result in more awakenings in the later stages of sleep.
- There can be an increase in slow-wave sleep in the first half of the night. This sleep phase is associated with regenerative tasks, such as repairing tissue, building bone and muscle.
- This increase in slow-wave sleep can exacerbate the potential for problems such as sleep-walking, snoring and apnea.
Other studies have also shown that any alcohol before sleep can impact on your alertness and mental ability the next day.
If you take just one drink, say a small glass of wine or a beer, the difference will probably be slight.
Drinking medium to high amounts of alcohol before bed, however, can have a more significant impact on your ability the next day, especially where reaction times are important.
Hence the severe drinking restrictions for many areas of work, such as for pilots.
Finally, research suggests that if you use alcohol on a regular basis your body may get used to it. So even the positive effect of falling asleep quicker may disappear.
Why alcohol leads to worse sleep
A 2015 research study from the University of Melbourne provides more information about why alcohol might result in poorer quality sleep.
The researchers used modern brain scanning techniques to see what was happening whilst sleeping after having an alcoholic drink.
As in previous studies, they found that there was more of the ‘good’ Delta, slow-wave sleep in the first few hours of sleep compared to those who did not have a drink.
But they also found that Alpha wave patterns were also heightened, which doesn’t usually occur when sleeping. Significant Alpha wave activity normally occurs when the brain is awake but quietly resting.
They believed that this increased and unusual Alpha wave activity counteracts any restorative effort that’s going on whilst you sleep. Overall, their research again supports the view that alcohol before bed results in poorer quality sleep.
Dr Christian L Nicholas, one of the Melbourne University study authors, suggests that people tend to feel that alcohol helps them fall asleep a little faster. But equally he states that “the quality of that sleep isn’t good.”
He also notes that similar disrupted sleep patterns and different brain wave activity are often seen in people with chronic pain conditions.
He then goes on to say that if your sleep is being disrupted on a regular basis, this could have “significant detrimental effects on daytime well-being and neurocognitive functions such as learning and memory processes.”
The importance of REM sleep
Earlier I mentioned that one of the effects of drinking alcohol before sleep is an overall reduction in the amount of REM sleep you get.
So what happens if you don’t get enough REM sleep? Some good reasons for trying to avoid disrupting your REM sleep include:
- The sleeping brain is most active during REM and is thought to be sorting, organizing and processing information and memories.
- REM sleep is thought to serve a restorative function for both the body and brain.
- A reduction in REM sleep can result in poorer memory, concentration and motor skills.
- You may find that you suffer from lower mood and energy levels the next day.
- REM is when dreaming mostly occurs, so if you’re someone who prizes remembering your dreams, you need your REM sleep.
Alcohol and sleep – should insomniacs mix them?
For many insomniacs this could be a tough choice to make, especially if you know it helps avoid the nightmare of lying awake for hours on end.
Indeed one study suggests that the adverse effects of low amounts of alcohol, discussed above, may be less of an issue for people who suffer from insomnia. This is possibly a result of the body adjusting over time to the effects of alcohol.
But there may be other consequences of regularly using alcohol to overcome insomnia. Of course not all these will be relevant to you, but are included here as factors to consider:
- Relying on alcohol to self-medicate can lead to dependency, which could lead to other long-term health problems.
- You can quickly build a tolerance to alcohol, so a small glass of whiskey to help you sleep might eventually have to be a double, then two glasses and so on.
- Alcohol is a diuretic, so too much alcohol in the evening often results in you waking up to go to the toilet.
- Your sleep could be disturbed by the early onset of a hangover.
- Alcohol doesn’t mix well with a lot of medication. For example, if you use alcohol to top up the strength of sleeping pills, it could cause illness and be dangerous.
Whilst it might appear then that a bedtime drink has its benefits, it can also have short and long-term consequences for your general well-being.
In the long-run, all the medical advice points to insomnia needing to be tackled properly.
Sleep problems for people who suffer from alcohol dependency is also well researched. Some of the findings include:
- It would appear that the majority of alcoholics also suffer from major sleep difficulties.
- Alcoholics build a tolerance to alcohol, so the positive effect of falling asleep quicker lessens over time.
- Some researchers aren’t sure which comes first for some people: does a lack of sleep lead to an increasingly greater reliance on alcohol? Or does alcohol dependence result in increasingly poor sleep quality?
- Sleep problems often stay long after someone has stopped drinking alcohol. Thus sleep issues can be a contributory factor in relapses.
So does alcohol help you sleep? Well, yes it might well do, but at what cost? It appears that there’s a personal choice to be made. A lot will depend on how you personally react to alcohol and what’s more important for your overall well-being.
On the one hand there’s increasing research evidence that having an alcoholic drink before bedtime does result in poorer overall quality of sleep. On the other hand it can, for many people, help you fall asleep quicker and deeper initially.
As a long time sufferer from occasional bouts of insomnia, I try not to use alcohol as a sleep aid. But I do have other nighttime rituals, such as practicing relaxation techniques.
Equally, I enjoy a drink socially when out having a meal with friends and family or at a party. But I do try not to continue drinking alcohol right up until bedtime, difficult as it may be at times!
So really it’s up to you. But if you’re concerned about your use of alcohol to help you sleep, and want ideas of other things to try, you might want to have a look at this list of good sleep habits. You can also talk to your doctor to see if there are other ways of tackling your insomnia.
The various research studies don’t mean that you must always avoid alcohol at night. And occasionally indulging in a small nightcap probably won’t disturb your sleep that much.
However, as Dr Nicholas from Melbourne University says, “if somebody is doing this night after night after night, the effects can be cumulative, not only for alcohol use but on sleep disruption as well”.
I’m sure other readers would be interested to hear about your experience. Do you find that alcohol helps you sleep? Perhaps you’ve found other techniques to help you sleep which are equally effective?
If you suffer from insomnia and have a regular bedtime alcoholic drink, do you find your concentration and performance the next day is affected? Or are there any other effects you’ve noticed when having a nightcap?
Feel free to share your story, thoughts and ideas in the comments box below.
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Ebrahim, Irshaad O. et al. ‘Alcohol And Sleep I: Effects On Normal Sleep’. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 37.4 (2013): 539`-549.
ScienceDaily,. ‘Pre-Sleep Drinking Disrupts Sleep’. 17 Jan. 2015.