Does Alcohol Help You Sleep?

a glass of wine on a table at night

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.

Research Basis

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.

Research Findings

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:
  1. It can reduce the amount of the important REM sleep phase in the first 3-4 hours of your sleep.
  2. 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.
  3. Overall you will probably get less REM sleep than your normal sleep pattern.
  4. It can also increase your initial deep sleep, but can result in more awakenings in the later stages of sleep.
  5. 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.
  6. This increase in slow-wave sleep can exacerbate the potential for problems such as sleep-walking, snoring and apnea.

 

An empyt glass of wine on a tableOther 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.”

diagram showing the different stages of sleep and the associated brainwaves

 

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.

Alcohol dependency

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.

Conclusion

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”.

Your thoughts

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.

References

Chan, Julia K. M. et al. ‘The Acute Effects Of Alcohol On Sleep Electroencephalogram Power Spectra In Late Adolescence’. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 39.2 (2015): 291-299.

The Sleep Council,. ‘First Ever Great British Bedtime Report Launched – The Sleep Council’. N.p., 2013.

National Sleep Foundation,. ‘2008 Sleep In America Poll’. 3 March 2008.

T, Ancoli-Israel. ‘Characteristics Of Insomnia In The United States: Results Of The 1991 National Sleep Foundation Survey. I. – Pubmed – NCBI’. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2015.

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.

 

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I am a 57 year old post-menopausal woman who has had sleep problems for 20 years, and I have unfortunately developed fibromyalgia because of this. So for many years, I’ve taken amitryptaline (20-30 mg) per night to help me get into a deep sleep. But for the past couple of years, even the amitryptaline hasn’t helped me stay asleep, so I resorted to using zopiclone, half of a 7.5 mg tablet before sleep. This only gave me a few hours, until about 3 am, so then I started taking the other half, to help me get back to sleep. Then my mother passed away last summer, and since then I’ve had to take a whole 7.5 mg tablet to help me get to sleep. Now even this is only helping until about 3 am. So I started taking an ounce of whiskey in the middle of the night, instead of taking yet more zopiclone. It helps somewhat, but the quality of my sleep is poor, and the alcohol is making me go to the bathroom so that’s not good. I don’t know what to do anymore, as nothing is working and I’m afraid of interactions between the zopiclone, the amitryptaline, and the alcohol. Also afraid that my body is going to get used to the alcohol and that it’s already used to the other meds.

    • Hi Marianne
      Thanks for your comment. I think it’s very understandable to have sleep problems after losing someone. You do need to be careful mixing alcohol with those medications, as you rightly point out. I would recommend speaking to your doctor about how you feel, your sleep problems and what has/hasn’t worked for you. They should be able to give you some good support and advice. I don’t know how much you’ve explored all the self-help sleep techniques, but it’s always good to keep on top of those too, even if you’re taking medication.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I am a 88 year old male who for the past few years has taken drinking sips of whiskey throughout the day in order to feel better and seemingly make life a bit better for me. Have had a lot of health problems over the past five years including a heart that does not beat correctly and hence very little energy.
    And so now I am having a terrible sleep problem. I have come to a point where the only way I can get some hours of sleep is drink a glass of a mixed drink every night before going to bed. But also in the past month or so I am feeling very tired and sleepy often when I am out driving my car. Even having some jerky situations where I feel was asleep for a fraction of a second.
    This situation has scared me to death and I feel I must quit all alcohol drinking no matter how difficult. Am wondering if I am on the right track but very concerned with how I can find some other ways to get some sleep.
    Thanks for listening.

    Jarl Plottner—6-2-17

    • Hi Jarl
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand why you’re worried, and I think you’re doing the right thing in wanting to address anything you feel could be putting you and others at risk. I’d recommend talking to your doctor about the alcohol use – they should be able to support you during the process, and also advise you on whether you do really need to stop drinking or if small quantities at night might be ok for you. There are many different things you can do to try and help your sleep – I recommend starting with the section on sleep hygiene, as it’s called. Basically just a long list of useful ideas for helping your sleep improve. You can find out more about that by clicking here.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have had insomnia for years and have found that drinking one to two glasses of wine before bed I fall asleep soundly, sleeping all night and feel great in the morning.

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comment. If it works for you, and isn’t doing you any harm, I guess you’re one of the lucky ones to have found something that helps your insomnia and that you presumably enjoy too!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • My insomnia comes in waves, as I’ve been told by other people who have this problem. During these waves, I often take a shot of dark rum, occasionally some other equivalent amount of alcohol, to help me fall asleep. I experience absolutely none of the problems detailed above, and even if I did, most such effects would come nowhere near the effects of 4-5 hours or less of sleep. For me this is too little sleep for me even to drive safely, let alone keep up with a reasonable active schedule.

    I’ve tried just about every other trick in the book, and nothing works as well except Benadryl, which has its own problems. I actually prefer alcohol to Benadryl, which makes me extremely sleepy in the early morning.

    • Hi Olivia
      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to hear your view about it. Many readers have commented on other articles on this site with similar thoughts about the importance of balancing the effects of no sleep with the effects of using something to help them sleep. It’s often about sleeping pills and their side effects versus no sleep for example.
      I think at the end of the day, if you feel it helps and it’s done in moderation, from time to time it’s not going to do you any great damage. And as you say, it’s not easy to get by on just a few hours sleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

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