How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep

photo of whiskey being poured into a glass

Does an alcoholic drink help you sleep better during periods of insomnia, or when life seems particularly stressful?

Personally, I often find that alcohol helps me drop off quicker, especially if I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Admittedly, a raucous birthday party where we’re still dancing to “Come On Eileen” at 3 a.m. in the local pub might not lead to the most refreshing sleep I’ve ever had.

Even if we went home before the 80s classics had people bouncing off the walls and hugging strangers, too many drinks still means too many bathroom trips in the night. And how can a good night’s sleep be followed by such a bad hangover? It just doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, a glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer at the end of the day helps me relax without going over the top. And relaxed seems to equal better sleep for me.

Or does it?

The thing is, even if we know we fall asleep easier after a drink or three, we can’t always be sure that it’s good quality sleep. And as much as I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news if you’re a fan of a strong nightcap, the research doesn’t back up the concept of a nightcap being without possible consequences.

So let’s take a look at what sleep experts and researchers have to say about alcohol’s effect on our sleep.

How many people drink alcohol before bed?

In some countries, it seems many people drink alcohol before bed:

  • In a large U.K. survey in 2017 by the Sleep Council, 25% said they drank alcohol before bedtime. This rose to 30% for those aged 45 to 54.
  • In a 2008 poll of 1000 adults in the U.S. by the National Sleep Foundation, 8% said they drank alcohol a few nights a week to help them sleep.
  • In a 2014 article in Medical News Today, 20% of American adults are reported to use alcohol as a sleep aid. They also reported that the societal cost of alcohol-related sleep problems was more than $18 billion per year.
a glass of wine on a table at night

What does the research tell us?

In 2013, Dr Ebrahim and colleagues from the London Sleep Center published a review of all known studies on the effects of alcohol on the sleep of healthy people. They found that many studies highlighted similar effects of alcohol on people’s sleep.

Some of their key findings were:

1. An alcoholic drink before bed can help you fall asleep faster. This appears to be the case regardless of the amount you drink.

2. All dosages of alcohol lead to consolidation of sleep in the first half of sleep, but then more disruption in the second half.

3. All dosages lead to a delay in the onset of the first period of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase.

4. Medium (equivalent to about 3 glasses of wine) to high amounts of alcohol can be particularly disruptive to your sleep pattern, for example:

  • A high dosage of alcohol can significantly reduce the amount REM sleep in the first half of your sleep.
  • Medium and high dosages reduce the total amount of REM sleep in the night.
  • It can increase your initial deep sleep, but result in more wakings in the later stages of sleep.
  • There can be an increase in slow wave sleep in the first half of the night.

Brain scans after drinking alcohol

A 2015 research study from the University of Melbourne used brain scanning techniques to see what happens whilst sleeping after having an alcoholic drink.

They found that while alcohol appeared to act as a sedative initially, it also disrupted normal sleep patterns:

  • There was more slow wave sleep in the first few hours of sleep compared to those who didn’t have a drink – reflecting the initial sedative property of alcohol.
  • Alpha wave patterns were heightened, which is usually an indicator of disturbed sleep. Significant alpha wave activity normally occurs when the brain is awake, but quietly resting. They suggest that this increased alpha wave activity counteracts any restorative effort that occurs while you sleep.

Overall, their research again supports the view that alcohol before bed results in poorer quality sleep.

A false feeling of better sleep

Dr. Christian L Nicholas, one of the study authors, acknowledges that people often feel alcohol helps them sleep. However, he also states that:

…the quality of that sleep isn’t good.

Dr. Nicholas notes that similar disrupted sleep patterns and different brain wave activity are often seen in people with chronic pain conditions.

He adds that if your sleep is disrupted on a regular basis, this could have:

…significant detrimental effects on daytime well-being and neurocognitive functions such as learning and memory processes.

Other studies have also shown social drinking before sleep can impact on your alertness and mental ability the next day.

If you have just one drink, say a small glass of wine or a beer, the difference may be less significant.

Drinking medium to high amounts of alcohol before bed, however, can have a more significant impact on your ability the next day. One effect is slower reaction times, hence the drinking restrictions in many areas of work, such as for pilots.

And research suggests that if you use alcohol on a regular basis, your body develops a tolerance to the sedative effect. So you’ll feel the need to drink more to achieve the same sedative effect.

An empty glass of wine on a table

The importance of REM sleep

So what happens if you don’t get enough REM sleep? Some good reasons to avoid disrupting your REM sleep include:

  • The sleeping brain is most active during REM sleep. It sorts, organizes and processes 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.

Should insomniacs mix alcohol and sleep?

To drink or not to drink? That is the question some insomniacs (myself included) will find themselves asking from time to time.

For many poor sleepers, it can be a tough choice to make, especially if you know it helps avoid the nightmare of lying awake for hours on end.

But there may be other consequences of regularly using alcohol to overcome insomnia. Not all these will be relevant to you, but are factors to consider:

  • Relying on alcohol to self-medicate can lead to dependency, which can lead to other long-term health problems.
  • People develop a tolerance to alcohol’s sedative effects. So a small glass of whiskey to help you sleep might turn into a double, and so on.
  • Alcohol is a diuretic, so too much alcohol can mean waking to use the bathroom.
  • As Dr. Michael J Breuss states, alcohol can disrupt your sleep cycle and reduce melatonin production. He also advises that alcohol can make the sleep cycle of people with depression even more out of sync.
  • Your sleep could be disturbed by the early onset of a hangover.
  • Alcohol doesn’t mix well with many medicines. It can be dangerous to use alcohol and sedatives such as sleeping pills.
  • According to the NHS, alcohol can increase the risk of snoring and sleep apnea.

My personal take on it these days is to try not to drink alcohol right up until bedtime. I prefer to stop earlier in the evening and drink water, ginger ale, or decaffeinated tea afterward. Call me weird, but the bubbles in ginger ale just do something good!

Research says there’s no safe amount of alcohol

In 2018, a major piece of research into the effect of alcohol in 160 countries was published.

The research was widely published around the world. It was major news to find out that even the classic Meditteranean culture of drinking wine regularly might not be quite so ideal after all.

One of the study authors was quoted by CNN as saying:

We’re used to hearing that a drink or two a day is fine. But the evidence is the evidence.

Your thoughts

Do you find that alcohol helps you sleep? Do you intentionally drink to deal with insomnia?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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