How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep

a glass of wine on a table at night

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

Even if you don’t use it for those reasons, perhaps you just enjoy a quiet drink at the end of a long day, as many people naturally do.

In my personal experience, alcohol usually helps me drop off a bit quicker, especially if I have a lot on my mind. The question is, does it affect our sleep in ways we can’t perceive?

Scientists have in fact shown that although it can help you fall asleep faster, it doesn’t help so much where sleep quality is concerned.

How many people drink alcohol before bed?

In a large survey in the U.K. by the Sleep Council in 2014, 16% of the respondents said they had an alcoholic drink before bedtime.

And in a 2008 poll of 1000 adults in the U.S., 8% said they drank alcohol a few nights a week to help them sleep.

In another U.S. poll, 30% of adults with persistent insomnia reported having used alcohol to help them sleep in the past year. 67% of those said it was effective.

Research basis

Most of the research into the effects of alcohol on sleep tends to look at three different types of situation:

  • Healthy people who generally sleep reasonably well, but occasionally use alcohol to help them get to sleep. This also covers those who drink socially before bedtime without consciously thinking it will help them sleep.
  • Insomniacs who try 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.

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. 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 slightly compensated for by more REM sleep later in the night, after the effects of alcohol have worn off.
  • Overall, you probably get less REM sleep than with your normal sleep pattern.
  • 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. 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.

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. One effect is slower reaction times, hence the drinking restrictions in many areas of work, such as for pilots.

Finally, research suggests that if you use alcohol on a regular basis, your body develops a tolerance to the sedative effect. So even the positive effect of falling asleep quicker can 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 Delta, slow-wave sleep in the first few hours of sleep compared to those who didn’t have a drink.

But they also found that Alpha wave patterns were 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 Alpha wave activity counteracts any restorative effort that’s going on while you sleep. Overall, their research again supports the view that alcohol before bed results in poorer quality sleep.

diagram showing the different stages of sleep and the associated brainwaves

Dr Christian L Nicholas, one of the Melbourne University study authors, acknowledges that people often feel alcohol helps them sleep. But 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

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, 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 enjoy 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.

But there may be other consequences of regularly using alcohol to overcome insomnia. 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.
  • 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 then two glasses, and so on.
  • Alcohol is a diuretic, so too much alcohol can mean waking to use the bathroom.
  • Your sleep could be disturbed by the early onset of a hangover.
  • Alcohol doesn’t mix well with a lot of medication, and can be dangerous in some situations, such as if taken with sleeping pills.
  • Alcohol can increase snoring, disturbing your partner’s sleep.

So although it might appear that a bedtime drink has its benefits, it can also have short and long-term consequences for your general well-being.

Conclusion

The various research studies don’t mean that you should 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.

It appears there’s a personal choice to be made. On the one hand, there’s evidence that an alcoholic drink does result in poorer overall quality of sleep. On the other hand, it might help you fall asleep faster and deeper initially.

As a long time sufferer of insomnia, I try not to use alcohol as a sleep aid, even though I know it stops me from lying in bed awake. But I do have other nighttime rituals, such as practicing relaxation techniques.

Equally, I enjoy a drink socially with family and friends; I just try not to continue drinking alcohol right up until bedtime, difficult as it may be at times!

If you’re concerned about your use of alcohol to help you sleep, you might like to try some good sleep habits instead. You can also for your doctor’s help with tackling insomnia if it’s been going on for a long time.

Your thoughts

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

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.

16 CommentsLeave a comment

  • As an insomniac from a decade of 12 hr night shifts, I must admit alcohol works, yes it may disrupt sleep quality, but it’s better than the no sleep days of insomnia brings. I try not to use often, a full glass of red wine once a week before bed if i can feel the sleep pattern going out of whack again. Otherwise yoga nidra meditation and meletonin tablets (out in sunlight for a day even) have been my other strategies.

    • Hi Bob
      Thanks for your comment. That’s the dilemma people often face with things they know aren’t great in the long run, but do help prevent other problems. Which is worse, the sleep aid or the lack of sleep? It’s a personal choice I think, but as you say, having other strategies is a good idea too.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have been suffering insomnia for almost 5 months, not sure why as I used to be such a great sleeper – I think I developed sleep anxiety after 2 bad nights of sleep I panicked and became really anxious about going to bed which made things even worse, some nights are better than others but most of the time it takes me a long time to fall asleep and when I do get to sleep I dream very vividly to the point that I wake up a few times in the night because of them. It’s like I am in a constant REM sleep and my brain is too stimulated.

    Before dreaming most nights I lay there for at least 2 hours sometimes as much as 6 hours before I eventually fall asleep, one of the only things that works for me that helps me fall asleep quickly is drinking enough alcohol. I drink a full bottle of wine but only a couple of times a week (so that my body doesn’t get used to the alcohol) and when I get in bed I am asleep in 5 mins! it’s such a relief when I wake up and realise I fell asleep quickly instead of tossing and turning for hours – I get about 7 hours sleep when I drink enough alcohol and I rarely wake up in the night, sure I sometimes have a bit of a hangover when I wake up in the morning but I still feel more rested than when I only get a couple of hours of sober sleep. Not sure how alcohol makes me sleep so quick but I would be interested if there’s a medication that has similar effects.

    Having said that I also take pills on prescription called Phenergan which is a sedating antihistamine, this works well for me at 50 mg. But with that you cannot take them every night as you build a tolerance to them, so I take them once every 4 nights, it seems to work well like that. For instance if I take them Monday night I will have a break until Friday night and then take them again Tuesday night and so on. In between those times I just try and get some natural sleep and maybe an alcohol night.

    So I think sometimes alcohol can help insomniacs like myself. I think the danger is when you use alcohol often, then your body will probably get used to it and you have to up the dosage to get a similar sedative effect. So that’s why I limit it to only a couple of nights a week, it gives me reassurance that if I do have a really bad night with hardly any sleep I can drink the following night to get to sleep quickly.

    • Hi Gary
      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that alcohol can be helpful sometimes. The problem is partly what you mention – becoming dependent on it for sleep, and partly the effect it has on the overall quality of your sleep.
      It sounds to me like you’re alternating between three kinds of night – one with alcohol, one with a sedative, and one with nothing. I think the ultimate goal would be to work on your sleep naturally, as the bounce back on the nights you don’t have a sedative is bad it seems. Have you thought about, or tried cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia? It’s an effective treatment for many people, and recommended before sleeping pills nowadays. Have a read of this CBT article for more info.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • I found your comments interesting as I have the same problem. I haven’t slept well for many years. I try to vary my sleep routine some night I take phenergan and ovaltine and other nights I take 5htp and magnesium. Magnesium is good for relaxation and I try to go to bed the same time every night and get up at the same time every day.

  • I am a 78 year old post polio (76 years) man whose physically active life is now slowed by late effects of polio but more from also having developed Parkinsons Disease which has slowed me to very limited walking using two canes. I fall asleep and get 4-5 hours good sleep and then watch the clock move ever so slowly for the next 2-3 hours until I get up (or is it give up!) at 7 a.m. If I have alcohol it is 1 ounce at 4p.m. some 7+ hours before going to bed. I am in need of getting back to sleep for that second half of the night and wonder about taking an ounce of whiskey or glass of wine when I go for my middle of the night pee. I dislike the thought of pills that might have lingering effects into the next day. Being in bed for several hours also causes discomfort and pain in my low back and sacroiliac joints.

    • Hi Bob
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand your concern about not sleeping, but it might not be the best idea to use alcohol in this way. It’s often stress and anxiety that keeps us from falling asleep when we wake in the night. It’s also known that we need less sleep as we age, so 4-5 hours might not be too far off what you really need.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • 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.
      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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