Does an alcoholic drink help you sleep better during periods of insomnia, or when life seems particularly stressful?
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 quicker, especially if I’ve got a lot on my mind. The question is, does it affect our sleep in ways we can’t perceive?
What’s the general advice?
In this article, I’ll look at the research and advice about alcohol and sleep. My headline findings based on the research, as well as what readers have said in the comments below since first writing this article:
- Some people feel that any sleep is better than no sleep. So if alcohol before bed helps, then why not?
- Although alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it affects the quality of your sleep. So it’s better not to use alcohol as a sleep aid.
- Large amounts of alcohol late in the evening can significantly disturb sleep. So if you can stop drinking long before bedtime, you’ll probably have a less disturbed night.
- You can build a tolerance to alcohol. So you’ll you need more over time to help you get to sleep.
- It’s a good idea to tackle the root cause of your sleep problems. For many people, basic sleep hygiene can help.
Let’s take a look at some of the research evidence for these findings.
How many people drink alcohol before bed?
In some countries, it seems many people drink alcohol before bed:
- In a large UK 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. And that the societal cost of alcohol-related sleep problems is more than $18 billion.
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.
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 affect the type of sleep and sleep pattern. For example:
- It can reduce the amount of the important Rapid Eye Movement (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.
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:
- There was more Delta, slow-wave, sleep in the first few hours of sleep compared to those who didn’t have a drink.
- 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 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. 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 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.
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 less marked.
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 you’ll feel the need to drink more to achieve the same sedative effect.
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.
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 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 then two glasses…
- 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 dangrous 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 and tea afterward.
Research says there is no safe amount of alcohol
In 2018, a major piece of research into the effect of alcohol in 160 countries was published.
The piece was widely published around the world. One of the main reasons being that the researchers found there was no real safe amount of alcohol. One of the 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.
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.