How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep

a glass of wine on a table at nightDoes 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., 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.

glass of whiskey

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.

Key findings

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.

An empyt 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.

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 in the Lancet journal.

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.

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.

 

 

20 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi, over the last 40 years drinking a bottle of red wine a day was the norm but with an esophagus problem went in for a checkup and decided to have a neuro detox. Remember most of it but soon after, my bp was 100/70, rate 61 and a big difference with a brand new liver at 70! But, the guy said to take Seroquel 25mg or part of it at night, bed at 9, up normally at 5.30 ish ..a few dodgy nights, but is this tablet ok every night for whenever? I am 99% alcohol-free, just needing a different taste sip from tea and coffee sometimes!

    • Hi Derek
      Thanks for sharing. Personally, I would do more research into why you’ve been advised to take Seroquel. I would suggest speaking to your personal doctor/physician to ask if they also think it’s a good idea.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi. Interesting column. I can see how becoming dependent on alcohol to sleep can cause the problems mentioned. Thanks for this thought provoking information. As someone who has chronic health conditions and a high level of stress, I went for years trying to get a decent pattern of sleep without the benefit of drugs, drinking, etc. I tried relaxation techniques, reading, therapy, even television to relax me. Nothing worked at all. I laid awake for hour after hour every night and when I did sleep, it was very poor quality; I would wake up at least 3-4 times a night. After over a decade of this, I finally tried melatonin out of desperation, but I cannot take it regularly because of an autoimmune illness. When during a social outing I had wine for the first time in many, many years, I slept soooo much better that night and woke up refreshed (a rarity). It was an unexpected but welcomed development. Now, I’m not saying it always works for everyone, every time, but as something I use maybe once or twice a week or less, I look forward to knowing the amazing wonders of sleep after I drink a glass.

    • Hi Camilla
      Thanks for your comment and compliment. I’m happy to hear the article was interesting. I totally understand your point of view. It’s the same for me these days – if I have just one or two drinks, I tend to fall asleep a little quicker. And so when I’m having a bad patch of sleep, it’s tempting to have a nightcap!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • 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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