How Alcohol Affects Sleep

Shelby Harris Psy.D.

Many of us have been there: After a long day at work, we’re looking for something to help us wind down, and many of us might reach for a glass of wine or a favorite cocktail (even more so on the weekend).

The majority of Americans report drinking alcoholic beverages, and as is the case with most things, enjoying alcohol in moderation shouldn’t lead to any ill effects for a healthy person. What’s interesting about alcohol, though, is its unexpected effect on sleep.

When people struggle with sleep, they rarely consider alcohol as the culprit. After all, alcohol is supposed to be relaxing, right? Technically, yes — alcohol is considered a depressant, meaning it can make you feel relaxed, uninhibited, and for many, sleepy. This is precisely why many people reach for alcohol as a way to help them relax in the evening while also helping them fall asleep.

And while alcohol can help you doze off, it definitely isn’t going to give you the good night’s sleep you’re no doubt hoping for. The sleep-inducing effects of alcohol wear off quickly, and what comes after is often a night of restless tossing and turning. This stems from the fact that alcohol can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which controls your sleep-wake cycle.

Because of this, people tend to wake up more often throughout the night when they’ve used alcohol as a sleep aid — or even if they’ve just had a few drinks later in the evening. Your body is being trained to think it needs more alcohol to go to sleep, almost like a withdrawal. There’s also a risk of creating a dependence when you’re relying on alcohol as a sleep aid, which only leads to bigger issues down the line. Even moderate drinking can lead to some undesirable sleep side effects, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Waking due to the urge to use the restroom
  • Sleepwalking or sleep-eating
  • Sleep apnea or other breathing challenges during sleep

Alcohol consumption within three hours of bedtime can suppress REM sleep, which is key to avoiding fatigue, waking up refreshed, and enhancing creativity and memory function. Women should be especially mindful: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the same amount of alcohol can lead to higher blood alcohol levels for women than men, and the effects of alcohol “occur more quickly and last longer” in women, too. This makes women more susceptible to the long-term negative effects of alcohol and any sleep-related challenges.

Long story short: A daily nightcap probably isn’t an ideal addition to your bedtime routine. That’s not to say you can’t still enjoy a drink or two—just know there’s a chance it may lead to a restless night and a sleepy day ahead.

If you want to avoid any ill-side effects of alcohol—at least as it relates to your sleep—cut yourself off around three hours before bedtime. The effects usually wear off after three or four hours, which will put you in better shape come bedtime.

Cutting Back on Alcohol

If you’re finding that alcohol may in fact be the culprit behind your restless sleep—or you’re realizing you’re consuming more than you’d like to overall—there are some steps you can take to cut down your consumption levels and get your sleep back on track.

Set a drink limit. If you don’t set a limit before heading to the bar, it can be easy to find yourself ordering another drink every time the bartender comes around to check on you and your empty glass. Set a limit ahead of time and do your best to stick to it. If you have a supportive friend or partner who is also attending the festivities, ask them to keep you accountable to your new limit.

Find desirable non-alcoholic alternatives. If a glass of wine has been your go-to after-work drink for years, it’s going to be hard to nix the habit without finding an enjoyable alternative. Experiment with different options until you find one that feels right; some options include tea, sparkling water, or even a good mocktail. If you find you’re really missing the taste of alcohol, there are plenty of zero-proof versions on the market to consider.

Add a few alcohol-free days to your calendar. Setting clear boundaries like this can help you stick to your new, lower-alcohol routine—just make sure you aren’t overcompensating by dangerously doubling your drinking habits when you do choose to indulge.

Having a drink or two with dinner or when you’re out with friends is still a big part of our culture in many parts of the world. A few drinks here and there shouldn’t hurt your overall health, but your drinking habits could be worth a second look if you find they’re impacting your sleep schedule or any other parts of your life. There are a ton of options for changing your drinking routine, whether that means cutting down a little or abstaining completely.

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