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Alcohol & Insomnia: How Alcohol Affects Sleep Quality

July 15th, 2017

Do you tend to have a drink or two close to bedtime? Does getting quality sleep afterwards seem elusive? Although alcohol can initially induce drowsiness, it actually interferes with the ability to stay asleep throughout the night. 

If you start to rely on alcohol to help you fall asleep, you might become dependent on it. This dependence can harm your sleep health and keep you perpetually sleep-deprived

But rest assured, you don’t have to quit alcohol for good to restore your sleep health. As long a you keep moderation and timing in mind, you can still keep your favorite beverages in stock and enjoy a healthy night’s sleep. 

Here’s what you need to know about alcohol and sleep quality, when to stop drinking during the day to protect sleep, and how to prevent alcohol from affecting your rest.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Quality? 

Alcohol is one of the most popularly consumed substances globally for inducing sleep. Many people resort to taking alcohol to help them fall asleep. And because alcohol is a sedative, it can induce sleep, but will impair sleep quality after its sedative effects fade.

The second part of the night after drinking is characterized by restlessness and interrupted sleep.

Alcohol has varying adverse effects on sleep depending on whether the user is a light or heavy drinker.

Generally, if you consume alcohol 1-3 hours before bedtime, you’d most likely fall asleep faster than usual. During the first hours of sleep, alcohol  suppresses REM sleep. 

But alcohol completely changes the sleep cycle in the second half of sleep and causes frequent awakenings. 

Some research suggests that if you drink alcohol before bedtime for three consecutive nights, you may need a higher dose to help you fall asleep, and you’ll still experience trouble staying asleep or getting deep sleep

If you rely on alcohol as your go-to sleep aid, you may develop a dependence on it. This dependence can disrupt sleep health and the circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock that regulates physical and behavioral processes in the body), alter sleep architecture, cause excessive daytime sleepiness, and contribute to poor and non-restorative sleep. 

A 2020 study found that people who find it difficult to fall asleep may more likely turn to alcohol to induce sleep. The study also noted that heavy alcohol drinking could contribute to sleep problems in old age.

In addition, a 2018 study observed that alcohol before sleep can also reduce the body’s ability to relax and recover by increasing sympathetic (fight or flight mode of the nervous system) activity during sleep.

Alcohol also triggers or increases the severity of sleep problems like insomnia, sleep-related movement disorders, and breathing-related disorders, leading to poor sleep quality.

Even though it’s a common belief that drinking alcohol makes you sleep soundly, the reality is that it leads to a fragmented night’s sleep and feeling unrefreshed in the morning. And, if you had a late night, you’re again more likely to get less sleep than you need and feel worse in the morning as a result. All of this can contribute to daytime tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and problems with performance.

Is Alcohol a Sleep Inducer?

How often have you heard someone refer to an evening drink referred to as a “nightcap”? 

Estimates vary, but as many as 20 percent of Americans use alcohol to help them fall asleep faster. But the effects of alcohol on your overall sleep are more disruptive than beneficial. While it’s true that alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it ultimately gets in the way of a good night’s rest by interrupting your normal sleep patterns.

Alcohol and Sleep Disorders

Frequent alcohol use at nighttime can contribute to or aggravate existing sleep problems. According to some research, alcohol-related sleep problems cost the economy more than $18 billion in the US alone. 

Alcohol and Insomnia

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that occurs when a person experiences trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, getting quality sleep, and waking up feeling refreshed even when their circumstances support sleep. 

This disorder occurs in 10  to 30 percent or 50 to 60 percent of the population, depending on the study. And studies show that alcohol and insomnia have a  bidirectional relationship. Alcohol can contribute to insomnia, and insomnia can make a person turn to alcohol as a sleep aid. 

A study that looked at the relationship between binge drinking (having five or more drinks in a sitting for men or four or more drinks for women) and insomnia in older adults observed that participants who were frequent alcohol binge drinkers (took alcohol on an average of more than two days a week) were 84 percent more likely to show insomnia symptoms than non-binge drinkers.

Similarly, a 2013 study showed that women who consume alcohol might have about 9.1 percent higher chances of showing insomnia symptoms, while alcohol consumption in men is associated with up to 7.4 percent greater likelihood of reporting insomnia symptoms. 

Another study found that drinking alcohol every day may help with falling asleep but drinking alcohol for three or more days in a row may cause sleep disturbances and difficulty staying asleep. 

Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a breathing-related sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s upper airway muscles collapse intermittently during sleep, blocking airflow and causing disturbances during sleep. This condition affects more than a billion adults globally. 

Numerous studies suggest that alcohol is associated with an increased risk of sleep apnea, and reducing alcohol intake may help prevent or manage this disorder. Generally, studies indicate that alcohol can increase the risk of sleep by 25 percent. 

Apart from being a sedative, alcohol is also a muscle relaxant. This effect can relax the upper airway muscles and increase episodes of collapse during sleep. 

Alcohol and Nocturnal Enuresis

Nocturnal enuresis, commonly called bedwetting, is a condition that manifests symptoms of nocturia and urinary incontinence. It occurs when a person involuntarily urinates during sleep.

This condition is uncommon in adulthood and happens in about 2 to 3 percent of adults. Alcohol is a diuretic that can suppress the release of antidiuretic hormone, a hormone that causes the body to produce less urine.

Although alcohol doesn’t cause nocturnal enuresis, when a person consumes excess quantities at  nighttime, it predisposes them to urinate more at night. And experts generally recommend cutting back on alcohol to reduce the occurrence of nocturnal enuresis. 

When Should You Stop Drinking Alcohol Before Bed?

Alcohol shows adverse effects on sleep when a person consumes it three to five hours before bedtime, although it takes up to 10 hours for alcohol to be fully metabolized in the body Therefore, experts recommend not having alcohol at least three  hours before bedtime to limit its impact on sleep and protect sleep health. 

Can You Prevent the Negative Effects of Alcohol on Sleep?

It takes a long time for alcohol to leave the body. To avoid the negative effects of alcohol on sleep, you need to give your body enough time to be largely free of alcohol’s effects before sleep. At the very least, leave a 3-hour window of time between your last alcoholic drink of the evening and your bedtime. This should help limit the number of awakenings you experience later in the night.

The amount of alcohol that you drink also makes a difference. You don’t necessarily need to forgo alcohol altogether. Educate yourself about the alcohol content of different types of beverages. Light consumption of alcohol no closer than 3 hours before bedtime may allow you to enjoy a drink without severely undermining your sleep.

The evidence is clear: Even though many people can’t sleep without alcohol, it’s an enemy of getting a good night’s sleep. For the very best snooze, skip the booze.

The Bottom Line: Alcohol and Sleep

Enjoying alcohol to get sleep does more harm than good to your sleep health. Turning to alcohol when you can’t sleep may make you fall asleep but can disrupt your sleep quality. 

If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider seeing a healthcare professional for appropriate treatment. You can also follow sleep hygiene practices and get sleep aid devices to support healthy sleep. 

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