How a Nightcap Can Ruin Your Sleep

By: SleepScore Labs  |  July 15th, 2017

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, it can be tempting to reach for an adult beverage. But did you know that even though alcohol can induce that sleepy feeling, it ends up interfering with sleep later in the night? The effects of alcohol last longer than you might think. Moderation and timing are the two key elements to minimizing the sleep-robbing effects of alcohol, as we’ll discuss later in this article.

Is Alcohol a Sleep Inducer?

How many times have you heard 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 good night’s rest by interrupting your normal sleep patterns.

Why Does Alcohol Disrupt Your Sleep?

Drinking alcohol – especially when it’s more than a small amount and especially when it’s consumed close to bedtime – interferes with good sleep by changing the natural flow of the various sleep stages throughout the night. After you fall asleep and alcohol’s sedative effect fades away, your sleep becomes disrupted, especially during the second half of the night. For example, you’re likely to experience lighter sleep and more frequent periods of being awake. Following an evening of drinking, these wake periods may include getting out of bed to visit the bathroom, meaning even more disruption of sleep time.

To sum it up, even though it’s a common belief that drinking alcohol makes you sleep soundly, the reality is that it leads to fragmented sleep and feeling unrefreshed in the morning. And, if you had a late night, you may end up getting less sleep than you need and feeling worse in the morning for that reason too. All of this can contribute to daytime tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and problems with performance.

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 your night of sleep even begins. 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 undermining your sleep.

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

Lewis, Jordan Gaines, PhD. “Alcohol, Sleep, and Why you Might Re-think that Nightcap,” Psychology Today.
Kovacs, Jenny Stamos. “Nix the Nightcap for Better Sleep?” WebMD.
Mann, Denise. “Alcohol and a Good Night’s Sleep Don’t Mix,” WebMD.
Roehrs, Timothy, PhD; Roth, Thomas, PhD. “Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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