How does drinking alcohol affect sleep?
Here’s what to know about the boozing and snoozing connection.
Whether you’re downing cosmos or Coors, alcohol depresses your central nervous system. As a sedative, it makes you relax a little (or a lot).
This impairs your motor control, slurs your speech, and maybe even makes you text your ex at 3 a.m. As you become a little loosey-goosey, you’re likely to doze off quicker.
When you sleep after drinking alcohol, the initial effects can make you sleep like a rock for the first few hours.
After those initial hours, though, booze starts to have the reverse effect — causing you to wake up frequently and experience fragmented sleep. This is what researchers call disrupting “sleep homeostasis.”
A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) research review also compares the effect of alcohol on the circadian rhythm to that of jet lag from a long journey.
So, if you want to mess with your internal clock, no need to fly to Bora-Bora. Drinking mai-tais may do the same thing.
There are two basic types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. During a typical night’s sleep (sans liquor), you’ll cycle through both types several times through the night. Toward morning, REM gets even longer and deeper.
The stages of sleep include:
- Stage 1 (NREM). This stage lasts mere minutes. Sleep is pretty light, and your heart rate, breath, and eye movements move slowly. Your muscles start to relax and may twitch a bit. Your brain waves slow down.
- Stage 2 (NREM). Your heart rate and breath continue to slow. Your muscles loosen up, your bod’s temp drops, and your eye movements halt altogether. Brain wave activity slows even more, but your noggin will still erupt in brief bursts of electrical activity. This is the most prevalent sleep cycle during a normal night’s sleep. You’ll return to it again and again.
- Stage 3 (NREM). Also known as “deep sleep,” this stage occurs in long stretches during the first half of the night, and it’s extra important for feeling refreshed in the morning. Your heart rate and muscles slow to their lowest levels, and your body is super relaxed. Know that as you get older, you get less deep sleep.
- REM. This happens about 90 mins after passing out. Behind your lids, your eyes move rapidly from side to side. Your breath becomes speedy and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure rise to near-awake levels. Most of your dreams happen during REM.
When you drink alcohol, your normal sleep pattern gets disrupted. First, you’re likely to drift off faster.
Then, you’ll likely experience an increase in slow-wave sleep (stages 2 and 3) during the first half of the night. After that, things go downhill.
Whether you drink a little or a lot, the onset of the first REM sleep period is seriously delayed after boozing. You’ll also experience less REM during this night overall.
Over time, too little REM sleep can negatively impact your concentration, memory and motor skills. A lack of REM sleep is also linked to depression.
A research review showed that heavy drinking and insomnia go together like gin and tonic.
Chronic insomnia can mean you don’t get enough deep sleep, you wake up nonstop throughout the night, or you can’t doze off to begin with. But there may be a link between binge drinking and insomnia.
A research review reported in Science Daily found those with alcohol dependence are much more likely to have sleep-related disorders like insomnia, circadian rhythm disorder, and sleep paralysis.
If you’ve ever tried making it through rush hour traffic when sleep-deprived (cue screaming in *car horn*), you know how much fatigue can weigh you down.
However, so far, there’s no evidence to suggest a link between lighter drinking and insomnia. So, while the occasional drink might disrupt your sleep, it won’t necessarily cause the same negative long-term effects that heavy drinking does.
Yes, alcohol’s sedative properties can make you fall asleep faster. No, it won’t do your sleep quality any favors in the long term.
The same study found that using alcohol as a sleep aid led to moderate improvements in sleep for the first 6 days. But after that, people experienced a diminished quality of sleep and faced a much higher risk of alcohol dependence.
If you want to sip on some bedtime bevvies, try these instead:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking is defined as 1 drink or fewer a day for women and 2 drinks or fewer a day for men.
Additionally, about 2 out of 3 Americans report drinking more than this at least once a month. Ideally, though, you want to stay below this range if you want to stay healthy.
Heavy drinking is classified as drinking more than 4 drinks a day for men or more than 3 a day for women. It can also mean binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month.
Need help? Here’s what to do next
If your drinking sounds more like “heavy” than “moderate,” it may be time to seek support.
This online NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator can also help guide you through the steps to find the right treatment.
A little G&T before bed might make you pass out faster, but it won’t do your sleep quality any favors in the long run. Regular nightcaps can lead to diminished rest, insomnia, and a heightened risk of harmful alcohol dependence.
Instead, sip on some sleep teas or another sleep-friendly elixir. Your REM sleep will thank you.