It’s a relatively common scenario: You’ve been having trouble sleeping lately due to stress, so you have an extra glass of wine before bed to help yourself doze off. By the time your glass is empty, you’re definitely drowsy — and you fall asleep a lot faster than normal, too. But for some reason, you’re waking up a lot at night, and you don’t exactly feel 100% the next day. Is the immediate sleep boost worth the tradeoff?
All evidence points to “no.” While consuming alcohol may induce sleep on the front end, it’s not the healthiest solution for a good night’s rest. Drinking can negatively impact the quality and duration of your sleep, and has even been linked to more serious sleep issues like insomnia.
Need some shuteye? Here’s what you need to know about alcohol's impact on sleep and how to both drink and sleep responsibly.
How alcohol affects sleep
Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, it can make you feel relaxed, drowsy, and even full-on sleepy. That’s why so many people, understandably, rely on alcohol as a “nightcap.” Unfortunately, though, the effects of alcohol don’t last long after a person’s blood alcohol concentration peaks. And drinking alcohol to sleep — especially excessively and long-term — can come with some significant negative health effects.
Researchers have consistently found that drinking alcohol can result in lighter sleep and more frequent night-time wake-ups. People who drink before bed are less likely to experience nourishing REM sleep. Missing out on this important part of sleep can interfere with memory consolidation and other cognitive processes. This sleep disruption is multifactorial, but one potential cause may in part be from alcohol’s effect on certain sleep hormones that are needed to regulate our sleep cycle and get the rest we need.
Alcohol can impact more than just the quality of sleep though. Alcohol consumption can increase a person’s risk of snoring and obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes airway obstruction when the muscles around the throat relax. People who already have snoring or sleep apnea issues tend to experience worse snoring and even lower blood oxygen levels after they drink before bedtime.
Besides feeling tired and fighting off the insatiable urge to nap the next day, a night of tossing and turning can also interfere with daytime functioning, leading to grogginess and feelings of “brain fog.” Over time, sleep deprivation can take a toll on mental health, too.
Generally, the higher or more frequent a person’s alcohol use, the worse the effects will be. One study from 2018 compared sleep quality among people who drank different amounts of alcohol. The research found people who consumed higher amounts of alcohol (more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men) slept 39.2% worse than people who drank in low or moderate amounts.
Drinking (and sleeping) responsibly
Research suggests using alcohol as a sleep aid could promote alcohol abuse, since over time, people generally need to drink more to achieve the same (in this case, sleep-inducing) effect. So if you’re currently relying on a couple of cocktails to wind down at night, it’s important for your health and general well-being to adjust your routine.
For starters, consider your overall alcohol consumption. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding alcohol or limiting it to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men to prevent the majority of the harms associated with alcohol. If you want to have a drink at night, sip one with your dinner (ideally four hours before you want to sleep) rather than right before bed and do your best to practice moderation.
In the meantime, focus on building better sleep hygiene into your routine. Along with reducing your overall alcohol intake, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, create a cozy, relaxing environment in the room where you sleep, and avoid screen time within a few hours before bed. Being physically active during the day can also help improve quality and duration of sleep.
Still can’t get the restorative sleep you’re hoping for? If you’re concerned about either your sleep or your alcohol consumption, don’t hesitate to chat with your primary care provider about it. It’s not easy to change up your routine — or to ask for support from a pro who cares about you — but your long-term health will only benefit from it.
Think your drinking is becoming a problem? Your primary care provider can help with that too by assessing your current level of drinking, connecting you with resources, and even providing medication to help curb cravings.
We all need a little help sometimes. At One Medical, we are here to provide judgement-free care whenever you need us. Book a remote or in person visit with us today to learn more.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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