Do you enjoy a glass or two of wine before bed, or some other alcoholic drink to wind down in the evening? If so, you’re in good company. Many Americans and adults around the world have a drink at night because they believe it helps them fall asleep more easily.
While alcohol can make you feel sleepy, that doesn’t mean it helps you sleep.
In fact, what may be a normal and relaxing part of your evening routine could actually be ruining your sleep! If you’re using alcohol as a sleep aid, you should rethink when to have that evening nightcap, or if you should have it at all.
We understand that isn’t always possible, so we’re sharing tips on when to drink and what to avoid so you can enjoy an alcoholic drink at night without disturbing your sleep and waking up feeling groggy and unrefreshed.
We’ll begin by answering the question: how does alcohol disrupt your sleep?
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Alcohol’s relationship with sleep isn’t black and white. On the one hand, alcohol use before bedtime can help you fall asleep faster thanks to its sedative effect. This is why many people use alcohol as a sleep aid. However, alcohol consumption before bed has far more cons than pros. These problems are well-documented in many studies.
The many sleep problems related to alcohol are because it slows down, or depresses, your central nervous system (CNS).
Your CNS controls most of your bodily functions, including your breathing, your heart, and your brain activity— which includes your sleep. In fact, sleep disorders are common in people with a depressed central nervous system.
Alcohol also reduces the amount of REM sleep you get during the night— this is where you typically dream and get some of your most restorative sleep. This effect is even more pronounced as your alcohol intake increases.
The more you drink at night, the more your sleep quality will likely suffer. However, even a single alcoholic drink or two in the evening can have negative effects on your sleep, especially if they’re consumed too close to bedtime.
Alcohol can negatively impact your circadian rhythm too.
Your circadian rhythm is a 24-hour internal cycle that is responsible for controlling your daily schedule for sleep and wakefulness.
When you drink, alcohol can prevent your circadian rhythm from responding to the natural light that keeps it working properly, creating abnormalities and an out-of-sync sleep schedule.
Other ways alcohol can negatively impact your sleep include:
- Disrupting your sleep cycle. You need a specific amount of REM sleep and NREM sleep each night to feel rested in the morning. Alcohol imbalances how long you spend in each sleep stage at night, causing poor sleep quality and short sleep duration.
- More disturbed sleep or nighttime awakenings.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness the next morning.
- Sleep deprivation.
- Disrupted sleep architecture, or abnormal changes to your normal sleep pattern.
- May trigger nighttime heartburn.
Snoring is another sleep problem that’s common after a few nightcaps, but can drinking alcohol cause snoring?
Yes— drinking alcohol can cause snoring. Alcohol relaxes the muscles in your throat, which can make it more likely for your upper airway to become obstructed or collapse. This increases how much the soft tissue in your throat vibrates while you breathe, causing the familiar sound of snoring.
Because of this, consuming alcohol before bedtime can cause a lot of problems if you snore often or have obstructive sleep apnea. We’ll go into this shortly. First, let’s take a look at how you can get a good night’s sleep— even if you enjoy alcohol in the evenings.
How to Sleep Better While Still Enjoying Alcohol
While drinking alcohol can put you at risk for sleep problems, you don’t have to stop drinking alcohol completely to avoid sleep disruption. If you’d still like to drink an occasional alcoholic beverage or enjoy a regular nightcap, we’re sharing five things you can do to help prevent alcohol from ruining your sleep.
1. Stop Drinking Alcohol at Least 4 Hours Before Bed
This is probably the most important tip to follow. If you limit your alcohol intake to four hours or more before bedtime, you allow your body plenty of time to metabolize the alcohol and get it out of your system. Once the alcohol is out of your system, you should be able to sleep normally and reduce your risk of poor sleep.
2. Limit Yourself to One or Two Alcoholic Drinks
How much you drink matters. When you drink less alcohol in the evening it doesn’t impact your sleep in the same way that more excessive drinking does. Remember, even if it’s just one drink, time it so that you’re finished at least four hours before your normal bedtime.
Note: How much alcohol affects you personally can depend on many factors, including age, weight, gender, and how much alcohol you consume.
3. Reduce Your Alcohol Intake
Heavy drinking can make getting a good night’s sleep difficult. If you often rely on alcohol to fall asleep and have begun developing a tolerance for it, then it’s vital for you to cut back on how much you consume. Even just three nights of consecutive drinking starts building a tolerance for alcohol in your system.
Drinking more to help you sleep can create a vicious cycle when you’ll need even more alcohol to get any rest— and any rest you get is likely to be poor quality. It’s not always easy to cut back, but it will be much better in the long run for your health and your sleep.
Here are some beverages we recommend for a better night’s sleep:
- Herbal teas like chamomile, lavender, or valerian root
- Tart cherry juice
4. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene essentially means the good habits you follow before bed for a good night’s sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene before bed can help you fall asleep more easily and get better quality sleep during the night— all without alcohol.
Some easy practices you can incorporate into your bedtime routine include:
- Writing in a sleep journal
- Practicing yoga or meditation
- Putting away all electronic devices— phones, computers, TVs, et cetera— 60 to 90 minutes before bed
- Taking a warm bath
5. Get Tested for Sleep Disorders
Occasional light snoring can occur after a few alcoholic beverages (especially when consumed close to bedtime), but if alcohol makes regular snoring even louder it may be worsening an undiagnosed sleep disorder.
A sleep disorder won’t go away on its own. Instead, it’s important to get yourself tested so you can receive the right treatment and start getting better sleep.
Common symptoms of sleep disorders to watch out for include:
- Loud, chronic snoring
- Choking, gasping, or coughing during sleep
- A sore or dry throat in the morning
- Pauses in breathing during the night
- Fatigue or sleepiness during the day
- Taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night
- Waking up at least once during the night, or too early in the morning
- Waking up tired and unrested, even after a full night’s sleep
One of the reasons why so many sleep disorders go undiagnosed is because you may not even know you have these symptoms! Oftentimes, it’s your sleep partner who notices these symptoms. If you’re concerned about these symptoms, talk to your sleep partner to see if they’ve noticed anything.
Alcohol and sleep disorders are more closely related than you may realize. Remember, alcohol consumption depresses your nervous system, which can make you more likely to experience a sleep disorder.
Alcohol and Sleep Disorders
A sleep disorder is often the main culprit of sleep disruption. Unfortunately, if you have a sleep disorder and drink alcohol at night, you may be unintentionally adding to your sleep problems.
Alcohol and Insomnia
Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty sleeping. This can include falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting the quality rest you need to feel rested in the morning.
Insomnia can lead to daytime sleepiness and even mental health problems.
Alcohol can reduce the amount of REM sleep you get each night. So if you drink before bed you may experience insomnia-like symptoms. This may lead to self-medicating with additional alcohol to fall asleep, creating a vicious cycle of poor sleep and consuming more alcohol to counter it.
According to a study published by the journal Substance Abuse, alcohol-dependent patients with insomnia are more likely to use alcohol to improve sleep than those who do not have insomnia.
Binge drinking is especially problematic for falling asleep and staying asleep, and there is a link between alcohol abuse and chronic sleep problems. This is because anyone who uses alcohol as a sleep aid develops a tolerance. Tolerance can develop within as few as three consecutive days, requiring more alcohol before bed to get the sedative effects.
Both insomnia and disturbed sleep are common among people with alcohol dependence.
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder where your airway is partially or completely blocked while you sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can create or worsen other comorbidities of OSA such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and even erectile dysfunction.
One of the most common and well-known symptoms of sleep apnea is loud and persistent snoring. Alcohol worsens snoring, which is one reason alcohol consumption is a risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea.
According to a study published by the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, alcohol consumption increased the duration and frequency of sleep apnea episodes. These resulted in more severe hypoxemia, or reduced arterial blood oxygen levels during the first hour of sleep.
Another study published by the American Journal of Managed Care found that alcohol consumption contributed to the lowest oxygen saturation in patients at risk of snoring and sleep apnea.
Alcohol also contributes to respiratory depression and airway collapse, which can make causes of obstructive sleep apnea more severe.
Sleep disorders can have serious and even dangerous effects on your health. But thankfully, they are treatable and more manageable with the proper treatment.
You shouldn’t let alcohol or an undiagnosed sleep disorder ruin your sleep. A good night’s sleep may just be a consultation away.
Contact us today at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee to schedule a sleep study and start getting the restful sleep you deserve.
Stein, Michael D, and Peter D Friedmann. “Disturbed Sleep and Its Relationship to Alcohol Use.” Substance Abuse, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2775419/.
CE;, Issa FG;Sullivan. “Alcohol, Snoring and Sleep Apnea.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7077345/.Gavidia, Matthew. “Alcohol Consumption Linked with Worsening Severity of Snoring, Sleep Apnea.” AJMC, AJMC, 30 July 2020, www.ajmc.com/view/alcohol-consumption-linked-with-worsening-severity-of-snoring-sleep-apnea.