How alcohol impacts sleep

While that glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage may help you relax or fall asleep, what effect does alcohol have on your overall sleep patterns? Here are some tips, so that drink before bed doesn’t disrupt your sleep.

A glass of wine before bed may not be what you need to ensure a solid night’s rest after all.

Alcohol is a depressant that affects your brain and central nervous system. You may feel more relaxed when you consume it because it directly impacts the system in your body that controls feelings of stress and anxiety. And it can certainly help you fall asleep faster, which is why alcohol is commonly used as a sleep aid.

But despite those superficial effects, alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep cycles, both in the short-term and the long-term.

While alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, it alters what is known as your sleep architecture. Ultimately, it disrupts your sleep cycles and reduces the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Typically, your body cycles through different stages of sleep approximately every 90 minutes. The stages of deeper sleep tend to occur during the second half of the night, which is when alcohol exerts its most disruptive effects. As a result, alcohol prevents you from getting into the deep, restorative stages of sleep that are needed to help you feel refreshed in the morning, and causes you to wake up more frequently during the night.

Check out more about sleep stages here

Alcohol is also dehydrating. It works as a diuretic, so it makes you urinate more frequently which causes your body to lose fluids at a faster rate than normal. This may cause you to wake up throughout the night to make trips to the bathroom and can leave you feeling thirsty or with a headache.

The end result of consuming an alcoholic drink before bed, is that you get less deep sleep and are more likely to wake up during the night. You end up feeling more tired and having lower energy the next day.

Over the long-term, regular consumption of alcohol is linked to chronic sleep problems. You can easily develop a tolerance for the sedative effects of alcohol. This causes a vicious cycle where you need to consume more alcohol to help you fall asleep, but the ongoing sleep disturbances then worsen daytime sleepiness. You may end up consuming excessive amounts of caffeine as a stimulant to stay awake during the day, and then again need more alcohol to offset the effects and induce sleepiness at night.

How to tell if your alcohol consumption is impacting your sleep

Alcohol can help relieve tension and make you feel drowsy so you fall asleep faster, which is why you may be so quick to reach for a glass of wine to help you settle into sleep, despite its negative effects on sleep

If you find yourself waking up during the night after consuming alcohol (perhaps you feel thirsty, have a headache, or need to use the washroom frequently), or you don’t feel refreshed in the morning even after what seemed like a long sleep, it’s quite likely that glass of wine before bed could be to blame. Light, frequently interrupted sleep with feelings of exhaustion and dehydration the next morning are typical signs that alcohol is messing with your sleep pattern.

You don’t need to quit drinking altogether, but it may be helpful to look at your overall pattern of alcohol consumption and timing of when you consume it. Making a few small adjustments may help you get a more refreshing night’s sleep, so you have more energy in the mornings and less sleepiness throughout the day.

Here are some quick tips to prevent alcohol from impacting your sleep:

  • Moderation is key. Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines suggest that adults over 19 years of age limit their consumption to 10 standard drinks per week for women (with no more than two drinks per day) or 15 standard drinks per week for men (with no more than three drinks per day). One standard drink contains 13.6 grams of alcohol. Each of the following is the equivalent of one standard drink:
  • 12 oz. beer, cider or cooler (5% alcohol)
  • 5 oz. wine (10-12% alcohol)
  • 3 oz. fortified wine (16-18% alcohol)
  • 1.5 oz. shot of hard liquor, such as vodka, rum, whisky or gin (40% alcohol)
  • Plan non-drinking days. Avoid consuming alcohol every day, so it’s less likely to become a habit.
  • Drink water at the same time you have alcohol. Consume 1-2 glasses of water or other non-alcoholic beverage for each alcoholic beverage you drink. It’s especially important to have a glass of water before bed if you’ve been drinking, to help offset the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
  • Set boundaries so you can manage a healthy relationship with alcohol. Avoid using alcohol to numb negative feelings or as a way of coping with stress, anxiety, loneliness or depression. Talk to a healthcare professional if you feel you need additional support to manage your mental health or sleeping difficulties. Check out this article for six tips to cut back.
  • Find other ways to get a good night’s sleep. Developing a consistent bedtime routine, keeping your bedroom cool and dark, turning off all screens (tv and devices) 30 minutes before bed, and instead reading a chapter of a good book are all ways to help you settle into sleep. A white noise machine or app can also reduce disruptive background noise, and you can try a lavender-scented room spray to help you relax and promote a good night’s sleep.