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How Alcohol Negatively Affects Sleep

September 21, 2022
How Alcohol Negatively Affects Sleep | Sleep Reset

There are many reasons why people might drink alcohol before bed.

Maybe you find that alcohol helps you fall asleep more easily, or you think it will improve your sleep quality. However, research shows that alcohol can have the opposite effect on sleep.

Alcohol can make you drowsy and even help you fall asleep faster. But alcohol also disrupts sleep later in the night. You may wake up early after drinking and have trouble getting back to sleep. As a result, you may not get enough restful sleep.

How alcohol works in sleep

To understand alcohol and sleep, it's important to know how alcohol works in the body. Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It slows down the brain and the body's other systems.

At first, alcohol has a calming effect. It increases levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, which promotes deep, dreamless sleep. But as alcohol levels drop during the night, your body and brain rebound and kick into overdrive. The rush of brain activity often leads to fitful tossing and turning. 

Alcohol messes with your sleep in another significant way. It causes you to urinate more frequently, which can interrupt your sleep by causing you to wake up several times throughout the night to use the bathroom.

Here’s how it works. Normally, your brain produces an antidiuretic hormone (ADH) that tells your kidneys to stop making urine. When you drink, ADH production is suppressed, so your body starts to make more urine. 

This doesn’t affect you too much when you’re awake. But when you’re asleep, the extra trips to the bathroom can derail your rest for the remainder of the night. Or, if your bladder becomes too full while you’re still in the deep sleep phase, you may wet the bed without waking up. 

Alcohol and REM sleep

REM sleep is the deepest phase of sleep. It's when your brain and body can rest and repair themselves. Alcohol suppresses REM sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy and exhausted when you wake up early after drinking.

One study asked subjects to drink before bed multiple nights in a row and found that "REM density (a measure of the number of eye movements per unit time) was significantly reduced on all three drinking nights." 

This means that alcohol reduces the amount of time you spend in REM sleep and the quality of your REM sleep. You may find that alcohol REM sleep leads to less vivid dreams or even nightmares.

Alcohol and sleeping pills

Sleeping pills are often used to help people fall asleep and stay asleep. But, these pills should never be consumed with alcohol. The combination could lead to serious consequences.

For instance, blackouts, or anterograde amnesia, are possible. This is when you can't form new memories after drinking. 

Hypnotic sedatives like Ambien work by activating a neurotransmitter called GABA. This activation slows down your brain by triggering a decrease in neural activity. Alcohol has a similar effect on the brain. So when you mix alcohol and sleeping pills, you're effectively doubling down on the sedative effects.

Physical issues like poor coordination and potential blackouts aren't the only things you have to worry about. Mixing alcohol and hypnotics can have psychiatric consequences as well. People report hallucinating, sleepwalking, and committing dangerous and embarrassing actions under the influence of the two depressants. 

Over-the-counter sleeping pills like Unisom can have similar effects when mixed with alcohol. Unisom contains the active ingredient doxylamine, which is an antihistamine.

Doxylamine is effective because it blocks histamine receptors. Histamine is responsible for wakefulness. So when you block it, drowsiness ensues.

But alcohol also blocks histamine receptors. So when the two substances combine, the effects are amplified. This can result in extreme drowsiness, slowed reflexes, and impaired judgment. You may even fall asleep without meaning to.

In the worst-case scenario, combining alcohol and sleeping pills can result in severe bodily harm or even death. Your respiratory system can slow down at a dangerous rate.  

Alcohol and Melotonin

Melatonin is a hormone that helps to regulate your body's natural sleep-wake cycle. It's often taken as a supplement to help people fall asleep and stay asleep.

Melatonin and alcohol don't mix well. For one, alcohol can make melatonin less effective. In a study using young adults, researchers found that alcohol "significantly decreased" the subjects' melatonin levels.

This disruption to your natural circadian rhythm could make you feel drowsy during the day or fall asleep at inappropriate times. It may even make it difficult for you to wake up in the morning. Combining melatonin and alcohol is not ideal if you wake up early after drinking. 

It's also important to note that alcohol can delay the release of melatonin. So if you're taking a supplement, it may take longer to start working.  

Overall, skipping drinking on nights when you take melatonin supplements is a good idea.  If you drink, give yourself plenty of time to sleep it off before taking the supplement. This way, you can avoid any potential interactions between melatonin and alcohol. 

How to sleep well after drinking

Getting a good night's rest after drinking is challenging, but it's not impossible. You can do things both during the night and right before going to bed that will help you have a calm sleep.  

Drink water

First, it's important to drink plenty of water. As we discussed above, alcohol makes you urinate more frequently. If you're not careful, you can easily become dehydrated and wake up feeling thirsty in the middle of the night. 

To avoid this, drink a glass or two of water before bed. You can also keep a glass or reusable bottle of water beside your bed to rehydrate if you wake up at night. 

Eat a snack 

Eating a small snack before bed can also help you sleep better. Alcohol causes your blood sugar to drop, leading to wakefulness during the night. Eating a carbohydrate-rich snack will help to raise your blood sugar and keep you asleep. 

Some good options include whole grain crackers with cheese or an apple with peanut butter. Just be sure not to eat too much, as going to bed on a full stomach can make it difficult to fall asleep in the first place. 

Get some fresh air

If you're struggling to sleep, getting some fresh air may help. Alcohol increases your body temperature, so opening a window or using a fan can help you cool down and feel more comfortable.  

Avoid caffeine

It's also important to avoid caffeine after drinking alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant, making it harder for you to fall asleep. It can also make you more likely to wake up during the night. So if you're trying to sleep after drinking, it's best to steer clear of coffee, tea, and soda.  

Stop drinking early in the night

Of course, the best way to avoid these sleep issues is to stop drinking alcohol earlier than later. The earlier you can give yourself time to sober up, the better it is for your sleep. 

If you know you'll be drinking, limit yourself to one or two drinks over several hours. This will help reduce your blood alcohol concentration and make it easier to fall asleep when you finally go to bed. 

Alternatives for better sleep

Because of the myriad potential risks and side effects, alcohol and sleep are always a bad match. However, you can do plenty of other things to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an effective treatment for people who struggle with sleep. CBT-I helps you change the thoughts and behaviors that keep you from sleeping well. 

In a 2021 study, researchers found that CBT-I was more effective than Ambien in treating insomnia. Participants in the study who received CBT-I slept better and had fewer side effects.

There are many different ways to practice CBT-I. Some see a therapist specializing in CBT-I, while others use self-help books or online resources. CBT-I focuses on: 

  • Stimulus control: This involves making changes to your sleep environment and habits. For example, you might establish a regular bedtime routine or avoid watching television in bed. 
  • Relaxation training: Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing can help reduce anxiety and make it easier to fall asleep. 
  • Cognitive therapy: Identifying the thoughts and behaviors that harm your sleep can be very beneficial. For example, you might learn how to challenge your beliefs about sleep and insomnia. 

CBT-I may be a good option for you if you're struggling to sleep. It's safe, effective, and has few side effects. With Sleep Reset, you can learn CBT-I techniques through an app.

Take the sleep assessment to see how Sleep Reset can help you rest better.

 

 

 

 

 

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