Last Updated on November 5, 2020
It’s been a long workday, and you’re exhausted, yet you can’t seem to get to sleep. This is a common problem, especially for those in high-stress professions. Many turn to alcohol to help them get some much-needed shut-eye.
But if this has become a habit of yours, you may notice yourself still tossing and turning, and feeling fatigued. You may be wondering, “why does alcohol disrupt my sleep, when it’s supposed to help me drift off? Does alcohol disturb sleep patterns?”
While alcohol can help you fall asleep more easily, it does turn out to disturb the quality of your rest, sometimes leading to a cycle of fatigue and drinking. So, how does alcohol affect sleep? In this article, we’ll look at the reasons drinking alcohol is less helpful than it seems. We’ll also discuss how you can minimize alcohol’s negative effects, and get on track to a healthier, better-rested self.
The Deceptive Effects of the “Nightcap”
Is alcohol good for insomnia? Or can drinking alcohol actually cause insomnia?
One reason the traditional bedtime “nightcap” is such a widespread practice is that it seems to work—at first. Light alcohol consumption can indeed make you fall asleep more quickly, and experience a deeper sleep for the first few hours.
But as the night goes on, you may find yourself sleeping more shallowly, or awakening frequently. By the time your alarm goes off, you might be feeling just as tired as the night before.
It turns out that, in the big picture, alcohol can actually worsen insomnia. This is especially if you drink a large amount. One study on older adults showed that binge drinkers had 84 percent more insomnia symptoms than non-binge drinkers. But how can this be, if alcohol seems to make you more drowsy?
The Science of Alcohol and Sleep
Why does alcohol cause insomnia? Here’s how drinking alcohol affects your sleep:
Alcohol acts on the brain and body in some contradictory ways. As a nervous system depressant, alcohol actually helps to enhance slow-wave sleep (SWS). SWS is a dreamless state associated with tissue repair and immune system regulation. This tends to happen earlier in a person’s sleep cycle, which is why the first part of your night might seem to benefit from a “nightcap.”
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, however, seems to suffer when you drink alcohol. This is the part of the sleep cycle which is most restorative to the mind, and is often associated with dreaming.
Do you get REM sleep when drunk? You may still get some, but it will probably be less than otherwise. The disturbance of REM sleep may stem from the way alcohol affects your neurotransmitters. It could also be a side effect of the elimination of alcohol from your body. Either way, a reduction in REM sleep can leave you feeling fatigued mentally, even if your body has gotten the rest it needs.
Alcohol has other effects on the body which can disturb your rest. Its diuretic effects, for example, can force you to visit the bathroom multiple times a night. Alcohol also worsens sleep apnea, which can interrupt you no matter what phase of sleep you’re in. Finally, the sugar in alcoholic drinks may play a role in sleep deprivation. Some studies show that sugar can make your rest more fitful.
All things considered, the positive effects of alcohol on sleep are short lived, and often reverse themselves before the night is over. But when you’re short on time and need to get to sleep quickly, what else can you do?
How To Avoid Alcohol-Related Insomnia
To begin with, if you don’t want to quit drinking there are some basic guidelines that can help you rest easier:
- Choose drinks that are lower in sugar (avoid mixed drinks, for example)
- Limit your “nightcaps” to one or two drinks, to minimize REM disturbance
- Consider avoiding alcohol for several hours before bedtime
It is also important to note that you should never make up the difference by consuming alcohol with other sedatives. This can be dangerous or even fatal.
There are many alternative insomnia cures to consider as well. Supplements like melatonin, valerian, and magnesium all appear to be both effective and safe.
Incorporating more exercise when possible, as well as yoga or meditation, can also have a positive impact. Even if your schedule is packed, a five minute mindfulness exercise before bed can help you avoid an hour of tossing and turning. There are even some apps that can help with this. Finally, limiting caffeine and sticking to a regular bedtime ritual can make a big difference.
Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Insomnia?
What about the reverse? If you’ve decided to cut back or quit drinking, will it affect your sleep? Is insomnia a side effect of alcohol withdrawal? Can stopping alcohol cause insomnia?
The short answer is yes. Depending on how much you drink, your system will have to rebalance itself when you stop. If you drink moderately, this shift will be fairly minor. But if you are in recovery from alcohol addiction you may experience significant trouble falling asleep. This is especially true during acute withdrawal. In fact, insomnia is a common symptom of alcohol detox.
The good news is, this problem isn’t permanent. How long does insomnia from alcohol withdrawal last? That depends on the person. Most people will experience more extreme sleep disturbance during the initial week of alcohol withdrawal. But many in recovery continue to experience insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns for weeks, or even months, as their body rebalances itself.
If you’re in recovery and struggling to get a good night’s rest, try some of the tips suggested above. And if it gets discouraging, remember: it’s better than continuing to drink. Withdrawal-related insomnia generally resolves itself. Insomnia (and other health problems) from alcohol use disorder are generally with you for the long-haul.
Help With Moderation
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Many people—more than 6% of Americans—suffer from alcohol use disorder. Many more struggle with some form of alcohol dependence or problem drinking that is difficult to “just stop.”
Fortunately, there are now easier ways to cut back or eliminate your alcohol consumption. Prescription medications can help limit your cravings. The expansion of recovery coaching as a profession means there is now better access to personal support. Finally, the development of telemedicine means that you can access all of this from your smartphone—without disrupting your schedule or even leaving your home.