Alcohol and Insomnia: How Drinking Actually Hurts Your Sleep
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When you’re heading to bed after a long day, a few drinks can feel like the perfect way to get some shuteye. But the truth is, alcohol’s alleged “sleep-enhancing” benefits may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
Having a nightcap to top off your day can seem helpful—at least at first—because alcohol has a way of making you feel calm, drowsy, and at ease. But its effects can backfire as your body moves through its later sleep stages, making you feel tired and sleep-deprived in the long run.
Here’s what you should know about alcohol and sleep—including the research, how it works, and tips for cutting back.
Read more: Alcohol and Your Health
Table of Contents
Can Alcohol Cause Insomnia? The Deceptive Effects of the Nightcap
If you’ve ever used alcohol for sleep only to end up tossing and turning all night long, you might wonder: What happened? Can alcohol cause insomnia, and if so, how does it work?
It might come as a surprise, but having a few drinks before bed can increase sleep disruptions throughout the night.1 This is why alcohol and sleep problems (such as insomnia) go hand-in-hand. In fact, in one study on older adults those who binge drank frequently were 84 percent more likely to report insomnia symptoms than those who didn’t.2
All in all, drinking could reduce the quality of sleep you get each night, even if it seems to help you fall asleep faster. This can leave you feeling like you have insomnia after drinking alcohol—and it’s why having a nightcap before bed might not be such a good idea after all.
The Science of Alcohol and Sleep
If you want to understand why alcohol has a contradictory effect on your sleep cycle, it can help to think about things in terms of sleep stages. Drinking alcohol reduces your sleep onset latency (SOL), or the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. This can seem like a good thing at first, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture of what happens to your body throughout the night.
It’s true that drinking alcohol can make the first few hours of your sleep more restful. It increases your slow-wave sleep (SWS) stage, a dreamless state in which your body repairs itself and regulates the immune system. However, research has shown that alcohol disrupts your REM sleep, and can make you more wakeful during the second half of the night.3
Alcohol and REM Sleep: What the Science Says
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs at the end of each sleep cycle. It’s the stage most associated with dreaming, and it helps with your emotional processing, memories, and brain development.4 Your first REM stage is often very short, but each stage increases in time throughout the night. As a result, the second half of the night is when people get most of their REM sleep.
Studies show that alcohol can significantly delay the onset of your first REM stage after falling asleep.5 On top of that, moderate-to-heavy drinking can reduce the total amount of REM sleep you get in a night. And even small amounts of alcohol can adversely impact REM sleep in certain people who are sensitive to alcohol.6 But why does this happen?
One theory is that it disrupts certain neurotransmitters that play a role in your sleep cycle. The problem may also be linked to the after-effects of metabolizing alcohol. For instance, your levels of epinephrine (a stress hormone also known as adrenaline) can spike several hours after drinking. This spike could lead to you tossing, turning, and waking up throughout the night. Alcohol also relaxes your throat muscles, which can worsen snoring and sleep apnea.7
Why Does Alcohol Make Me Sleepy?
Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, which means your brain activity, breathing, and heart rate all slow down when you’re intoxicated.
Beyond that, alcohol can bind to GABA receptors in the brain.8 GABA is a neurotransmitter that creates a calming feeling by blocking certain signals in the brain and body.9 When alcohol binds to these receptors, it reduces stimulation and boosts relaxation, which can all lead to you feeling sleepier.
How Much Alcohol Causes Insomnia?
Research on alcohol and sleep shows that moderate-to-heavy drinking has a detrimental effect on sleep. But this is more of a guideline than a rule—simply because the amount of alcohol that causes insomnia is different for everyone.
For example, those who are sensitive to alcohol might get a rough night of sleep after only one or two cocktails. Conversely, someone else could sleep soundly even after several shots. At any rate, a regular nighttime drinking habit will increase your odds of poor-quality sleep over time.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Sleep
Withdrawal symptoms are a whole different world than alcohol-induced sleep problems. Because on top of sleep disturbances, you can also experience anxiety, shakiness, headaches, brain fog, and a range of other detox symptoms.
But why do sleep disruptions happen when you quit drinking? In short, it’s mainly due to your body rebalancing itself after stopping a substance. And because alcohol is a sedative, the withdrawal can follow the opposite sort of pattern. For example, you might feel overstimulated, restless, and anxious after quitting. And these feelings can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
The good news is that these sleep disruptions are temporary, and any insomnia you experience will likely resolve as you persevere through recovery. You may experience your most severe sleep disturbances in the first week, but most people find that it eases up with time.
With that in mind, here are some steps that can help you sleep better in recovery:
- Consider certain types of therapy (such as CBT) that may help with insomnia
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine or nicotine too close to bedtime
- Focus on a comforting and calming bedtime routine
- Make exercise a regular part of your schedule
- Practice mindfulness, yoga, or meditation
- Talk to your doctor if insomnia issues persist, or if they are severe enough to impair your daily functioning
Insomnia and Alcohol Use Disorder
So, is there a link between alcohol use disorder and insomnia? What does the science say?
The short answer is yes. Insomnia from alcohol use is pretty common, and studies have shown that anywhere from 36% to 91% of those who are alcohol dependent will struggle with sleep disturbances or insomnia. This is all due to how alcohol impacts your sleep cycles, along with its other physical and mental health effects.
On top of that, insomnia and alcohol use disorder can interact in a bidirectional way. In other words, alcohol use can bring about sleep disorders, and having a sleep disorder could also play a role in developing alcohol addiction.10 This can happen because many people self-medicate with alcohol to fall asleep faster, not realizing the harm it can do in the long run.11
The good news is that there are ways to break free from this cycle. First, it can help to simply recognize how alcohol impacts your sleep and energy levels. Then, you can take steps—like cutting back, practicing healthy sleep hygiene, and seeking support if needed—to improve your habits and start feeling better.
How To Avoid Insomnia From Alcohol
So, how can you avoid insomnia from drinking alcohol? The best options are to cut back or try quitting completely. But of course, this is much easier said than done. Statistics show that 5.3 percent of all people 12 and older in the U.S. have an alcohol use disorder.12 And many others might deal with problematic drinking, but fall into the gray area. All this is to say that “just quitting” isn’t always easy, even when alcohol use harms your sleep and well-being.
The good news is that there are countless ways to improve your chances of recovery, whether you want to drink in moderation or quit altogether. These tools include:
- Medical support
- Prescriptions to reduce cravings
- Recovery coaching for guidance along the way
And thanks to advances in telehealth, you can access all of this help through smartphone-based programs like Ria Health. Learn more about the process or get started today.