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How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep & Influence Sleep Quality?

Is a nightcap before bed good or not? How does alcohol affect sleep in general?

There’s no doubt that alcohol can help you fall asleep faster – or is there?. While a nightcap might make you initially drowsy, booze actually has the opposite effect on sleep quality overall. So, how does alcohol affect sleep?

Well, plainly said, alcohol can disrupt your sleep and cause you to wake up more frequently during the night. It also reduces Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is crucial for cognitive functioning and memory consolidation. As a result, drinking before bed can lead to poorer-quality sleep and even daytime fatigue. But, more on all of that in a minute.

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    The relationship between alcohol and sleep

    …Is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. That is, it’s hard to say which comes first: insomnia or drinking? People with insomnia are more likely to turn to alcohol as a way to fall asleep. But, at the same time, drinking can lead to sleep disruptions that then cause chronic and transient insomnia.

    It’s worth noting that not everyone experiences the same effects from alcohol when it comes to sleep. In fact, research shows that there are significant differences in how people metabolize alcohol. These differences can affect both how quickly someone gets drunk and how they feel the next day.

    So, if you’re wondering how alcohol affects sleep, let’s take a more detailed look, shall we?

    An image of a couple in a bed with a bottle of alcohol.

    In general, there are several ways that alcohol can negatively impact the quality of your sleep. To start, drinking before bed can cause you to wake up more during the night. One study found that people who drank alcohol before bed took longer to fall asleep and were more likely to wake up during the night than those who didn’t drink.

    Not only that, but alcohol also reduces REM sleep. REM sleep is the stage of sleep when you dream and your brain consolidates memories. So, if you’re wondering how alcohol affects dreams – it actually suppresses them. In fact, people who drink before bed are more likely to have fragmented, unclear dreams.

    Furthermore, alcohol can lead to sleep apnea – a condition characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Sleep apnea can cause snoring, gasping, and choking. It’s also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.

    Last but not least, drinking before bed can make you feel groggy and sleepy during the day. This is because alcohol disrupts your natural sleep cycle and makes it difficult to get a full night’s rest. As a result, you may find yourself feeling tired and fatigued during the day. In other words, you’ll have a bad hangover – worse than the Hangover 3.

    Sleep cycles and alcohol

    Now that we’ve reviewed what a typical sleep cycle looks like, let’s see how alcohol affects each stage of our normal sleep cycle.

    NREM (stage 1)

    The first stage of sleep is called NREM. This is the time when your body starts to relax and prepare for sleep. Your heart rate, breathing, and eye movements will all slow down. The brain will also start to decrease in activity. This phase is often called light sleep and isn’t usually that affected by alcohol.

    NREM (stage 2)

    During the second, NREM stage, sleepers’ heartbeats and breathing rates continue to slow as they enter deeper sleep. Their body temperature will drop and their eyes will become still. The second stage of the four-stage sleep cycle is typically the longest. You’ll usually feel the effects of alcohol during this stage.

    NREM (stage 3)

    During this stage the heart rate, breathing rates, and brain activity all fall to their lowest levels of the sleep cycle. The eye movements cease and the muscles are completely relaxed, resulting in this stage being known as slow-wave sleep. This is kind of hard to achieve if you’re drunk.

    REM sleep

    REM sleep begins approximately 90 minutes after the individual initially falls asleep. The sleeper’s breathing rate and beat will quicken, as well as his or her eyes’ movement. Dreaming is most common during this period of REM sleep. It has been suggested that this stage plays a part in memory consolidation. And, from what we’ve learned so far, we can safely say that you won’t experience REM sleep as you should if you’ve gone to bed with a buzz.

    How does alcohol affect sleep cycles?

    In short, alcohol affects sleep cycles by suppressing REM sleep and causing disruptions in the NREM stages of sleep. The end result is a poorer quality of sleep that can leave you feeling foggy and tired during the day.

    In other words, you might fall asleep easier, but during the first two (out of four cycles of four stages of sleep), you’ll experience the side effects of going to bed drunk as you’ll wake up frequently and won’t get enough rest no matter how long you sleep. Alcohol shouldn’t be your first choice for a nightcap!

    Does alcohol have to do anything with insomnia disorder?

    It is generally agreed that alcohol consumption can worsen insomnia symptoms.

    How? Here’s how.

    • Interfering with sleep patterns – An occasional glass of wine with dinner is usually nothing to worry about. But drinking alcohol every night as a way to help you fall asleep can lead to insomnia. That’s because alcohol causes disrupted sleep patterns. It may help you fall asleep, but it also causes you to wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.
    • Decreasing deep sleepYou need deep sleep to feel rested when you wake up in the morning. Alcohol decreases the amount of deep sleep you get. And the less deep sleep you get, the more likely you are to feel tired during the day.
    • Waking you up too early – Alcohol is metabolized (broken down) in your body relatively quickly. So, if you drink alcohol close to bedtime, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night when your body starts processing the alcohol.

    On top of all that, some people claim that a nightcap helps them sleep better which only aggravates the issue. Drinking alcohol before bedtime actually decreases the overall quality of your sleep. You may doze off more easily, but you’ll likely wake up earlier and feel less rested than if you hadn’t had any alcohol.

    And if you suffer from insomnia, chances are you’re already feeling pretty exhausted. So adding alcohol into the mix is just like adding fuel to the fire.

    This is because alcohol can reduce REM sleep, as well as cause sleep disruptions. This can lead to a vicious cycle where people drink alcohol before bed in order to fall asleep, consume caffeine and other stimulants during the day to stay awake, and then use alcohol as a sedative to offset the effects of these stimulants.

    Additionally, binge drinking can be particularly detrimental to sleep quality. It has been found that people who engage in binge drinking on a weekly basis are more likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep. This is true for both men and women, as well as adolescents and young adults as well as middle-aged and older adults.

    Moreover, long-term alcohol abuse can lead to chronic sleep problems.

    Can alcohol cause sleep apnea?

    Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or periods of shallow breathing during sleep. These pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more per hour.

    Each episode of apnea decreases the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, which can lead to problems such as excessive daytime sleepiness, impaired cognitive function and cardiovascular disease.

    Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the severity of sleep apnea symptoms and may include lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, sleeping on your side instead of your back, using a CPAP machine or surgery, and of course – quitting alcohol.

    Yes, alcohol can definitely cause sleep apnea. In fact, alcohol is one of the most common causes of sleep apnea. However, don’t just self-diagnose OSA – there are tests you can do.

    An image of a man suffering from sleep apnea.

    But anyway, there are a few different ways that alcohol can contribute to sleep apnea. First, alcohol loosens the muscles in your throat, which can narrow your airway and make it harder to breathe. Second, drinking too much can lead to snoring and excessive daytime drowsiness – both of which are signs of sleep apnea.

    Finally, chronic alcohol abuse can also damage your lungs and make it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep. This is because people who abuse alcohol often have trouble breathing properly even when they’re not asleep, which can prevent them from getting the deep, restful slumber they need.
    And, to top things off, research suggests that alcoholism or excessive alcohol consumption can actually increase your chance of developing sleep apnea by 25%.

    Conclusion - can alcohol cause sleep problems?

    Yes, alcohol can cause sleep problems.

    Alcohol disrupts sleep by affecting the sleep cycle and causing wakefulness during the night. Additionally, alcohol abuse can lead to chronic sleep problems such as insomnia and sleep apnea. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol before bedtime or stop drinking completely.

    An image of a woman drinking alcohol in bed.

    If you want or have to drink, it’s best if you stop drinking four hours prior to going to bed. If you want to have an occasional drink or two, make sure to space out your drinks and have them earlier in the evening. And, of course, if you think you might have a problem with alcohol, it’s best to talk to your doctor or a professional about treatment options.

    So there you have it – everything you need to know about how alcohol can influence sleep and sleep quality. Now that you know the risks, it’s up to you to decide whether or not drinking before bed is worth it.

    FAQs about alcohol and sleep

    But, before we let you go – we wanted to discuss a few other things with you.

    No. Not at all. It’s a common misconception that alcohol helps you sleep better. In reality, while alcohol may help you drift away faster, it will actually lead to poorer sleep quality or exacerbate existing sleep disorders.

    There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as everyone metabolizes and processes alcohol differently. However, as a general rule of thumb, if you want to avoid disrupting your sleep, it’s best to stop drinking four hours before bedtime.

    Yes, alcohol withdrawal can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders. Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, and it can last for days or even weeks after you stop drinking.

    Many experts define moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking is defined as more than four drinks per day for women and more than five drinks per day for men.

    It’s possible, but not certain. While a small amount of alcohol may help you catch some ZZZs faster and stop at that, if you can't handle your liquor, it's possible you'll experience some side effects.

    You should stop drinking four hours before going to bed. This will give your body time to metabolize the alcohol and avoid disrupting your sleep.

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