Alcohol & Insomnia: How Alcohol Affects Sleep

Sip less, sleep more deeply.
Alcohol & Insomnia: How Alcohol Affects Sleep
Tom Greenspan
December 21, 2022

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A restful sleep at night is one of the foundations of your overall well-being.

Generally, a healthy adult needs 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep and a consistent sleeping schedule to keep health problems at bay. However, some people may suffer from sleep disorders, like insomnia, which can affect their sleep quality and schedules.

And many people who have trouble sleeping often fall back on alcohol. But is this a healthy practice? How does alcohol affect your sleep and conditions like insomnia? We’ve answered it all below.

What Is Insomnia?

Although insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders known to people, it’s not just the problem of falling asleep, as most people think it to be. Insomnia can also also be defined as the inability to stay asleep (or get deep sleep) or waking up suddenly and the inability to fall asleep again. 

Around 50 to 70 million of the US population is affected by insomnia every year, with 33% to 50% of adults developing insomnia symptoms sooner than later. Out of them, almost 10% are prone to developing short-term (acute) insomnia, and 20% of the population may experience long-term (chronic) insomnia lasting for years.

What Are The Causes Of Insomnia?

Both acute and chronic insomnia can be a result of various factors, with stress, erratic sleeping schedules, and overdependence on caffeine being the most common ones. Aside from that, issues that affect your circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock that regulates sleep-wake cycles) can cause insomnia.

You may also experience acute insomnia if you’re exposed to too much screen time, especially before bed. Likewise, eating heavy meals in the evening or at night can make you feel uncomfortable in bed, often resulting in acidity or heartburn, which can make you stay awake for prolonged periods at night.

Chronic insomnia, in particular, can be caused by other underlying conditions as well, such as mental health or sleep-related disorders. For instance, people suffering from anxiety or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) often experience disturbed sleep. Similarly, depression can cause you to wake early and be unable to fall back asleep again.

Other than that, sleep-related disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, can affect your sleep quality, ultimately becoming the root cause of chronic insomnia. While the former makes you stop breathing (involuntarily) periodically through the night, the latter causes an “irritable” sensation in your legs, making you want to move them to seek relief. And as you can already tell, these conditions can cause sleep disruption.

Moreover, diseases like diabetes, thyroid, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or chronic pain conditions like arthritis can make it difficult for you to sleep at night.  

However, it may be helpful to know that the consumption of certain prescription medications, especially antidepressants and the ones used for treating high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, or even common cold, can cause insomnia.

This is primarily due to the presence of stimulants like caffeine in these medicines, which can affect your sleep quality if consumed in high doses or for too long. And the same holds true for many weight-loss supplements.

How Can Age Disrupt Sleep To Induce Insomnia

Aging is another factor that can result in disrupted sleep, as elderly people generally become more sensitive to loud noises or bright lights when sleeping. Further, the lack of physical movements due to health conditions or an aging body can make it difficult for them to fall asleep quickly or stay asleep for prolonged periods.

Now that you have an idea about the different causes of insomnia, here are a few telltale signs of the condition you should look out for:

  • Inability or difficulty falling asleep 
  • Waking up suddenly in the middle of the night
  • Waking up earlier despite sleeping late 
  • Lack of ‘restful’ feeling after a full night’s sleep
  • Anxiety, irritability, and lack of focus or attention
  • Trouble remembering things 

Keep in mind, though, that a few episodes of lack of sleep or poor sleep quality don’t necessarily mean insomnia. However, if your sleep quality remains affected to the point where it hampers your ability to function (both physically and mentally), you’re likely suffering from insomnia.

How Alcohol Consumption Can Negatively Impact Sleep

Honestly speaking, alcohol and sleep have a love-hate relationship- alcohol may help you fall asleep as well as cause other sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. Now, some people prefer moderate alcohol consumption right before bed to fall asleep quickly by ‘benefiting’ from alcohol’s sedating effects. 

When alcohol enters your bloodstream through the oral route, it acts as a central nervous system depressant and triggers the release of chloride ions, which slows down the activity of your neurons. The result is an overwhelming feeling of relaxation and drowsiness or sleepiness, which makes people think alcohol intake is related directly to a good night’s sleep.

However, the sedative effects of alcohol will eventually wear down during the night. And if you already have trouble falling asleep, you may experience severe sleep disturbance and, in most cases, insomnia. Besides, multiple studies have concluded that consuming alcohol before sleeping at night has more cons than pros. 

In the following sections, we will walk you through some of the ill effects of drinking alcohol at bedtime.

1. Reduced Melatonin Production

In case you didn’t know this, melatonin is the sleep-inducing hormone secreted by your pineal gland as it begins to get dark. This is made possible by your body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm), which automatically senses the change in your surroundings to start and stop the production of the hormone at night and day, respectively. In other words, your circadian rhythm determines your sleep-wake cycle.

But consuming even moderate amounts of alcohol right before bed can disrupt this cycle by reducing melatonin production at night. As a result, you may get less sleep, or worse, no sleep at all during the night and feel sleepy the next day, thereby compromising your physical and mental efficacy.

Besides, regularly drinking late at night and sleeping through the next morning will invariably interfere with your consistent sleeping schedule, which is vital for restful sleep. In fact, alcohol use can also hamper your body’s ability to respond to light cues, which is essential for maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm.

2. Reduced REM Sleep

Your sleep cycle is typically divided into multiple stages, with 3 stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and one stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. And alcohol dependence can wreak havoc on the balance between these stages.

Most of the sleep that we get at night comprises the slow wave sleep of non-REM sleep, which plays a crucial role in ensuring a good overall sleep quality. Likewise, REM sleep is important for ensuring and enhancing your mental restoration process when your body is at rest.

When a person consumes alcohol and their body starts metabolizing it, he or she will experience more NREM sleep than REM sleep, which will create an imbalance. And this disruption to the body’s natural sleeping cycle will invariably reduce the overall sleep quality. 

That is to say, while alcohol may make you fall asleep faster and deeper initially, you’re likely to experience shorter sleep duration, sleep deprivation, and restlessness later on. Moreover, drinking heavily a few hours before bed can reduce sleep quality by significantly cutting down on your REM sleep, especially during the first half of the night.

3. Increased REM Sleep

Alcohol use can also disrupt your sleeping cycle by increasing the amount of REM sleep you get later at night when your body finishes metabolizing the alcohol. And when this happens will largely depend on the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed before bed.

For instance, if your breath-alcohol concentration is between 0.06 and 0.08% when you’re going to bed, your body will usually finish metabolizing it after around 5 hours of sleep. 

Now, once all the alcohol has been metabolized and removed from your system, its sedating effects will also wear down completely, resulting in sleep disturbances. You may find yourself waking up or changing positions frequently to find the required ‘comfort’ to go back to deep sleep.

In some other cases, people may not open their eyes or sit up. Even if they do, they probably won’t remember anything the next morning, but they will wake up feeling tired and groggy due to the constant sleep problems.

4. Increased Risk Of OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea)

If you’re wondering, ‘can alcohol affect sleep apnea?’ then let us tell you that yes, it can. Not only can alcohol use increase the risk of developing sleep apnea, but it can also make your existing condition worse. 

For the unversed, sleep apnea is a medical condition that affects your breathing during sleep. For some people, their brain fails to send the right signals to regulate the breathing process, while for others, the throat muscles relax more than usual. This causes his or her airway to close fully or partially frequently through the night. And since drinking alcohol relaxes the throat muscles, the problem can get even more severe.

Sure, the amount of alcohol you drink before bed will largely dictate how vulnerable you’re to developing sleep apnea or making your existing problem worse. But some studies show that consuming alcohol, in general, can increase the risk of developing OSA by more than 20%.

Besides, people who’re into binge drinking are more at risk of encountering this sleep disorder sometime in their life than those who drink moderately.

Alcohol And Insomnia: How Can Alcohol Use Promote Insomnia?

It’s not unusual to come across people who have turned to alcohol as a means to manage insomnia due to its sedative effects that can help with decreased sleep onset latency. The lower the latency, the faster you can fall asleep. But this practice can only bear short-term results, at best.

As mentioned above, alcohol use can drastically affect your body’s natural sleeping cycle, making it increasingly difficult to get restful sleep over time. Besides, your body can quickly become resistant to the sedative effects of alcohol, meaning you may start consuming more amounts to get the desired effects. And this can significantly increase the chances of developing alcohol abuse disorders.

Alcohol abuse and insomnia can, in fact, coexist, with one leading to the other. You can become an alcoholic due to persistent insomnia, or drinking regularly can make you an insomniac.

You may also become susceptible to alcohol use disorders even if you don’t have insomnia. For instance, people suffering from medical conditions that disrupt sleep may consume a few glasses of alcohol before bedtime. And if this doesn’t solve their problem, they may become quickly addicted to the compound, eventually developing alcohol-related insomnia.  

Moreover, the problem of acute insomnia can affect people going through alcohol withdrawal, as their bodies “miss” the sedating effects of alcohol to fall asleep. And naturally, this becomes one of the biggest reasons for relapse, especially in the absence of proper therapy.

Final Words

If you’re suffering from alcoholism and have developed insomnia as a result, we’d strongly recommend seeking medical advice to decide the best course of action. This may include therapy, medication, or both.

However, if you don’t suffer from alcohol abuse disorders but drink frequently as a part of your daily routine, there are some changes you should make at the earliest. 

First and foremost, reduce the amount of alcohol intake and avoid drinking too close to bedtime. This will give your body enough time to metabolize the alcohol completely before you sleep, thereby preventing it from causing sleep disruptions.

Furthermore, if you find yourself relying on alcohol as a means to relax before sleeping, try replacing it with other healthy activities, such as taking a bubble bath. You can also drink a cup of chamomile tea before sleeping, but make sure you consult with a doctor, especially if you have any medical condition or take medicines.