How Does Alcohol Impact Sleep?
By Lindsay Modglin, Contributor
Medically Reviewed by Seema Khosla, M.D., F.C.C.P., F.A.A.S.M. Sleep Medicine / Pulmonary Medicine
September 13, 2022
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For many people, enjoying the occasional drink with friends or a glass of wine with dinner is something to look forward to. However, while you may feel more relaxed and drift off to sleep quicker after having a drink, when morning rolls around, you might find yourself wondering why you feel so groggy and tired–especially after falling asleep so easily.
So, does alcohol help you sleep or is it actually interfering with your quality of rest? Read on to find out how alcohol can affect your sleep, and why–as well as insight into the health benefits of getting enough shut-eye.
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How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?
Alcohol is classified as a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down brain activity. This may ultimately cause you to feel more relaxed. While “relaxed” may sound appealing, alcohol has also been shown to negatively affect sleep and other physiological processes that occur during sleep.
While alcohol initially seems to have a sedative-like effect, your sleep is later influenced by the effect it has on the brain and blood sugar as it’s metabolized, explains Brooke Scheller, a doctor of clinical nutrition who specializes in the ramifications of alcohol on the brain, gut and hormones. “Even if alcohol initially helps [someone] fall asleep, they may wake up many times throughout the night or not get into a deep sleep,” she continues.
“Alcohol also reduces the amount of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the type of sleep that helps our brain recover from the day and also process memory and learning from the previous day,” explains Dr. Scheller
While alcohol may disrupt sleep, the exact type and intensity of disruption can vary from person to person. “The way alcohol may influence a person typically depends on genetics, nutrition, drinking history, medical conditions, gender and age,” says Po-Chang Hsu, M.D., a medical content expert and consultant at SleepingOcean. “That said, it’s hard to find someone whose sleep quality won’t be affected after drinking–especially if we’re talking about larger alcohol quantities.”
Over time, poor quality sleep can have a negative influence on many different aspects of your life, including your long-term health. If you’re experiencing sleeping issues, whether related to alcohol consumption or not, consider talking to your health care provider or a sleep specialist.
Alcohol and Sleep Disorder
Research shows that regular alcohol consumption can worsen certain sleep disorders–such as insomnia, sleep apnea and REM sleep disorder.
Insomnia and Alcohol
Up to 30% of people in the U.S. struggle with mild to chronic insomnia, a common sleep disorder that’s characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or getting restorative sleep. People with insomnia often wake up tired and struggle with poor memory or concentration.
“Because alcohol often causes fragmented sleep, nighttime disruptions and a decreased slumber quality overall, it may aggravate one’s insomnia. People with insomnia already have issues getting their natural sleep and wake cycles to run smoothly. Adding alcohol to the equation would only worsen the problem,” says Dr. Hsu, adding, “however, this rule usually applies to people who frequently consume large amounts of alcohol. In other words, a glass of wine during dinner isn’t likely to cause insomnia in people who have never faced this sleep disorder before.”
People often turn to alcohol when they struggle to fall asleep. While this may work for a short time, typically, more alcohol is needed to accomplish this over time. This can lead to worsened insomnia and can be harder to treat. This practice can mask an underlying sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea which may be causing the insomnia in the first place.
Sleep Apnea and Alcohol
Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes breathing to repeatedly stop and restart during sleep, affecting the amount of oxygen your body gets. Individuals with sleep apnea often snore, gasp for air while asleep and wake frequently throughout the night. You may wake feeling tired, groggy and not well rested–even if you seemingly slept the entire night.
Alcohol further increases the effects of sleep apnea by relaxing the muscles in the throat, collapsing the upper airway and lowering oxygen levels. This not only worsens pre-existing sleep apnea but may also lead to episodes of sleep apnea in individuals who previously did not experience it.
If left untreated, chronic sleep apnea can drastically impact your quality of life and lead to serious health concerns, such as weight gain and obesity, hypertension, stroke, memory impairment and heart failure.