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Alcohol and sleep: experts explain how booze affects your snooze

Alcohol and sleep: experts explain how booze affects your snooze
Can’t sleep after drinking? Two experts weigh in on the affects of alcohol on sleep

By Sarah Finley
March 14, 2022

There’s a long-held belief that having a few drinks can help you fall asleep faster and sleep better, but we now know this isn’t true for everyone. So if your sleep tracker is telling you that your shut-eye takes a nose-dive after a night on the town, there’s definitely something in it. 

Just like you, some of us enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a few beers to unwind with friends after work, but we also know that alcohol can have a knock-on effect on how deeply we sleep that night.

To shed some light on the subject, we spoke to Clinical Physiologist Samantha Briscoe, and sleep specialist Dr Guy Meadows to get their professional takes on the relationship between alcohol and sleep. We also asked them if there’s a way to offset the affects of booze so that we can still enjoy a drink and limit the damage to our sleep. Here’s what they said…

Alcohol and sleep: What’s the big deal?

Some days there’s nothing better than having a glass of wine or two after a stressful day or to celebrate a big win, but once the sedative effect of alcohol wears off it changes your normal sleep cycles. 

As Samantha Briscoe, Clinical Psychologist at the London Bridge Sleep Centreexplains: “Alcohol causes our bodies to fall into the deep stages of sleep quicker and suppresses the amount of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. That imbalance causes a reduction in overall sleep quality.”

A 2018 study showed that people who drank a high amount of alcohol had decreased sleep quality of up to 39.2%

Ever woken up after a night out with a throat that feels like a sandbox and an overwhelming need to down all the water? That’s because alcohol is a diuretic. “It encourages the body to lose extra fluid, making you dehydrated,” says Briscoe. “This could also cause you to wake up in the night with the need to go to the toilet or because you feel thirsty.”

A hangover or tiredness from a lack of quality sleep worsens depending on the amount of alcohol you drink, too. In fact, a 2018 study showed that sleep quality decreased by 9.3% when participants drank a low amount of alcohol, classed as fewer than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women.

People who drank a high amount of alcohol, classed as more than two servings per day for men or more than one serving per day for women, had decreased sleep quality of up to 39.2%.

Some drinks affect sleep more than others

Our bodies each process foods and drinks differently. Some of us claim to have less of a hangover and less disturbed sleep with clear drinks such as vodka, while others can drink wine or beer and feel fine.

However, to be sure of a better night’s sleep, Brisco advises against adding these specific drinks to your booze: “When drinking alcohol, we often mix it with a caffeinated, sugary drink. Caffeine and sugar are both stimulants, meaning they can make you feel more energetic and alert. 

“Mixing alcohol with caffeine can make us feel more alert and will likely lead to delayed sleep onset.” 

Alcohol can make insomnia worse 

Insomniacs find it hard to sleep anyway, but alcohol can make it worse or even bring on insomnia in people who have never had it. Dr Guy Meadows, sleep physiologist and Clinical Director of the Sleep School, explains: “If regularly consumed and in large quantities, alcohol can begin to change our sleep architecture.

It can vary from person to person, but on average, it takes around one hour for your body to process each unit of alcohol.”

“Insomnia occurs in 36-72% of alcoholic patients and may last for weeks to months after initiating abstinence from alcohol. It also works both ways – up to 28% of insomniacs regularly use alcohol to aid sleep.”

Sleep apnea, a serious health condition where you stop breathing while asleep, can also be worsened by alcohol. “Alcohol is reported to increase the risk of sleep apnoea by 25%,” Dr Meadows reveals. 

“This happens because the sedative effect of alcohol relaxes the muscles holding the airways open, causing them to collapse, increasing the risk of snoring and sleep apnea.”

How can we offset alcohol’s effect on sleep?

Once alcohol has reached your bloodstream it’s hard to reverse the effects on your body and sleep patterns, but there are ways to limit the impact. “Eat before, during or after drinking,” reveals psychologist Brisco, “as this can help to slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.

“If you have been drinking in the evening, it’s best to leave as much time as possible in between your last drink and going to sleep to allow the alcohol time to start wearing off,” she adds. “It can vary from person to person, but on average, it takes around one hour for your body to process each unit of alcohol.” 

Meadows reveals to offset the long term effects of alcohol on your sleep we should be limiting our intake of alcohol every week: “For every night you choose to drink alcohol, aim to have two nights off. This guarantees that you’ll get good sleep at least two nights out of three, as well as giving your liver a rest.”

How to prioritise better sleep

In addition to being mindful of your alcohol intake, there are some easy changes you can make to your daily life to ensure you sleep better at night, regardless of whether you have had a drink or not. 

One of the most important aspects of this is the cornerstone of sleep hygiene: setting up a regular bedtime routine that helps you relax ahead of going to bed. Why? Because the more relaxed you are, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep. A major part of this is going to bed and getting up at the same time each day where possible.

An uncomfy bed can also lead to disturbed sleep, so if yours is causing you aches and pains, think about investing in the best mattress for your body and sleep style. You could also rotate your current one to see if that makes a difference and helps you feel more comfortable when lying down.

Have a quick look around your bedroom too and make sure it’s clutter-free, dark, quiet and cool – the calmer your sleeping environment, the better you’ll snooze. Light sleepers, it’s worth getting some good quality sleep earplugs to block out external noise so you have more of a chance of sleeping through.