How does alcohol affect sleep?

A glass of wine before bed may make you feel sleepy, but there is evidence to show that drinking even a small amount of alcohol before bedtime can have a detrimental effect on your sleep. This includes disrupting the key stages of your sleep cycle and exacerbating disorders such as sleep apnea. In this article we’ll take a closer look at the different stages of sleep and how alcohol can significantly impact your sleep quality.

Understanding the four stages of sleep

To recognise how alcohol can affect your sleep, it’s important to understand the different stages of a typical eight hours’ natural sleep.

There are four stages of sleep which occur in cycles - these are known as REM and NREM. During the night, we experience periods of NREM sleep (light sleep, deep sleep), and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Each stage plays an essential role, but stages three and four are considered the most important for your physical and mental health. 

Stages one to three - NREM sleep

Stage 1: You begin the transition from wakefulness to sleep.

Stage 2: You are in light sleep. Your heart rate and your body prepares itself for deep sleep. 

Stage 3: This is where you are now in a state of deep sleep and your body enters a restorative period, strengthening the immune system, building bone and muscle and ensuring we feel refreshed and re-energised in the morning.

Stage four - REM sleep

Stage 4: REM sleep usually happens 90 minutes after falling asleep. This is the stage where your brain becomes active and you’ll experience your most intense dreams. REM stimulates the areas of the brain that help with learning and aids the increased production of vital proteins.

How does drinking alcohol affect sleep quality?

There’s no doubt that drinking alcohol can induce feelings of sleepiness, enabling you to fall asleep quickly, but the impact alcohol has in the later stages of sleep is significant. It’s at these stages when your sleep becomes fitful and fragmented as a result of alcohol and affects your body’s ability to produce key hormones and chemicals, resulting in low quality sleep.

The effects of alcohol on sleep

The extent of the effects depends on factors such as age, overall health, how much you drink and at what stage of the evening. Generally, drinking alcohol can affect your sleep in the following ways:

  • Disrupted production of melatonin hormone - this is the hormone your brain releases when it’s ready to go to sleep. Drinking alcohol impedes its production, leading to broken, poor quality sleep.

  • Increased trips to the toilet - alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you’re more likely to wake through the night needing to urinate. This also leads to dehydration as your body’s ability to regulate water content is impeded, which leads to increased feelings of thirst.

  • Breathing problems - alcohol can have a detrimental impact on your breathing patterns through the night leading to a sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea. This is where your breathing stops and starts while you sleep. Alcohol is a muscle relaxer which also exacerbates sleep apnea, relaxing your airways and causing you to snore and gasp for air while you sleep.

  • Low mood - while a glass of wine might help you unwind, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a depressant which interferes with your brain’s ability to release ‘happiness’ chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. It also disrupts the restorative period of sleep which is vital for feeling refreshed the next day, leading to drowsiness and low mood.

  • Insomnia - alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it can severely disrupt and reduce REM sleep causing frequent waking and difficulty falling back asleep. This in turn can lead to using stimulants such as coffee the next day to help you stay awake, followed by consuming more alcohol as a sleep aid the next night in an attempt to offset the effects of the stimulants. Poor sleep / poor wakefulness throws your circadian rhythms (wake/sleep cycles) into disarray, which can lead to extended bouts of insomnia.

What can I do if I have trouble sleeping?

Here are some tips that may help if you have trouble sleeping:

  • Avoid alcohol in the four hours leading up to bedtime. Swap your nightcap for herbal tea or a warm, caffeine-free milky drink.
  • Do some gentle exercise in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Don’t drink caffeine after 4pm.
  • Create a restful environment. Turn off devices such as mobile phones and laptops when in bed and make your room as dark as possible (unnatural light affects sleep quality).
  • Write down any worries and concerns you have which might keep you awake.

For more tips on how to get a great night’s sleep, take a look at our article Catch some zzzzs.

How can LiveWell Dorset help

The team at LiveWell Dorset is passionate about helping you sleep better and lead a healthy, happy life. Our website features lots of resources and information on how to reduce alcohol consumption and different ways to get active, which can aid a good night’s sleep. We’ve helped thousands of people across Dorset and we’d love to help you too! By registering with us, we can help break bad habits and provide you with tips, tricks and tools tailored to you. Drop us a line today!


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