How Alcohol Disrupts Sleep

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

If you are dealing with insomnia and have trouble sleeping, you may think (or have found) that alcohol relieves the problem. Most people are generally aware that alcohol has a depressive, sedative quality, which can make falling asleep easier. However, science has shown that alcohol is still disruptive to your overall sleeping experience.

In fact, consuming alcohol before bed can leave you feeling more tired than you would normally feel if you had skipped those nightcaps.

Yes, alcohol does reduce the time it takes a person to fall asleep, which is why many people opt to use it as a sleep aid. But they do this thinking they are getting more and better sleep. However, studies have shown that the body is unable to cycle through the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stages many times over the course of the night. This leads to a person having poorer quality sleep after drinking alcohol.

Most people who drink alcohol prior to sleeping will generally only cycle through REM two or three times – versus the six or seven times that is typical and necessary to feel rested.

Individuals who use alcohol to help them sleep are more likely to talk in their sleep, sleepwalk, toss and turn, have bad dreams, and have memory problems. Additionally, once the alcohol in the blood stream starts to fall, it creates a stimulant effect. This means you may sleep for a few hours, but then waken, and stay awake for longer periods of time. Some individuals may be unable to go back to sleep. One study showed this is particularly prevalent in women. It is believed women may metabolize alcohol more quickly and go into this fragmented portion of sleep faster than men.

The more alcohol that is consumed, the more impact it will have on the first half of sleep.

But there are many insomniacs who swear by having a drink or two before bed. They say it shortens how long it takes them to fall asleep and they claim they enter into a deep sleep faster. Science does prove these facts. Alcohol does, in fact, have a short-term and immediate impact on sleep. However, it comes with a price.

The trade-off is it can worsen insomnia long term, and generally results in disrupted sleep during the second half of the night. There is also the concern of developing alcohol dependency, where falling asleep without the aid of alcohol becomes more difficult in the long term.

When alcohol is chosen as the sleep aid of choice, it can lead to problems that are bigger than the ones brought on by insomnia itself. Already having chronic insomnia does more than just make you feel tired. It can change almost everything about your life, including your safety, quality of life and relationships, your appearance, and your long-term health.

It is not advised to ignore insomnia and just suffer from it. However, before opting to use alcohol as a sleep aid, talk to your physician.

Opting for changes in your lifestyle, daily routine, and your sleep habits, as well as the use of natural, over-the-counter, or prescribed medications can help combat insomnia.

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free online sleep training course for insomnia. Over 2,500 insomniacs have completed his course and 98% of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.