Alcohol and sleep: how drinking effects your sleep

Can’t sleep after having a drink? Here, we outline the effects that alcohol has on sleeping.

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Alcohol has many effects on our body’s functioning, and sleep is no exception. Alcohol can make you feel drowsy and help you to fall asleep more easily, but in reality, it only damages your quality of sleep.

Read on to find out how alcohol affects your sleep, and the things you can do to help you get a better night’s sleep, even after you have been drinking.

Why can’t I sleep when I drink alcohol?

You’ll probably find that after a few drinks, you start to feel tired. This is alcohol’s sedative qualities at work, slowing our brain activity. It can help you to feel more relaxed and sleepy. Once you go to bed, you might find it easier than usual to drop off to sleep.

The effects of drinking alcohol before going to bed can mislead some people into believing they are getting a better night’s sleep, when in fact the opposite is the case.

Even one or two alcoholic beverages can affect sleep quality. Drinking above experts’ recommended weekly alcohol intake guidelines can contribute to you feeling excessively fatigued the following day. There are few reasons for this:

  • You’re more likely to wake up in the night needing the toilet
  • Alcohol can disrupt your circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’ (the physiological cycle your body operates on), which includes your natural sleep cycle
  • You’ll spend less time in the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep. This is the deepest part of our sleep and has the most restorative effect on our body
  • You could wake up with a hangover, meaning you’ll feel groggy and suffer with headaches and fatigue

Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, explains how falling asleep quickly due to drinking alcohol is negatively outweighed by the disruption it can cause to your sleep cycles, even several days or weeks after a period of heavy drinking.

She says: “The more prevalent, disruptive effects of alcohol use on sleep include more frequent awakenings, worse sleep quality resulting from a reduction of deep sleep and increase of restless REM sleep stage, alongside earlier-than-usual waking times, leading people to feeling that they did not get enough sleep.”

If you have a condition like sleep apnoea, drinking alcohol can make it much worse. The Sleep Foundation states that, for someone with sleep apnoea, drinking alcohol:

  • Raises your arousal threshold, making it more difficult to wake up and adjust breathing that might have become obstructed when asleep
  • Relaxes the muscles around your airways, making it more likely they obstruct breathing
  • Can increase the chances of nasal congestion, putting pressure on the upper airway and disrupting breathing

how alcohol affects sleep

Alcohol addiction and sleep

For those who have an alcohol addiction, having a dependence on the substance can affect our sleep in even more damaging ways.

If you drink heavily for many weeks, your body may develop a tolerance to alcohol, both physically as well as psychologically. You may find yourself drinking increasing amounts as time progresses, to achieve the same effects. In these cases, disrupted sleep will become a common symptom of your alcohol addiction.

This will enhance the damaging effects of alcohol. Dropping off to sleep may be easier, but you’ll consistently get a lower quality of sleep. If you stop drinking, you might experience unpleasant alcohol withdrawal effects, where your body reacts physically to a lack of alcohol in your system. Withdrawal symptoms can include many uncomfortable sensations like headaches, vomiting and fevers – all of which can contribute to keeping you awake at night. In addition, some alcohol withdrawal symptoms are psychological and can include things like anxiety, panic attacks and vivid nightmares. These, in turn, can also disrupt your sleep.

Ways to improve sleep after drinking alcohol

If you’re going on a night out, or  know you’ll be having quite a few drinks, there are things you can do to mitigate the effects of alcohol on your sleep. Having  healthly sleep habits can also help you with enhanced sleep in the long-term.

Cutting down on alcohol is the best way to get a better night’s sleep, but here are some healthy sleep strategies to adopt when you have been drinking:

  • Drink water in between alcoholic drinks
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Empty your bladder regularly when you’re out and just before bed
  • Eat before you go out
  • Put some soluble vitamins in a glass of water and drink this before bed

Support for alcohol addiction

At Priory, we provide outstanding treatment for alcohol addiction throughout our network of UK rehab centres. If your dependence on alcohol is affecting aspects of your life, including your sleep, it might be time to reach out to us for extra support.

Use the information below to get in touch with Priory’s team and book a free, no-obligation addiction assessment.

Blog reviewed by Claire Rimmer (BA (Hons), Dip.Psychology, FDAD (NCAC)), Lead Addiction Therapist at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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