It is estimated that as many as 20% of Americans use alcohol to help them fall asleep. With approximately 1 in 5 people using alcohol as a sleep aid, we all start to wonder, “does alcohol help you sleep?” Research has shown that while alcohol does initially have a sedative effect, alcohol use can affect your body’s natural sleep cycles. Also, because physical dependence is possible with long-term alcohol use, a feeling of difficulty sleeping without alcohol use may be a sign of alcohol use disorder. Understanding the relationship between sleep and alcohol and knowing why alcohol is not a good choice as a sleep aid can help you better manage any sleep disturbance issues you may be having.
Alcohol and Sleep Cycles
Even though alcohol is recognized as the most common sleep aid among Americans, the negative effects of alcohol on sleep make it more likely to interfere with healthy sleep than to assist it. Our body’s processes and functions are regulated by a master biological clock called our circadian rhythm.
While our circadian rhythm is managed by a small region of our brain, it regulates nearly all of our body’s functions from metabolism and cognitive function to energy, sleep, and mood. Alcohol causes a disruption in circadian functioning. This negative relationship between alcohol and circadian rhythm causes disruptive effects on many body systems, especially sleep patterns.
While the negative impact of alcohol use on circadian rhythm can disrupt healthy sleep cycles, it is not the only factor adding to the harmful relationship between alcohol and sleep. Alcohol use can aggravate breathing problems making people more prone to snoring and sleep apnea. Also, because of alcohol’s diuretic action, its use can lead to more bathroom trips throughout the night.
Why Alcohol Makes You Sleepy
Alcohol is well-known as making people feel drowsy and groggy. But why does it do this? Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. Alcohol is thought to enhance the action of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and also suddenly stimulate the production of adenosine. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that causes a slowing of brain processes, and adenosine is a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain.
By enhancing the inhibitory action of GABA and stimulating the production of adenosine, alcohol causes drowsiness and sedation. The sedative effect is most profound at higher doses of alcohol intake. The higher the dose of alcohol, the greater the risk for overdose and loss of consciousness, coma or death, especially when alcohol is taken in combination with other CNS depressants such as opioids and benzodiazepines.
Sleepy, Then Awake!
The effect of alcohol on the brain is as complicated as the brain itself. While alcohol may cause sleepiness initially, you may experience increased alertness about four to five hours after moderate consumption. This can cause you to feel the need to wake up in the middle of the night after drinking socially at happy hour. Research has indicated multiple reasons for this phenomenon, which include:
- The sudden decrease in the production of the sleep-inducing chemical adenosine in the brain a couple of hours after alcohol consumption
- The relationship between the consumption of alcohol and stress hormones being secreted excessively after alcohol intoxication
- The relationship between the consumption of alcohol and REM sleep blockade (REM sleep is the most restorative type of sleep)
How Much Alcohol Disrupts Sleep?
With the information that alcohol disrupts sleep, the natural question is, “how much alcohol disrupts sleep?” A recent study examined the effects of different amounts of alcohol intake on sleep disruption. This research found that even low and moderate amounts of alcohol consumption decreased restorative sleep. According to the research, the nationally recommended quantity for moderate drinking of one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men could result in effects that lead to significant sleep disruption.
The effects of alcohol consumption on sleep and certain brain chemicals depend on many individual factors including:
- The extent of alcohol use (present and past)
- Individual metabolism
- Individual health conditions
However, certain physical effects of alcohol that commonly occur, such as the use of alcohol and frequent urination problems, can cause sleep reduction regardless of chemical effects in the brain.
Exhaustion After Drinking: Passing Out Is Not Restful
Even though alcohol is frequently cited as causing people to “pass out” after use, the disrupted sleep effects and “hangover” symptoms can leave you feeling exhausted after drinking alcohol.
Common “hangover” symptoms of alcohol use include:
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Redness of the eyes
- Muscle aches
- Mood disturbances especially depression, anxiety, and irritability
Misuse of alcohol, either in the form of binge-drinking or chronic abuse, has many possible damaging long-term and short-term effects. While alcohol addiction and dependence can be overwhelming, there are convenient options for how to get help for alcohol abuse. If you suspect that a loved one is struggling with alcohol use disorder, speaking with a trained professional can help you determine how to help someone who abuses alcohol.
Alternatives to Improving Sleep Quality
Even though research has proven that alcohol is not a healthy option as a sleep aid, many people still turn to it as a way to help them get some shut-eye. Instead of using a substance that can have detrimental effects on your sleep and your overall health, the National Sleep Foundation recommends these healthy ways to improve sleep quality:
- Sticking to a sleep schedule with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time
- Utilizing a relaxing bedtime routine free of bright lights, excitement, stress or anxiety
- Avoiding naps, especially in the afternoon, if you have trouble sleeping
- Exercising regularly
- Establishing a sleep environment that promotes sleep including cool room temperature (between 60 and 67 degrees), minimizing distractions of noise and light, and using a comfortable mattress and pillow
- Avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening
- Taking time to wind down and shift into sleep mode
If you are having difficulty managing your sleep disturbances and it is affecting your daily routine and activity, you should talk to your doctor about your symptoms and available treatment options.
If your child is struggling with alcohol addiction, The Next Generation Village can help. Your child will receive compassionate and comprehensive treatment to help begin their journey to recovery. To learn more about treatment that could help, contact The Next Generation Village today to speak with a representative.Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.