Alcohol And Sleep: Information and Advice For A Better Night

The Fallacy Of Alcohol As A Sleep Aid

Many people believe that drinking alcohol helps them sleep better. However, science shows a different story. We aim to explore the complex relationship between alcohol and sleep quality in this article, debunking common myths and providing scientific evidence on how alcohol affects sleep. We’ll also offer practical tips for improving sleep without relying on alcohol.

Sleep and Alcohol - Information and advice

Understanding Sleep and Health

Sleep plays a vital role in our physical and mental well-being. It involves several stages, each important for restoring the body and mind. Here, we break down the science of sleep, focusing on REM sleep, NREM sleep, sleep cycles and the deep sleep phase. Plus, we explore how these elements contribute to overall health.

REM and NREM Sleep: The Building Blocks of Sleep Cycles

Sleep is divided into two main types: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. NREM sleep has three stages, with each stage leading to deeper sleep. REM sleep, on the other hand, is when most dreaming happens. This stage is crucial for emotional regulation and memory consolidation.

  • NREM Sleep: Makes up 75-80% of a night’s sleep. It starts with light sleep, progresses to deep sleep, and prepares the body for REM sleep.
  • REM Sleep: Occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. It’s essential for learning, memory and mood regulation.

The Importance of Deep Sleep

Deep sleep, or NREM stage 3, is critical for physical and mental restoration. During this phase, the body repairs tissues, builds bone and muscle,  and strengthens the immune system. Deep sleep also plays a role in retaining memories and emotional processing.

Factors Influencing Sleep Quality

Several factors can impact the quality of sleep, including:

  • Stress: High stress levels can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep
  • Environment: A noisy or uncomfortable environment can disrupt sleep
  • Health Conditions: Conditions like sleep apnea or insomnia can severely affect sleep quality
  • Lifestyle Choices: Consumption of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol can disturb sleep patterns. Specifically, alcohol can reduce REM sleep and fragment sleep cycles, leading to poor sleep quality

Operating a Healthy Sleep Cycle

A healthy sleep cycle involves progressing through the stages of NREM sleep into REM sleep several times a night. This cycle repeats every 90 to 110 minutes. For optimal health, adults should aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, allowing for multiple complete sleep cycles.

Maintaining regular sleep and wake times, creating a comfortable sleep environment and limiting exposure to screens before bed can promote a healthy sleep cycle. Additionally, avoiding alcohol before bedtime can prevent disruptions in the sleep cycle, ensuring more restorative sleep.

Understanding the science of sleep and the impact of choices like alcohol consumption on sleep quality helps people to make informed decisions for their health. By prioritising good sleep hygiene and recognising the factors that influence sleep, people can improve their sleep quality and, by extension, their overall well-being.

How Alcohol Disturbs Sleep Patterns

Alcohol has a significant impact on the way we sleep, despite many believing it helps them to fall asleep faster. Alcohol affects sleep architecture, especially its influence on REM sleep, and why it leads to poor sleep quality.

Disruption of the Sleep Cycle by Alcohol

When you drink alcohol before bed, it changes the natural sleep cycle. Initially, alcohol might make you feel sleepy and help you fall asleep quickly. However, this is where the benefits end. Alcohol reduces the amount of REM sleep you get. REM sleep is crucial for memory, learning and emotional health. Less REM sleep means your brain doesn’t get the chance to do its important nightly tasks.

REM Sleep Reduction: Studies by the National Institutes of Health show that alcohol significantly decreases REM sleep, which can affect mood and cognitive functions the next day.

Wakefulness and Sleep Quality

After the initial sedative effects wear off, alcohol causes increased wakefulness in the later parts of the night. This means you are more likely to wake up and have a hard time falling back asleep. This effect contributes to less restorative sleep. Restorative sleep is necessary for the body to repair itself. Without it, you might feel tired and unfocused the next day.

Increased Wakefulness: Research indicates that even light alcohol drinkers experience more wakefulness in the second half of the night, leading to fragmented and less restful sleep.

The Overall Impact on Sleep Quality

The overall quality of sleep suffers when you consume alcohol before bedtime. You might spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and less in the deep and REM stages. This imbalance can lead to feeling exhausted the next day, regardless of the number of hours you spent in bed.

Poor Sleep Quality: A review by the National Institutes of Health confirms that alcohol consumption before sleep leads to poorer sleep quality overall. Even light drinkers sleep less well and for shorter durations than those who do not consume alcohol before bed.

Understanding the impact of alcohol on sleep is essential for anyone looking to improve their sleep quality. While it might seem like alcohol helps you to fall asleep faster, the reality is it significantly disrupts the natural sleep cycle, especially REM sleep, leading to increased wakefulness and overall poor sleep quality. By prioritising sleep and being mindful of alcohol intake, particularly before bedtime, people can take important steps toward achieving more restful and restorative sleep.

Alcohol Is Not Sleep’s Friend

The belief that alcohol acts as a sleep aid is widespread yet misleading. Alcohol might seem like a shortcut to sleep, as it can induce a feeling of drowsiness and help people fall asleep quickly. This initial effect fools many into thinking it improves sleep. However, the truth unfolds throughout the night.

Research shows that alcohol disrupts sleep patterns in several ways:

  1. Reduction in REM Sleep: REM sleep is vital for cognitive functions and emotional health. Alcohol consumption before bedtime significantly cuts down the duration of REM sleep. A lack of REM sleep can lead to poor concentration, memory problems, and mood disturbances the following day.
  2. Increased Sleep Disruptions: While alcohol may speed up the onset of sleep, it leads to more frequent awakenings in the second half of the night. These interruptions in sleep make it hard to enter deep sleep stages, crucial for physical and mental recovery.
  3. Overall Decrease in Sleep Quality: The sedative effect of alcohol wears off after a few hours, leading to a decrease in sleep quality. People wake up feeling less rested, even if they spend enough hours in bed.

A National Institutes of Health study demonstrates this, highlighting how even light alcohol consumption before bed can result in longer sleep onset times, reduced sleep quality and an increased risk of sleep disorders like apnea.

The London Sleep Centres suggest abstaining from alcohol leads to improvements in sleep quality and daytime energy. This supports the idea that the body can recover from the negative effects of alcohol on sleep, emphasising the benefits of reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption for better rest.

The notion of alcohol as a sleep aid is a myth that research firmly disproves. For those looking to improve their sleep quality, avoiding alcohol, especially before bedtime, is a step in the right direction. Better sleep practices and healthy lifestyle choices offer a more effective pathway to restful nights and energetic days.

Alcohol’s Impact on Sleep

The relationship between alcohol and sleep is complex, with both immediate and long-term consequences for sleep quality and patterns.

Immediate Effects on Sleep

Initially, alcohol consumption can lead to several sleep-related issues:

  • Insomnia Symptoms: Although alcohol might help people fall asleep quickly, it often leads to fragmented sleep and can increase the likelihood of waking up during the night. This disruption contributes to insomnia symptoms, where despite feeling tired, people struggle to stay asleep.
  • Sleep Disruptions: Alcohol alters sleep patterns, the typical progression through sleep stages. It significantly reduces the amount of time spent in REM sleep, the stage associated with dreaming, memory consolidation and emotional processing. The result is a night of sleep that, while long in duration, is poor in quality.

Long-Term Consequences

Regular alcohol consumption escalates the risk of developing more serious sleep issues over time:

  • Sleep Apnea: Studies have found a connection between habitual alcohol use and an increased risk of sleep apnea. This condition is characterised by pauses in breathing during sleep, leading to significant disruptions in sleep quality and overall health.
  • Chronic Insomnia: Over time, the sleep disruptions initiated by alcohol can evolve into chronic insomnia, where difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep or achieving restful sleep become a regular feature.
  • Altered Sleep Patterns: Long-term alcohol use can lead to persistently altered sleep patterns, making it difficult for people to maintain a healthy sleep schedule even on nights when they do not consume alcohol.

While the immediate effects might seem manageable to some, the long-term consequences can lead to significant health issues, making the moderation or avoidance of alcohol important for the sake of sleep health.

Cutting out or down on alcohol can be challenging, especially for those accustomed to its sedative effects to initiate sleep. Many problem drinkers started using it to get a better night’s sleep, which, as we have discussed, is a fallacy. There can be many positive changes in sleep quality and energy levels resulting from reduced alcohol intake. The body’s ability to recover from the adverse effects of alcohol on sleep patterns and sleep quality means people wanting to improve their sleep and overall well-being can do so by cutting out alcohol.

Alcohol vs. Marijuana

Many people use marijuana, particularly for people with anxiety, to help them sleep. A study by Addiction Science & Clinical Practice (Angarita et al, 2016) examined the sleep quality reported by people with anxiety when they use alcohol, marijuana or no substances at all.

Findings from the Study

The findings highlight a significant difference in sleep quality based on the substance used:

  • Marijuana Use: Participants reported better sleep quality on days when they used marijuana. This suggests that, for people with anxiety, marijuana may have sleep-enhancing properties. This could be due to marijuana’s effects on certain receptors in the brain related to anxiety and sleep.
  • Alcohol Use: Contrary to marijuana, alcohol did not improve sleep quality. Participants noted that their sleep quality did not benefit from alcohol use. This aligns with broader research indicating that alcohol disrupts sleep architecture, particularly REM sleep, and can lead to fragmented sleep.
  • Comparative Analysis: The stark contrast between the effects of marijuana and alcohol on sleep quality, especially among people with anxiety, is fascinating. While marijuana showed potential benefits for sleep among this group, alcohol’s impact was notably detrimental.

This study is interesting as it shows how different substances affect sleep, especially in people using them to manage conditions like anxiety. While marijuana might offer some benefits for sleep quality, it’s important to understand its other health and life consequences. As a treatment provider, Detox Today is not condoning cannabis use for sleep due to the detrimental effects it has on other aspects of people’s health and well-being, we are simply highlighting this for the sake of this article.

Alcohol research consistently shows a negative impact on sleep quality, reinforcing advice to limit consumption, especially before bedtime, for those seeking better sleep.

Exercise and Sleep Quality

Lifestyle choices and sleep quality are linked. Many studies have shown how exercise and alcohol consumption can have opposite effects on sleep, especially as we age.

The Beneficial Role of Exercise in Sleep

Research indicates that regular physical activity significantly improves the quality of sleep. Engaging in exercise can:

  • Shorten the Time to Fall Asleep: People who maintain an active lifestyle often report falling asleep more quickly than those who are less active.
  • Enhance Sleep Quality: Exercise contributes to deeper, more restorative sleep phases, which are important for mental and physical health.
  • Increase Sleep Duration: Regular exercisers tend to enjoy longer sleep durations, contributing to better overall health and well-being.

These benefits are particularly pronounced in older adults, a group that often experiences sleep disturbances. Exercise emerges as a powerful, natural and accessible way to combat sleep issues.

Making Healthy Lifestyle Choices

The contrast between the effects of exercise and alcohol on sleep quality is stark. While exercise enhances sleep quality and overall health, alcohol consumption, particularly before sleep, undermines it. For those seeking better sleep, prioritising exercise and limiting alcohol intake before bedtime can be effective strategies.

Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine offers a double benefit: it not only improves sleep quality but also enhances overall health and well-being. Whether it’s a brisk walk, cycling, swimming, or any other form of exercise you enjoy, the key is consistency.

Sleep Quality And Alcohol Detox

When people decide to stop drinking alcohol, they often notice significant changes in their sleep patterns. Initially, some might find it challenging to fall asleep. This is a temporary phase as the body adjusts to the absence of alcohol. Of course, many people address their drinking without worrying too much about their sleep, as alcohol is a bigger concern than sleeping properly. Some find that when they stop drinking, sleeping then becomes an issue, especially when withdrawing from alcohol. If this is the case, please rest assured (no pun intended) that your sleep will improve post-alcohol detox. The weeks, months or years of alcohol use have caused the problem, not the stopping. Your body and mind will adjust, so please give it time to get into a good sleeping pattern and check out our hints and tips further on.

First Few Days of Alcohol Abstinence

The first few nights or weeks without alcohol may lead to difficulty falling asleep. This experience is common and reflects the body’s process of readjusting to natural sleep rhythms without the influence of alcohol. Despite these initial challenges, the long-term benefits of abstinence to sleep quality are substantial.

Long-Term Benefits to Sleep and Energy Levels

Over time, people who stop drinking alcohol experience notable improvements in several aspects of their sleep and overall energy levels:

  • Enhanced Sleep Quality: Without alcohol to disrupt the sleep cycle, the body can more effectively enter deep, restorative stages of sleep.
  • Increased Energy Levels: Improved sleep quality leads to higher energy levels during the day. People often report feeling more alert and refreshed upon waking.
  • Reduction in Sleep Disruptions: The frequency of awakenings during the night decreases, contributing to more continuous and restful sleep.

Sleep Improvements After Stopping Alcohol

Alcohol negatively impacts REM sleep and removing alcohol from the equation allows the sleep cycle to normalise, enhancing the quality of both sleep and waking hours.

Strategies for Better Sleep

For those experiencing difficulties during the initial phase of abstaining from alcohol, several strategies can help:

  1. Establish a bedtime routine: Consistency in bedtime and wake-up times helps regulate the body’s internal clock.
  2. Create a comfortable sleep environment: Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark and at a comfortable – if not cool – temperature.
  3. Engage in relaxation techniques: Activities like reading, meditation or taking a warm bath can signal to your body that it’s time to wind down.

Choosing to stop drinking alcohol is a significant step towards better health and improved sleep quality. While the initial adjustment period may present challenges, the long-term benefits of enhanced sleep quality and increased daytime energy levels are well worth the effort. People who have made this lifestyle change often report a profound improvement in their overall quality of life, underscoring the strong link between alcohol consumption and sleep.

Please understand that there will be a transition period but that by having good sleep hygiene in place, anyone can start to get better sleep and, consequently, better well-being after stopping alcohol. Improved sleep is a key aspect of a healthier, more vibrant life.

Good Sleep without Alcohol

Hints and Tips to Better Sleep After Stopping Drinking

Optimising sleep quality doesn’t require the aid of alcohol. In fact, removing alcohol from your nightly routine significantly improves how well you rest. Here are some steps you can take to enjoy a deeper, more restorative sleep without relying on booze.

        1. Maintain a Consistent Sleep Schedule
          Your body thrives on routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends, helps regulate your body’s internal clock. This consistency makes falling asleep and waking up easier and more natural.
        2. Craft a Sleep-Inducing Environment
          Your bedroom should be a sanctuary designed for sleep. Here’s how to make it ideal:
        3. Keep it cool
          A slightly cooler room often enhances sleep quality. Aim for a temperature around 65°F (18°C).
        4. Minimise noise and light
          Use blackout curtains and white noise machines to create a calm, dark environment.
        5. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows
          Comfort is key to preventing tossing and turning.
        6. Embrace Relaxation Techniques
          Incorporating relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine can significantly ease the transition to sleep. Consider practices such as Meditation and deep breathing exercises help calm the mind and prepare the body for sleep. Gentle yoga or stretching can relieve physical tension and promote relaxation.
        7. Avoid Stimulants and Heavy Meals Before Bed
          Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can hinder your ability to fall asleep. Similarly, eating heavy or rich foods can lead to discomfort and restlessness. Try to avoid these for at least a few hours before bedtime.
        8. Limit Screen Time
          The blue light emitted by screens on phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with your body’s natural sleep-inducing processes. Set a technology curfew an hour before bed to help your body prepare for sleep.
        9. Consider Natural Sleep Aids
          Some people find natural sleep aids helpful. These might include Herbal teas: Chamomile or lavender tea can have a soothing effect. Melatonin supplements can help regulate sleep cycles, especially for those dealing with jet lag or shift work.
        10. Exercise Regularly
          Regular physical activity promotes better sleep. However, try to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it can energise you and make falling asleep more difficult.
        11. Engage in Mindful Reflection
          Spending some time reflecting on positive aspects of your day or practising gratitude can shift your focus away from stress and anxiety, making it easier to drift off to sleep.

By adopting these practices or at least some of them, you can significantly enhance your sleep quality without alcohol.  The key to better sleep lies in healthy habits and the correct environment. As you adjust to these changes, you’ll likely notice not only improved sleep but also a positive impact on your overall well-being and daily energy levels.

Better Sleep After Stopping Drinking

It’s clear that while alcohol might seem like a shortcut to faster sleep, it significantly compromises the quality of a restful night. The science points to undeniable facts: alcohol disrupts REM sleep, leads to increased wakefulness and can contribute to long-term sleep disorders.

Short-term, it might seem to help you fall asleep quicker but the cost is a less restful night. In the long term drinking can lead to chronic sleep disruptions. Even light drinking has a serious impact on sleep quality.

The good news is that improving your sleep quality doesn’t have to be too much of a challenge. Simple lifestyle adjustments can have a profound effect. Regular exercise nearly halves the time it takes to fall asleep and significantly boosts sleep duration. If you do have difficulty sleeping after stopping drinking, exploring natural sleep aids and establishing a conducive sleep environment can be very helpful.

Choosing to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption in favour of healthier sleep practices is a great step towards a more rested vibrant life.

If you have a problem stopping or reducing your alcohol intake, please get in touch. There are lots of ways we can help. From alcohol detox at home, outpatient and residential alcohol treatment, to abstinence medications and counselling, we help people reduce, stop and stay stopped.

References

  • Alcohol and the sleeping brain. Colrain IM, Nicholas CL, Baker FC.  Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;125:415-31. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62619-6.00024-0. PMID: 25307588; PMCID: PMC5821259. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5821259/ Accessed 25 February 2024
  • London Sleep Centre. https://londonsleepcentre.com/normal-sleep/sleep-tips/ Accessed 24 Feb 2024
  • Addiction Science & Clinical Practice. Angarita, G.A., Emadi, N., Hodges, S. et al. Sleep abnormalities associated with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, and opiate use: a comprehensive review.  https://ascpjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13722-016-0056-7 26/04/2016
  • The Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep Accessed 24 February 2024
  • DrinkAware. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/lifestyle-effects/alcohol-and-sleep Accessed 27 February 2024
  • Public Health Nutrition. Zheng D, Yuan X, Ma C, et al. Alcohol consumption and sleep quality: a community-based study.  2021;24(15):4851-4858. doi:10.1017/S1368980020004553. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/alcohol-consumption-and-sleep-quality-a-communitybased-study/C8A260D7730877B32FA1CAA47116D619# Accessed 27 February 2024

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