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What are the Effects of Alcohol on Sleep?

Posted on March 8, 2022

What are the Effects of Alcohol on Sleep?

As alcohol affects every major organ in the body, including the brain, it is inevitable that this substance will have some effect on our sleep quality.

There are still many unknowns regarding the relationship between alcohol and sleep.

However, it has been proven that drinking alcohol during the day can result in trouble falling and staying asleep and difficulty reaching the crucial REM stage of sleep that is needed in order to feel well-rested and energised the following day.

Sleep consists of four stages, all of which need to be reached for a sleeping session to be considered restful and high-quality. [1]

The Four Stages of Sleep

Below we will go into detail about the four stages of sleep, and what makes them so important to both our mental and physical health.

Stage 1:

Often known as light sleep, this stage involves the body and brain shutting down and falling asleep. The individual’s heart rate, breathing and eye movements will reduce while their muscles begin to relax.

Stage 2:

The longest of the four stages involves a continuation of the relaxation that began in stage one. The individual will fall into a deeper sleep while their body temperature drops.

Stage 3:

The muscles are now completely relaxed and the eyes are still. The individual’s brain activity is extremely low and their heart is beating comparatively slowly.

Stage 4:

This is known as REM sleep, during which the individual will often dream and experience eye movements. Their heart rate and breathing rate will also increase.

These stages should repeat throughout the night, each lasting between 90 and 120 minutes.

However, the consumption of alcohol can prevent us from entering the REM stage of sleep and cause the first three stages to repeat, resulting in restless and frequently interrupted sleep.

How much alcohol can I drink before my sleep is affected?

As each person reacts differently to alcohol, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of this substance that can be consumed with no ill effects.

Even small amounts of alcohol can affect the sleep of certain people, although it can be said that heavy drinking will likely have a more noticeable effect on sleep quality.

One study found that under two servings of alcohol per day decreased men’s sleep quality by 9.3%, while any more than this amount decreased their sleep quality by a significant 39.2%.

Women were more noticeably affected, with less than one serving to decrease their sleep quality by 9.3% and more than one serving to decrease it by 39.2%. [2]

It is recommended that both men and women should refrain from drinking alcohol at least four hours before they go to bed, and that alcohol intake should be drastically reduced or even completely stopped in order to increase the chances of experiencing a healthy and restful sleep.

Can alcohol cause insomnia?

Insomnia is a frustrating and exhausting disorder in which the individual is regularly unable to achieve a restful night’s sleep.

They may struggle to fall asleep, wake up frequently throughout the night or wake up too early. This can lead to ongoing fatigue and exhaustion as they are left to function each day with little to no sleep.

There are many factors that can cause insomnia, and alcohol is one of them.

Many people who struggle with this disorder may resort to drinking alcohol before bed in an attempt to cause drowsiness, and for a while, this solution may appear to be effective.

However, the consumption of alcohol can prevent the brain from falling into a deep REM sleep which is essential when it comes to feeling well-rested the next day.

The result is a light, fitful sleep that can leave the individual feeling drained and fatigued in the long term.

Can alcohol cause sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is caused when the muscles in the mouth and throat relax too much during sleep, causing an obstruction to the airway and preventing the individual from breathing sufficiently.

It can be an extremely frightening disorder with potentially fatal consequences.

While alcohol alone does not cause sleep apnea, it can aggravate the issue by inducing relaxation of the muscles.

It can also delay the individual from waking up once an apneic event occurs, increasing the chances of suffering from dangerous side effects.

Even if you do not currently suffer from sleep apnea, drinking large amounts of alcohol on a long-term basis can leave you prone to developing this disorder.

What are the long-term effects of poor sleep?

It’s a fact that our brain and body needs sleep in order to function, thrive and survive in the long term. The recommended amount for adults is between 7 and 8 hours a night, but many people regularly achieve far less than this.

Long-term sleep deprivation can have a number of detrimental effects on our physical, mental and emotional health and has the potential to shorten your overall lifespan. [3]

Common long-term effects of poor sleep

  • Increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke
  • Higher likelihood of weight gain and becoming overweight or obese
  • Increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  • Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Memory loss and poor memory retention
  • Fatigue, brain fog and exhaustion
  • Lowered immune system
  • Decreased fertility and a lack of libido

It’s possible that you may have noticed a decline in your sleep quality over the years due to alcohol use, – if so, now is the time to take control of your health and work on reducing your alcohol consumption in an effort to improve your sleep hygiene.

How can I cut down on my alcohol consumption?

If you have noticed that your alcohol consumption has been affecting your sleep or you are concerned that you are developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, cutting back is a great step.

The NHS recommends that both men and women should consume no more than 14 units of alcohol spread across a single week, and there are a number of ways in which you can reduce your alcohol intake while still enjoying life. [4]

1. Set a realistic and achievable goal

If you have been drinking heavily for a number of years and are attempting to completely stop or drastically reduce your consumption, suddenly making the change overnight can be overwhelming and even dangerous.

Instead, decide on a realistic goal, write it down and put it in a visible place where it can serve as a constant reminder.

2. Start a new hobby or activity

Many people drink alcohol out of habit or due to boredom.

If you are attempting to reduce the amount of alcohol that you are consuming, try picking up a sport or other activity that will keep your mind and body occupied during times when you would usually reach for a drink.

3. Actively tell people that you are cutting down

Making a change to your usual routines and activities is a big step, and it can be extremely helpful to have support from friends and family.

It’s recommended that you let the people around you know that you are attempting to cut down on alcohol, so they can help you as much as they can and encourage you to continue working towards your goal.

4. Make two or three days a week ‘alcohol-free days’

A simple way to reduce the amount you drink is to designate specific days as ‘alcohol-free days’ in which you consume no alcohol at all.

Even if you drink your usual amount on the other days, simply adding in these breaks will allow you to naturally cut back on this substance. It’s also a good way to see how you feel without alcohol – are you anxious, jittery or completely fine?

5. Avoid any triggers

It can be difficult to resist cravings and temptations, so if you want to drink less alcohol it can be helpful to avoid any people, places or events that may cause you to want to drink more.

If you often pop into the pub on the way home from work, take a different route.

Spend time with friends who are teetotal or also reduce their alcohol intake as opposed to the friends that you would usually drink with, and you should find that your goal is easier to accomplish.

6. Refuse politely but firmly

There will come a time in which someone will offer you a drink or attempt to persuade you to drink alcohol when you would prefer not to.

It can often be easy to accept out of politeness, but sticking to your guns and continuing towards your goal will bring you more long-term happiness and contentment.

Simply say, ‘No thank you’ politely but firmly before you can second-guess yourself.

7. Focus on one day at a time

If you have been drinking alcohol for a number of years, the thought of completely changing your ways can be daunting and intimidating. Instead of dramatically reducing your alcohol consumption overnight, try drinking a little less each day instead.

Over time you’ll be able to reach your goal without feeling completely overwhelmed and deprived.





[4] (NHS units)


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