Drinking Alcohol Before Bed Is Ruining Your Sleep Quality, According to a Neuroscientist and a Neurologist

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A glass of wine may help you wind down after a long day at work, but it's definitely not doing your REM cycle any favors. Anyone who's woken up groggy after what might have seemed like a moderate amount to drink the night before knows this in their bones. But what's actually going on—how does alcohol affect sleep? The truth is that while a nightcap might conk you out, the quality of that sleep is affected. That's why, when you stop drinking alcohol, you might actually notice that your overall mood improves and you feel more rested.

But wait, doesn't alcohol help you sleep?

If you think having a drink helps you fall asleep, you’re probably right. But it's an ineffective sleep strategy that can lead to a multitude of sleep disturbances, including insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and alterations in sleep architecture, says neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier, PhD, author of the book Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power.

Experts In This Article

"While alcohol is initially sedating, once it is metabolized it can lead to disrupted, poor quality of sleep later in the night," she says, adding that even just one drink changes the basic structure of normal sleep.

"You'll usually wake up a little earlier or have more tossing and turning after about an hour or two of sleep," says sleep doctor Temitayo Oyegbile-Chidi, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of neurology at UC Davis Health. "Your sleep then tends to be quite fragmented."

How alcohol affects sleep quality—and your overall health

Why does alcohol mess up your sleep? Dr. Willeumier explains that while the sedative properties of alcohol increase deep sleep during the non-rapid eye movement phase (NREM), it also reduces the time spent in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase. "REM sleep is critical to healthy brain function as it is essential in emotional regulation and the consolidation and retention of memories," says Dr. Willeumier.

Getting a good night's sleep can do much more than prevent you from feeling tired the next day. "Sleep is essential for the preservation of brain energy1, facilitation of learning and memory, support of cognitive capacity, emotional regulation2, and clearance of toxic waste3," says Dr. Willeumier. "Alcohol consumption disrupts restorative sleep and can result in impaired immune, cardiovascular, and cognitive health. Furthermore, insomnia increases your risk for mood disorders and substance abuse."

How to improve your sleep quality if you do drink alcohol

This doesn't mean you can never indulge. There are a few things you can do to improve your sleep quality even when drinking alcohol is part of your routine, says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi.

1. Limit your consumption

One of the most important steps is to reduce how much alcohol you drink in a given timeframe. "Have a glass of wine, maybe two," says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi, but that doesn’t mean every night.

"Alcohol should not be consumed on a regular basis if your intention is to live a brain-healthy lifestyle," says Dr. Willeumier. If you really want to maintain healthy sleep, she says to limit your alcohol intake to one drink per week.

2. Stop drinking four to six hours before bedtime

Putting a few hours between drinking and going to sleep will allow the alcohol to work its way through your system, according to Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi. This means there's less of a chance of waking up in the middle of the night because your body is metabolizing that martini.

In fact, the results of a study from Florida Atlantic University4 involving 785 people who kept sleep diaries for a total of 5,164 days found that consuming alcohol within four hours of going to sleep actually affected participants worse than drinking coffee before bedtime. The major caveat here is that people metabolize caffeine at different rates, so a post-dinner espresso affects different people differently. But despite this, even when researchers accounted for factors including age, gender, weight, mental health, and schedules, in a head-to-head alcohol vs. caffeine test, alcohol was still the bigger sleep disruptor.

If you want to be really careful, Dr. Willeumier recommends giving yourself a six-hour window before bed. "Given that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and has a half-life of anywhere from six hours or longer depending on the type of alcohol and volume consumed, you want to drink it at least six hours prior to bed if you do not want it to interfere with your sleep cycles," she says.

3. Drink lots of water

There are multiple alcohol effects that can contribute to a hangover, but chief among them is dehydration. Because alcohol is a diuretic and dehydration can decrease your sleep quality, having some H2O after your IPA will help counterbalance those effects. "You can drink a couple of glasses of water to just make sure that you rehydrate and get some of that alcohol out before you go to bed," says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi.

 4. Take a break from alcohol

If you find that any amount of alcohol impacts your sleep, try nixing it for awhile. "The good news is that your sleep architecture can be fully restored after a period of abstinence," says Dr. Oyegbile-Chidi. You might want to give a no-alcohol policy a go (and utilize options like alcohol-free wine) if you're struggling with sleep. "Given that sleep architecture and efficiency decline with age5, it is important to keep in mind that alcohol will further exacerbate these issues."

Wake up in the middle of the night after one too many? Here's a tip for falling back asleep quickly:

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Dworak, Markus et al. “Sleep and brain energy levels: ATP changes during sleep.” The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience vol. 30,26 (2010): 9007-16. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1423-10.2010
  2. Vandekerckhove, Marie, and Yu-Lin Wang. “Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship.” AIMS neuroscience vol. 5,1 1-17. 1 Dec. 2017, doi:10.3934/Neuroscience.2018.1.1
  3. Eugene, Andy R, and Jolanta Masiak. “The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep.” MEDtube science vol. 3,1 (2015): 35-40.
  4. Spadola, Christine E et al. “Evening intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine: night-to-night associations with sleep duration and continuity among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Sleep Study.” Sleep vol. 42,11 (2019): zsz136. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsz136
  5. Baker, Fiona C et al. “Age-Related Differences in Sleep Architecture and Electroencephalogram in Adolescents in the National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence Sample.” Sleep vol. 39,7 1429-39. 1 Jul. 2016, doi:10.5665/sleep.5978

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