But is there a specific time at which you should begin to limit your fluid intake before catching your ZZZ’s? And how troubling are those twilight trips to the bathroom, anyway? We checked in with a urologist and a sleep medicine specialist for must-know insights about drinking water before bed—or whatever your liquid of choice may be.
How long before bedtime should you limit your liquid intake?
According to board-certified urologist and female pelvic medicine specialist Michael Ingber, MD, everyone metabolizes fluids differently. He says that your rate of absorption will vary based on a range of factors, such as your gastric motility (the rate of stomach emptying), health conditions you have and medications you take, and how hydrated you are at any given time. In short, recommendations typically vary from one person to the next.
However, Dr. Ingber gives a general guideline to people who struggle with sleep interruptions due to a frequent need to urinate (aka nocturia). “We recommend that they stop drinking fluids at least three hours before bedtime,” Dr. Ingber says. Still, this recommendation is more of a jumping-off point than a hard-and-fast rule. He suggests the three-hour window to start, and experiment from there as needed. Some people will find that limiting liquid intake during this time period can reduce late night (or early morning) trips to the bathroom, while others may benefit from an even longer window—such as ceasing your sipping from dinnertime onwards.
“We recommend that they stop drinking fluids at least three hours before bedtime,” Dr. Ingber says. Still, this recommendation is more of a jumping-off point than a hard-and-fast rule.
It’s also worth calling out that the total volume of fluids you ingest factor into the equation. “The average bladder holds about 400 milliliters in women, and 500 milliliters in men at maximum capacity,” Dr. Ingber says. “Therefore, any fluid being ingested after dinner might translate into urinating multiple times at night.”
Even further, the types of beverages you enjoy—both at night, as well as throughout the day—can impact the chances of rising earlier than you’d like with that gotta-go feeling. Unsurprisingly, the key ones that can take a major toll on your bladder and overall sleep quality are alcohol and caffeine. They both act as diuretics, “which means they will increase your fluid excretion and urine output,” Dr. Ingber shares. And while alcohol can actually prompt some people to fall asleep, most experts advise against using it as a sleep aid, as it can disrupt your sleep cycles and ultimately stand in the way of achieving high-quality rest.
Next, caffeine tolerance is unique to the individual. Perhaps you can handle a cup or two of coffee in the morning but find yourself tossing and turning if you drink up in the afternoon or later. “Caffeine is a stimulant and can mask sleepiness cues that the brain would otherwise send to the body to prepare for an adequate amount of sleep,” says Jade Wu, PhD, DBSM, a licensed clinical psychologist, board-certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, and author of Hello Sleep: The Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications. On the flip side, some people can handle a post-dinner shot of espresso just fine, sans sleep disruptions from the caffeine or diuretic effects.
Instead of proposing a timeline to limit intake of these drinks, both experts advise experimenting on your own. “The best way to know your personal limit is to keep track of when and how much alcohol and caffeine you intake and see if your sleep is affected,” says Dr. Wu. You just might notice that cutting off caffeine by noon, or enjoying a glass of wine with dinner instead of as an after-hours treat, can help you fall asleep with greater ease and reduce late-night trips to the bathroom. But again, it varies and can take some trial and error to find the exact groove that works best for you.
How “bad” is it to need to pee in the middle of the night?
Sure, waking up with a full bladder well before your alarm clock goes off can be inconvenient… but is it a major cause for concern? “Needing to urinate at night itself is not a problem unless it happens very often, which may disrupt sleep or increase the risk of falling,” Dr. Wu clarifies.
“Needing to urinate at night itself is not a problem unless it happens very often, which may disrupt sleep or increase the risk of falling,” Dr. Wu clarifies.
With that said, certain people will likely benefit more than others by taking greater caution with their nightly intake of liquids. “If you are elderly with mobility issues, or have nocturnal polyuria—a medical condition often associated with congestive heart failure, diabetes mellitus, and sleep apnea—your doctor might suggest that you limit evening fluid intake to decrease the number of times you need to urinate at night,” says Dr. Ingber. She adds people with urge urinary incontinence—especially those of advanced age—to this list. “In the elderly, men and women with urge urinary incontinence at night have a 10x increased risk of falls and fractures compared to the rest of the population,” he warns.
The bottom line
“For the vast majority of people, no problems will arise from drinking fluids close to bedtime or even drinking fluids during the night,” Dr. Wu says. “If you're generally healthy, you'll likely just sleep through and urinate in the morning.”
Dr. Ingber agrees, explaining that waking up occasionally—or even once on most nights—may be bothersome, but it doesn’t typically signal a red flag. (That is, unless your sleep seriously suffers due to an overactive bladder.) “If people don't have any health condition, and aren't bothered by waking up at night, then they can drink all they want,” he shares.
However, Dr. Ingber does note that needing to relieve your bladder around three or four times nightly is higher than average. In this case, it may be worth checking in with your physician for further investigation, or heeding his three-hour-plus suggestion above to see how you, your bladder, and your sleep fare. To further reduce your chances of waking up to urinate, Dr. Ingber advises ingesting fluids in smaller volumes more slowly no matter the time of day, and always making sure to urinate shortly before hitting the hay.
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