Does Drinking Alcohol Help You Sleep?
We challenge the idea of the nightcap and help you understand how alcohol impacts your sleep quality
Jun 7th, 2022 •
You’ve likely already heard about (or experienced for yourself) how drinking alcohol before bed can help you fall asleep easier. But what about the quality of sleep you get after you throw a few back?
Read on as we break down the science and misconceptions of a nightcap. But first, let’s play a game of word association.
When you hear the word “nightcap,” what image comes to mind?
Perhaps Charles, draped in a burgundy smoking jacket, pours himself a finger or two of a fine bourbon and reclines on a dark leather couch — one of those couches with the carved wooden accouterments. He peruses the current issue of the New Yorker but doesn’t look at the comics. Those are for the uneducated to smirk dumbly at.
Finishing his third glass, he rises and glides into bed, dreaming of banking and the problem of the proletariat unionizing before waking promptly at five to guide the course of his locomotion empire.
The nightcap has been solidified in our zeitgeist as an elegant way to end the day. Drinking before bed is pervasively normal. In fact, the end-of-day buzz is a shockingly commonplace and unifying characteristic of modern American society.
But here’s the thing: despite its acceptance and ubiquity, drinking before bed is really bad for your sleep — and therefore, your time awake.
Let’s discuss why. But before that…some context.
The Sleep Cycles: a complicated, yet important, system
Humans go through about five to six cycles of five stages of sleep per night. Each cycle will allocate the time spent in each stage a bit differently. During the first few cycles, we focus on deep slow-wave-sleep (Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM) stages and the latter few cycles are spent more often in more active REM sleep.
In NREM sleep our bodies slow, muscles relax, and we repair our physical selves. In REM sleep we dream, we reorganize our mind. We transfer our transient memories of the day into our brain’s storage drive.
Both deep slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are vitally important to how we function as our waking selves, and disruption of this cycle that has perfected itself over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution is something of concern.
Sleep onset latency (SOL)
Drinking a few craft high-ABV beers or small glasses of wine is a fast (and totally responsible) way to shed your stress and get to sleep. This is known. Science even says the same thing.
SOL, or Sleep Onset Latency, is significantly reduced with alcohol consumption commensurate with the dose. Maybe having a few drinks at night helps you feel like cuddling up and going to sleep. If this is you, you’re not alone: 20% of Americans regularly use alcohol as a sleep aid.
That’s fine, right? Well, maybe not.
It turns out that while reduced SOL may be a great draw for those who have trouble getting to bed, it comes at the cost of serious disturbance of your sleep cycles and sleep stages.
Distilled: what alcohol does to the body in the most basic terms
Moderate to high doses of alcohol increase the proportion of deep sleep (NREM stages) you get in your first few of your five or six sleep cycles. This comes at a sacrifice of time spent in REM.
As a result of the above, your body goes through a REM rebound period where the latter sleep cycles are spent in REM stage at a much higher proportion than otherwise. This sleep is lighter, meaning you’re more easily awoken during these periods.
Additionally, alcohol serves as a diuretic.
Diuretics block water reabsorption during the excretory process happening in your kidneys, meaning way more water is being expelled from your body than needs to be.
Alcohol can also increase the acidity of urine.
Alcohol is a central nervous depressant, slowing brain activity and impeding muscle coordination and thought.
While you might absolutely love a good (or not so good) bourbon at the end of the day, the sad matter of the fact is that while a pre-bed buzz certainly feels great and helps you fall asleep more easily, you’re disturbing your body’s natural sleep cycle and could be seriously screwing up your day.
Why boozing before bed is a bad habit
Having a handful of drinks before bed means more time in NREM sleep — where the spooky stuff like sleepwalking, sleep talking, or sleep eating happens.
Alcohol has been shown to have a link with the exacerbation of pre-existing parasomnias, but there’s some contention as to whether it’s can actually cause — by itself — symptoms of parasomnia.
Either way, just to be safe, skip the nightcap if you have a history of sleepwalking.
Does your partner hate you for snoring? Well, drinking away the fact that your love can’t stand lying down with you won’t help the problem…for a reason you might not expect.
We’ve established that alcohol serves as a CNS depressant, slowing the brain down and relaxing the muscles. Those muscles, unfortunately, include those used in breathing. The throat, soft palate, and tongue relax, blocking airways.
As a result, getting your drink on before bed can possibly cause or definitely exacerbate sleep apnea and snoring, the former of which has some troubling implications for your long-term physical and sleep health.
Marriage still okay? Does he or she need more reasons to leave you besides snoring?
Well, here’s one. In addition to making you wheeze and snore throughout the night, alcohol has been shown to cause night sweats.
Alcohol can heighten your heart rate and dilate blood vessels, leading to excessive perspiration.
4. FREQUENT BATHROOM TRIPS
Alcohol is a diuretic, and beer is voluminous. Having a large amount of liquid in your system in combination with your body eliminating more water due to alcohol’s diuretic properties means you have a nice recipe for getting up multiple times a night to hit the bathroom.
Waking up to pee several times when you’re supposed to be sleeping is, at its most base level, annoying. What’s worse is that this disrupted sleep has been shown to make you feel like barely got any sleep at all. One study showed that subjects that were woken periodically at night (for a sum total of one hour of wake time) felt that despite getting seven hours of sleep, they only felt as if they had four.
This means that one hour of sleep disruptions has the effect of three hours of sleep deprivation.
5. FREQUENT, UNPLEASANT BATHROOM TRIPS
Oh, I forgot something. Alcohol increases the acidity of urine. That’s obviously not very good.
Highly acidic urine as the result of alcohol consumption can cause bladder irritation and stiffening – meaning pain when the bladder fills, an increased frequency of bathroom trips, pain during intercourse, or painful urination.
So not only will you have to stumble to the bathroom in the dark half-drunk every hour, peeing might hurt. Even if it doesn’t, your bladder may be losing the integrity of it its lining and elasticity, leading to problems further down the road.
6. WAKING UP HALFWAY THROUGH THE NIGHT (THE REM REBOUND EFFECT)
This is probably the granddaddy of all alcohol and sleep interactions.
As we outlined above, having multiple drinks before bed leads to an increase in deep NREM sleep during the first part of the night at the cost of time spent in REM. During the second half of the night, the effects of alcohol have worn off and the body rushes to catch up on that wonderful, mentally refreshing REM.
So, things seem to fall back into equilibrium, right?
Well, not in practice.
As our drunken selves begin to sober up and our sleep becomes almost completely REM and stages 1-2 (lighter sleep), the body and brain become more active. The mind dreams, and we become more responsive to waking due to outside stimuli. This means that in the second half of the night, we’re far more vulnerable to disturbed sleep as the result of stimuli-like discomfort, noises, light, pains, urges to urinate, or your partner’s snoring.
So while imbibing in itself doesn’t “wake us up,” it puts us in a near constant state of sleeping lightly during which it’s likely we’ll be awoken.
Think of it like this. In a normal, sober night of sleep we go through fairly short periods of REM that occur cyclically. It’s a small moving target that a stimulus needs to hit in order to wake us up. When you’re sleeping off a quarter bottle of bourbon, the later hours of the sleep cycle are almost exclusively REM. That small moving target a stimulus needs to hit to wake us becomes the broad side of a barn.
Given that you have four Coors Lights in your bladder, it’s almost certain you’ll have to pee, meaning there’s an extremely high probability you’ll be awoken during your REM Rebound period.
We discussed above the implications of fragmented sleep, and the same applies here. Unfortunately.
7. BROKEN CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS
The list goes on.
Melatonin is a hormone heavily involved in the regulation of the body clock and sleep-wake cycles. When melatonin is produced, the body knows it’s about time to hit the hay.
A National Institute of Health study showed that a moderate dose of alcohol before going to sleep can decrease the body’s normal pre-bed melatonin production by almost 20%.
This means that the body’s internal clock starts to go a little haywire, throwing off the normal times where you should feel sleepy or awake. Chronic use of alcohol before bed may lead to the eroding of consistent bed and wake times, something that can have strong and deleterious effects on both our nights and days.
Sorry for the fear tactic but you look like you’re getting a little sleepy over there.
Anyone that’s done a little experimentation with substance abuse knows that fish isn’t the only thing that pairs well with a white wine and that there are deadly combinations aside from Biggie, Pac, and Big L on the same track.
While you might believe that some amount of fun can be gained from mixing things like benzodiazepines, muscle relaxants, or painkillers with a few drinks, the synergy of using two CNS depressants at once — especially before bed — can have *fatal consequences* (cue this sound effect).
Alcohol and prescription drugs can be wonderful and useful things on their own (in healthy moderation). Mixing two things that relax the physical and chemical processes helping us to oh, you know, breathe, is not so useful or wonderful. Deliberately nodding off with alcohol and other CNS depressants in your system is way more dangerous than the cavalier manner we tend to mix the two so commonly.
It killed Whitney. Don’t let nodding off after mixing booze and pills kill you too.
The rate at which we build a tolerance to alcohol is shocking; within 3-7 days of drinking regularly, our bodies and brains begin to adapt to handle the intoxicating effects of alcohol better and metabolize it more quickly.
This means that while last Monday you only needed one drink to get nice and cozy and sleepy, this Monday you may need three.
This also means that while last Monday you only suffered a few muted effects of alcohol on your sleep, this Monday you’re drinking enough to significantly impact NREM/REM proportions and make you feel drowsy during the day.
Maybe you drink even more next Monday because the past week has been so stressful. You can’t seem to get a decent night’s sleep and it’s starting to drive you a little nuts.
(You see the trend here.)
The bottle becomes more and more attractive and less and less stands in the way of drinking often and heavily.
This is what’s known as a positive feedback cycle. You drink to sleep. The drink impacts your sleep. The sleep impacts your day, causing you to want to drink more to sleep better. It’s a very real concern that’s frighteningly easy to slip into and devilishly hard to escape.
So where do we stand after all of this?
For alcoholics that need a drink before bed, it’s yet another straw on the camel’s back for getting help. It sucks, but drinking affects every part of your life in cases of excess.
Functioning alcoholics or heavy drinkers amongst us should find a reason here to cut down before the effects of mild dependency become severe for both sleep and your physical or social health.
For the teetotalers, this should be a lesson that after a terrible week a drink or four will help you get to bed earlier at relatively little cost. Just don’t let it become a habit.
Will knocking back some beers before bed kill you? In all but extreme cases, no.
Is it an effective long-term sleep aid? Absolutely not.
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