Can Alcohol Affect Sleep Quality?

December 5, 2023 · John Gallagher

How Will Alcohol Affect My Sleep?

If you’ve made a habit of unwinding with a glass of wine in the evening, you’re not alone. Nearly two in three people drink alcohol during the day, often as a social activity or way to relieve stress.

While occasional alcohol consumption isn’t typically a problem, moderate or severe alcohol use can have various impacts on sleep.

Unlike caffeine and nicotine — substances that stimulate the brain — alcohol is a depressant. It can create feelings of drowsiness and relaxation, which is why some people lean on alcohol to help them fall asleep. However, alcohol can have several long-term health consequences that are detrimental to sleep and overall health.

Alcohol Can Disrupt Your Sleep Architecture

We experience several sleep cycles each night. Each cycle is made of three stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and one stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These stages work together to improve our physical health and help us feel refreshed in the morning.

Consuming alcohol before bedtime can interfere with this intricate process.

While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, it can also reduce the amount of REM sleep you get each night. REM sleep is particularly crucial for consolidating memories, regulating emotions, and brain development. Alcohol can slow or impede these processes, leaving you feeling groggy or unrested the next day.

Alcohol Can Increase Your Sleep Fragmentation

Another way alcohol affects sleep is by increasing sleep fragmentation. Even though you might fall asleep faster with alcohol, you’re more likely to wake up several times during the night. These interruptions prevent you from reaching the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep, leaving you feeling fatigued and less focused during the day.

REM sleep — the deepest stage of sleep where restoration occurs — typically begins about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Since alcohol can disrupt your sleep consistency and longevity, it can prevent you from reaching, or remaining in, REM stages. Even if you remain in bed from evening until morning, these alcohol-induced interruptions still leave you without the resat you need to function properly the following day.

Alcohol Can Worsen Sleep Disorders

If you already suffer from a sleep disorder, alcohol can make the condition worse. People with sleep apnea, for example, may experience more frequent, severe breathing disruptions after consuming alcohol, making their condition even harder to manage. Additionally, alcohol can worsen symptoms of insomnia, making it challenging for those struggling with sleeplessness to find much-needed rest.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Quality?

Even if you’re generally a solid sleeper, alcohol can make it more difficult to enjoy a full night’s rest. For some sleepers, even moderate alcohol consumption can decrease sleep efficiency, increase sleep latency, and impair your circadian rhythm.

Poor Sleep Efficiency

Sleep efficiency refers to your percentage of time spent asleep compared to the total amount of time you spend in bed. Alcohol consumption can significantly reduce your sleep efficiency, as it leads to frequent awakenings and shorter sleep durations. Even if you spend a reasonable amount of time in bed, you might not spend a sufficient amount of time in REM sleep.

Increased Sleep Latency

Sleep latency is the amount of time it takes you to fully fall asleep once you’ve completed your bedtime routine. While alcohol can initially make you drowsy, it can also increase sleep latency during the latter half of the night. As your body metabolizes alcohol, its stimulating effects may interfere with your ability to maintain deep, continuous slumber.

Altered Circadian Rhythm

Our bodies have an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Consistent alcohol consumption can disrupt this delicate balance, leading to irregular sleep patterns.

Alcohol impairs your body’s ability to recognize light cues, one of the ways you transition into and out of REM sleep. Other studies indicate that sleep elevates your body’s level of adenosine, a chemical that regulates sleep by blocking wakefulness chemicals the longer you’ve been awake. Without proper adenosine levels, your body is more likely to enter and exit sleep at inappropriate times.

How Can I Improve Sleep Without Giving Up Alcohol?

Drinking alcohol isn’t an inherently negative activity. In moderation, alcohol is tied to a number of health benefits, including a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

There are several ways to improve the quality of your sleep without giving up alcohol. Make sure you understand your body’s alcohol threshold, create a restful sleep environment, follow a practical sleep schedule, and use the right sleep materials.

1. Understand Your Body’s Alcohol Threshold

Everyone's body reacts differently to alcohol. Some people are affected by alcohol after a single drink, while others require several drinks to feel the same effects. That’s why it’s so important to know how alcohol affects your body before taking a drink, particularly one you’ve never had before. Pay attention to how your body responds to alcohol and adjust your intake accordingly.

It’s also important to practice mindful drinking - an awareness of how much alcohol you drink and why. Before consuming alcohol, consider the reason behind your choice, and be conscious of your intentions. Avoid drinking out of habit or using alcohol as a crutch for stress relief. Instead, focus on enjoying the taste and experience of each drink in moderation. These simple habits can seriously improve overall sleep health.

2. Create a Restful Sleep Environment

Create a sleep-friendly environment to maximize your chances of getting quality sleep after drinking. Ensure your bedroom is dark and quiet, at least for the hours when you will be sleeping.

Here are a few more suggestions for creating a restful sleep environment:

You can further improve your sleep environment by practicing stress-reducing techniques. Engage in relaxation techniques before bedtime to calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, or gentle yoga can help reduce anxiety and promote better sleep, even after a night of drinking.

3. Follow a Practical Sleep Schedule

Consistency is one of the most important elements of a restful night’s sleep. Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. A regular sleep schedule helps regulate your body's internal clock and can improve the overall quality of your sleep.

Here are a few steps to a well-rounded sleep schedule:

  • Set fixed bedtime and wake-up times
  • Get regular exercise before bedtime
  • Keep all naps before 5:00 PM
  • Avoid heavy meals that could create evening indigestion
  • Consume a healthy, nutrient-rich diet
  • Use sleep apps to track sleep patterns
  • Find time to wind down before bed, without your phone

Establishing your sleep schedule helps make sleep a priority, no matter where you are. Alongside the right sleep materials, your sleep schedule is an important regulating factor that protects the energy you’ll need for the next day.

4. Use the Right Sleep Materials

Your sleeping materials — pillows, blankets, and other accessories — are the missing ingredient in most people’s sleep regimen. In the same way that the right sleep materials promote recovery, the wrong sleep materials can leave you unrested and irritable the next day.

A great mattress is the centerpiece to a restful sleep environment. It should appropriately support your limbs while preserving your body temperature and allowing for movement.

If finding the perfect mattress sounds more like a science than an art, we agree. That’s why we created the bedMATCH sleep diagnostic program: to pair people like you with mattresses proven to deliver the best sleep. Our system considers 18 unique measurements, including weight, height, and body type, to take the guesswork out of the mattress buying process.

Take the five-minute bedMATCH sleep quiz to find the perfect mattress without ever leaving your home. Or, bring the results into the closest Mattress Warehouse and one of our sleep experts will help you find the mattress — and the better sleep — you deserve.