Alcohol and Sleep: The Surprising Truth About How Drinking Impacts Your Rest

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& Medically Reviewed by Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN

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Updated 02/22/2022

Alcohol can cause tiredness, restlessness, poor sleep quality and low energy levels even though it gets you to sleep faster.

People familiar with alcohol usually know that alcohol can help make it easier to fall asleep. But you may wonder what exactly causes this effect and if it helps you have healthy sleep. It is true that alcohol can help you get to sleep better; however, it can affect the quality of your sleep and actually make you feel less rested.

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Why Does Alcohol Make You Sleepy?

Alcohol interacts with receptors in the brain called GABA receptors. These receptors suppress brain activity and the action of the entire neurological system. This effect is what causes slurred speech, decreased coordination, suppressed inhibition and many of the other effects of alcohol. The sleepiness that alcohol causes is primarily due to the suppressing effect that GABA receptor stimulation has on the brain.

Should I Use Alcohol to Help Me Sleep?

Alcohol can help you get to sleep, and alcohol used for this purpose has even earned a nickname — a “nightcap.” While alcohol can help you fall asleep more easily, it will disrupt your sleep in multiple ways. It will make you feel less rested and even prevent you from reaching the deep stages of sleep that help you to feel truly rejuvenated.

Ultimately, using alcohol to sleep will be counterproductive. While you might fall asleep more easily, this sleep will not give you the rest that you need to feel more energetic when you wake up. It is normally better to take a little longer to fall asleep but feel rejuvenated in the morning than it is to sleep fitfully for longer.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

There are multiple ways that alcohol affects sleep. Alcohol prevents the brain from engaging in REM sleep, the deepest and most rejuvenating form of sleep. Alcohol also releases epinephrine (a stress hormone) several hours after use, increasing restlessness. Alcohol can cause you to awaken to urinate and make sleep apnea more likely to occur.

Alcohol and REM Sleep

Sleep causes four different patterns of brain waves that occur in cycles. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the deepest stage of sleep, is where the brain derives the most benefit from sleep. It is also the time when it is most difficult to awaken someone. Only about 20% of sleep will be REM sleep, but it is the most important part of the sleep cycle.

Heavy alcohol use can severely reduce the amount of REM sleep that someone experiences. This can lead to a feeling of tiredness upon awakening, even when someone has had a full night of sleep. The reason you’re tired may not be obvious, but the fatigue will be.

Alcohol and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition that affects 2–9% of adults and is caused by the tongue relaxing during sleep and obstructing the airway. This causes the person sleeping to stop breathing momentarily. They will automatically wake up enough to move their tongue out of the way and resume breathing, but not enough to realize that they woke up. This can occur dozens or hundreds of times during the night, causing severe fatigue even though someone thinks they have been asleep all night.

While OSA is considered a medical condition that can occur for no obvious reason, alcohol can lead to or worsen OSA. Alcohol can relax muscles throughout the body, including the tongue while sleeping, causing OSA in those who would not normally have it.

Alcohol and Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it harder to get to sleep or stay asleep. Obstructive sleep apnea and lack of REM sleep are considered difficulties in staying asleep, meaning that alcohol use can lead to insomnia.

While heavy alcohol use causes a less-obvious form of insomnia, the more classic form of insomnia, where it is more difficult to fall asleep, is more commonly connected with alcohol withdrawal.

Alcohol Withdrawal Insomnia

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are essentially the opposite of those caused by alcohol. Alcohol can lead to sleepiness, so people experiencing alcohol withdrawal can find getting to sleep difficult. Alcohol withdrawal insomnia occurs in over half of people going through withdrawal and is made worse by the other distracting withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Withdrawal Dreams

One of the frequent, unpleasant effects of alcohol withdrawal is vivid and unpleasant dreams. While the exact reason is not fully understood, withdrawal dreams can last for several weeks or even months, well after most withdrawal symptoms are over.

Alcohol and Night Sweats

While night sweats are more common during alcohol withdrawal, they can occur with normal alcohol use. Alcohol dilates your blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the skin. This increased blood flow can lead to excessive sweat formation, causing night sweats.

More commonly, alcohol night sweats are due to withdrawal. During withdrawal, peoples’ skin is likely to be clammy and sweaty. While this symptom is relatively constant, it becomes much more obvious at night while lying still and covered with a blanket.

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Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Around 70% of people in the United States use alcohol during a given year; 5.3% of Americans aged 12 or older have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) — the medical name for alcohol addiction. This amounts to almost 15 million people who struggle with alcohol misuse.

Alcohol addiction may occur so slowly that someone does not realize it is happening. Signs of alcohol addiction can include struggling to cut back or stop using alcohol, using alcohol even though it is causing negative effects, or having alcohol become something you frequently think about. AUD can ultimately only be diagnosed by a licensed physician, and often requires professional treatment.

Florida Alcohol Rehab

If you or someone you know may have an alcohol addiction, professional help is available. Alcohol addiction can be difficult to overcome, and the sooner it is treated, the better the long-term results will be.

The Recovery Village has a strong record of providing high-quality alcohol addiction treatment in Palm Beach and Miami, Florida. Our state-of-the-art facilities and understanding team members are the ideal combination for helping someone achieve lasting sobriety. We invite you to contact us to learn how we can help you or your loved one gain freedom from alcohol addiction.

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