HealthAgenda

Physical Health

Why alcohol and sleep don’t mix

Do you often have a drink to help you nod off? Not only can relying on alcohol impact the quality of your sleep, it can also lead to other health risks. Here’s how to break the cycle.

If you enjoy a few drinks at night, you might think one of the benefits of alcohol is helping you get to sleep.

It might surprise you to know you’re setting yourself up for a restless night.

After drinking even a small amount, you’re more likely to wake up feeling tired – even after eight hours in bed.

Given good-quality sleep is crucial to maintaining your physical and mental wellbeing, deciding whether to drink or not is important.

Worrying about broken sleep can be a big part of your relationship with alcohol – if you stop drinking or cut back, will you suffer for it at night?

Research from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation shows alcohol is detrimental to sleep and, while a change in your drinking habits might cause some initial disruption to the quality of your shut-eye, reducing or cutting out alcohol altogether is likely to have positive effects in the long term.

How does alcohol affect sleep?

Depending on how much you drink and when, alcohol can have either a stimulating or sedating effect on your sleep cycle, specifically your Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep – the phase in which your brain is most active.

Crucially, REM sleep is when you’re most likely to dream and is associated with locking in memories.

So when you use alcohol to sleep, it can result in disrupted cycles and less restful shut-eye.

Even those ‘happy hour’ drinks can make for an unhappy night of rest. Studies show that drinking alcohol can lead to a lack of sleep as much as six hours later.

But alcohol makes me sleepy

Many people use alcohol to help them get to sleep. But the more you drink, the more alcohol it takes to reach the same point of relaxation and sleepiness – and that’s when it can become an issue.

With regular use, alcohol can lose its effectiveness as a sedative, but still retain its sleep-disturbing properties later in the night or early morning.

This can result in a lack of alertness and concentration the next day.

Why do I still sleep badly if I stop drinking?

When regular drinkers cut back on alcohol, they often feel it most at night – from trouble sleeping and staying asleep, to not feeling rested the next morning.

This can be a result of the withdrawal effects and the brain adjusting to not having alcohol as a regular sedative.

If you want to stop drinking or cut back, but you’re worried about the potential disruption to your sleep, remember it’s only temporary.

A lack of sleep can make alcohol’s appeal harder to resist, so it’s a good idea to chat to your GP and discuss how to manage this short-term challenge in a way that works for you.

Most people who cut back or give up alcohol altogether find their sleep quality improves over time.

As your brain adjusts to living without alcohol, your sleep patterns begin to balance out, your REM sleep improves, and the early morning wake-ups start to lessen.

How to improve sleep without drinking

There are many ways you can improve your quality of sleep that don’t carry the health risks drinking does, including:

  • having a regular bedtime routine, including going to bed and waking at the same time
  • having a warm drink or shower just before you go to bed changes your core body temperature and signals to the brain that it’s time to sleep
  • putting away phones and iPads at least an hour before you want to drop off
  • making sure your sleep environment is dark and quiet.

What if I can't sleep without drinking?

If you can't sleep without alcohol, you may want to reach out to additional support services to help you figure out why and start establishing healthy sleeping habits.

HCF and Hello Sunday Morning aspire to change members' relationship with alcohol. The partnership gives HCF members free access to additional services offered by the Daybreak app - an anonymous alcohol support program.

The Daybreak program has been enhanced to provide a unique offering to members, which includes support from health coaches⁺. 

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need.

PSYCH2U is another service unique to HCF, giving eligible members access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health services.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:  

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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Words by Hello Sunday Morning
Updated May 2021

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