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.
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
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.
Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app*, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.
The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.
HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:
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ALCOHOL AND DEPRESSION IN MEN
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WOMEN AND ALCOHOL: FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Everything women need to know about having a healthy relationship with alcohol.
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