Physical Health

Is alcohol use affecting your sleep?

Regular drinkers may depend on alcohol to get to sleep every night, but do you know that alcohol can impact the quality of your sleep and can lead to dependence?

If you drink regularly, you might think one of the benefits of drinking alcohol at night is that it helps you fall asleep. But the truth is alcohol can not only negatively impact the quality of your sleep, but make you feel tired when you wake up (even after eight hours in bed) and less able to function with a clear head the next day. It’s an important topic, since we know getting good quality sleep is crucial to maintaining our physical and mental health

Concerns about sleep disruption can be a big part of your relationship with alcohol – if you stop drinking or cut back, will you miss out on your much-needed rest? But the research suggests alcohol is detrimental to sleep and while you might notice some disruptions in sleep when you cut back or stop, reducing or cutting out alcohol altogether is likely to have positive effects on your sleep in the long term.

Why do I wake up feeling tired after drinking?

Drinking alcohol impacts your sleep cycle, specifically your Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is the phase of sleep in which your eyes move quickly, your blood pressure and heart rate go up, and your brain becomes very active.

REM sleep is when most dreaming happens and is the restorative, quality deep sleep that helps us feel rested and alert the next day. The more heavy drinking we do, the less REM sleep we get.

Alcohol can have either a stimulating or sedating effect depending on how much and when you drink.

In fact, even drinking in the late afternoon or up to six hours before bedtime can disrupt a good night's sleep. This is called a ‘rebound’, which is when you can experience heightened arousal 2–3 hours after blood-alcohol concentrations fall close to zero – like those early-morning awakenings when it’s hard to return to sleep. This ‘rebound’ can also be associated with intensive dreaming or nightmares – which can also contribute to your sleep being disrupted.

But alcohol helps me get to sleep…

Many people are using alcohol to sleep – it can be seen as a low-risk, cost-effective and convenient sedative. But as you increase your alcohol consumption, it takes more alcohol to reach the same point of relaxation and sleepiness, which can lead to depending on alcohol.

With regular use, alcohol can lose its effectiveness as a sedative, while still retaining its sleep-disturbing properties later in the night or early morning – when you’re meant to be getting high-quality REM sleep – resulting in problems the next day with alertness, concentration and fatigue.

Why do I sleep badly when I cut back or stop drinking? 

When heavy drinkers stop drinking, they can experience disruptions in their sleep – from trouble sleeping and staying asleep, to not feeling well rested after sleeping. 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 concerned about potential disruption to your sleep, remember it’s only temporary.

Sleep problems can cause people trying to give up alcohol to relapse into drinking again, so it’s a good idea to chat to your GP to discuss how you can manage this short-term challenge in a way that works for you.

For most people who cut back or stop drinking, sleep quality improves slowly over time. As your brain adjusts to living without alcohol, your sleep patterns balance out and your REM sleep improves, with a reduction in sleep issues such as early morning awakenings.

So, what do I need to remember about sleep and alcohol?

Alcohol doesn't help us improve sleep. In fact, while you may find it easier to go to sleep after drinking, the quality of sleep you have after drinking is likely to be much poorer, even if you’ve only had a small amount to drink. 

How to get expert help

If you’d like to change your relationship with alcohol, find out more about HCF’s partner, Hello Sunday Morning and download Daybreak, the alcohol behaviour change app that’s free and comes with added benefits and programs for HCF members.

  1. Sign in to HCF online member services or the My Membership app
  2. Click on 'My Cover' and then the 'Alcohol Support' button
  3. Download the Daybreak app
  4. Complete your registration in the app
  5. Start your Daybreak alcohol support journey to better health & wellbeing
Log in to get started

Words by Hello Sunday Morning
First published September 2019

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