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alcohol and insomnia

Evidence based

Alcohol and Insomnia – Everything you need to know

Afterdrink Author Dewey Jhon
Dewey Jhon

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  1. This article is based on currently available scientific evidence at the time of writing and fact checked.
  2. All referenced studies and research papers are from reputable and relevant peer-reviewed journals or academic associations.
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Evidence based

Studies show that up to 30% of people with insomnia use alcohol as a sleep aid.

If you’re someone who suffers from insomnia, you’ll know how much of a problem it is with consequences that have a knock-on effect on your daily activities.

Sleeping late is one thing, but the lack of energy and focus the morning after can have a profound negative impact on your work and social life.

Turning to alcohol may seem like a plausible option as it makes falling asleep easier, but is it making your insomnia worse?

In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the science behind how alcohol affects your sleep and whether it’s a cause of your insomnia.

Table of contents

How does alcohol affect your sleep?

It seems like a logical solution. Alcohol is a nervous system depressant, meaning that it slows down the transmission of signals between neurones.

As a result, it makes you more sleepy.

However, being able to fall asleep easier with alcohol can actually have detrimental effects on your sleep quality.

1. Blocks REM sleep

There are a total of 4 sleep stages with REM being one of the most important. REM stands for “rapid eye movement” and is the deepest stage of sleep and is where dreams happen.

Ever been woken up from deep sleep, midway through an intense dream and thought, where am I?

Well, that’s because you were probably in REM sleep and disruption in this stage can leave you feeling confused and groggy after waking.

An undisrupted REM stage of your sleep is essential for making you feel fully rested.

Alcohol is known to block you from going into this stage. This means that even though you fall asleep easily, you’re not actually reaching the important stages of sleep.

2. Circadian rhythm disruption

Essential hormones in your body, such as cortisol, are released in varying amounts at different times of day.

For example, cortisol levels increase sharply in the early hours of the morning and then drop to their lowest levels late at night.

This predictable cyclical rhythm is important in regulating your bodies metabolic functions such as regulating stress, energy levels and food digestion to mention only a few.

Seeing as alcohol can disrupt your normal sleeping patterns and result in poorer quality sleep, it can throw these normal bodily functions out of equilibrium and result in bodily stress.

3. Worsening of breathing problems

Not only does alcohol relax your mind but it does the same to your muscles. As a result, the muscles that control your breathing, particularly the ones in your upper airway loosen up.

This is often why snoring becomes much more of a problem if you’re drinking alcohol. As a result, it can affect sleep quality because of shallow breathing and potentially being more prone to having pauses during sleep.

It’s particularly a problem if you’re someone who’s known to have sleep apnea. In this condition, alcohol can exacerbate pauses and significantly reduce how you sleep.

4. Extra bathroom trips

Alcohol is a diuretic which means it makes you produce more urine. This effect continues until the alcohol has completely left your bloodstream which can be several hours after your last drink.

So, while you’re asleep, your kidneys will continue to produce more urine which fills your bladder up quicker. As a result, you’re likely to need more bathroom trips during the night.

5. Alcohols rebound effect

Even though alcohol can make you fall asleep easier, you’ll find that you’ll naturally wake up in the middle of the night. It may also be hard to fall back asleep again. This is particularly the case if you’ve had a few more drinks than you normally do.

Sound familiar?

Well, this is known as alcohol rebound effect and happens when your blood alcohol levels drop to zero.

Once this happens, your nervous system snaps back into life rapidly and as a result, you get over-activation.

This rebound phenomenon can also be attributed to hangover shakes and anxiety among other things.

how alcohol affects sleep infographic

Does alcohol cause insomnia?

As listed above, alcohol can affect your sleep in many different ways resulting in poor quality and disrupted sleep.

So, even though falling asleep in the first instance is easier with alcohol, the knock-on effects can cause problems.

Therefore, if you’re someone who suffers from insomnia, drinking alcohol could make it worse.

On the other hand, if you’ve been on a big night out and are struggling to get back to sleep after waking up in the early hours of the morning, alcohol can also be the likely cause here.

How to prevent insomnia after drinking alcohol

The only real way to prevent alcohol-related insomnia is to drink less alcohol.

One of the main causes of insomnia after drinking alcohol is the rebound effect explained earlier.

This effect is more severe if you’ve been drinking heavily. The reason is, the high alcohol concentrations cause more suppression of your nervous system.

Once these levels rapidly drop towards zero, the rebound effect takes hold. Drinking in moderation stops this large fluctuation in blood alcohol concentrations for obvious reasons.

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What can help alcohol insomnia?

So if you’re struggling to fall asleep once you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, there are certain things you can do to help you doze off.

1. Change your environment
Firstly, getting out of bed instead of lying there staring at the ceiling is a good start to change your environment.

2. Chamomile tea
Sipping on some chamomile tea could also help. This herbal remedy has been used traditionally to help with sleep and there are studies to back these claims up.

3. Avoid caffeinated mixers
There are also things to avoid if you’re drinking alcohol like caffeinated mixers.

For example, a can of coca-cola can have as much as 50mg of caffeine which is half a cup of coffee.

If you’re drinking whisky coke all night, that will add up to a lot of caffeine which will not help your sleep.

Which alcohol is worse for insomnia?

It all depends on the amount of overall alcohol consumed. There is no one particular drink that is worse than the others.

That being said, darker coloured drinks can give you a worse hangover. Drinks like whisky and red wine contain more congeners which are well known to cause more severe hangovers.

If you’re feeling particularly hungover with headache and nausea, it could clearly be very difficult to fall back asleep again.

Final words

That brings us to the end of our article about alcohols effect on sleep and insomnia.

There are several different ways alcohol can affect your sleeping patterns and can really worsen insomnia if used as an aid to sleep.

Although alcohol is a sedative and will make you more sleepy in the short term, it’s after-effects could lead to poorer quality sleep.

If you’re finding that you’re using alcohol to help treat your insomnia, it’s a good time to speak to your doctor about it and get some help.

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