How Alcohol Messes With Your Sleep -- And What You Can Do About It

Five ways to protect your sleep from that last glass of wine before bed.
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You may want to reconsider your nightly nightcap if your goal is solid slumber. Wine, beer and liquor can all help you fall asleep faster (or “shorten your sleep latency,” to use a more technical term), but experts agree that if you drink before bed, you’re more likely to wake up throughout the night and get less deep sleep.

The truth about your bed wine

If you imbibe too much close to bedtime, both the quality and quantity of your sleep ― and your brainpower the next day ― will suffer.

“Alcohol messes with your sleep cycles, resulting in more arousals, and causing you to spend less time in the important deep sleep stages,” says Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

This means that even if you conk out quickly, you’ll pay for it later in the night (not to mention the next morning).

You cycle through your various sleep stages every 90 minutes or so, and you tend to get more deep sleep in the second half of the night, which is when the effects of alcohol really come into play, Dasgupta says. You need to spend time in these later stages in order for sleep to feel restorative. What’s more, deep sleep is crucial for cognition and memory.

This is your sleep on booze

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, according to Dr. Patricia Carter, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Nursing and a Sleep Research Society committee member.

“When someone drinks alcohol, it results in them feeling ‘calmer’ and more relaxed because it directly impacts the system that is causing anxiety or ‘stress’ feelings,” Carter says. In other words, alcohol makes it easier to fall asleep ― but it doesn’t guarantee a restful night.

After a short time ― about two hours, depending on your metabolism ― your body will start trying to wash out the alcohol, which it views as a toxin, Carter says. This process is accomplished by pulling water from cells and flushing out the toxin through the kidneys and bladder (which is why you have to get up and pee so often).

On top of this, alcohol suppresses the anti-diuretic hormone in your body, which can contribute to even more bathroom trips, according to Dasgupta. And when you’re going to the bathroom regularly, you’re losing essential electrolytes.

All of these factors can add up to a terrible night of light, frequently interrupted sleep and an exhausted, dehydrated you in the morning. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Five expert-backed tips for having your drink and sleeping later too:

1. Allow three to four hours between drinking and hitting the sheets. If you plan to crawl into bed at 10 p.m., be sure to finish that glass of wine by 7. (It takes your body about three hours to metabolize 8 ounces of wine, Dasgupta says.) Of course, the exact time may vary depending on your size, your gender and your alcohol intake. Alcohol tends to affect women more acutely, according to Carter, who suggests a four-hour window for women and men alike.

2. Use the “two for one” rule. Guzzle two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink. This will help your system flush out the alcohol, Carter says. (Drink even more water if you’re having wine or a sugary drink, since your body will need to flush out the alcohol and the sugar.)

3. Cut the cava. Bubbles can cause bloating and gas, which distend your stomach, providing more surface area for alcohol to be absorbed (and mess with your sleep), according to Dasgupta. Similarly, think twice about drinks with fizzy, carbonated mixers.

4. Drink with food ― and pay attention to your alcohol intake. Doing your drinking and your eating at the same time is a good idea because you’re typically munching on meals a few hours before bed, which allows more time for your body to metabolize and more time for you to squeeze in those crucial glasses of water. But there’s a catch: Eating will slow the “hit” of the alcohol, Carter says, so you might actually end up drinking more to feel the buzz.

5. Always abstain if you’re taking sleeping pills. Medications like Ambien and over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl don’t mix with alcohol, says Dasgupta. Alcohol is a respiratory depressant (that is, it makes breathing hard), and a majority of sleeping aids work on the same receptors in the body that alcohol does, which means you’re suppressing your ability to breathe even more. Hence, alcohol amplifies the effects of the sleeping pills, which can be quite dangerous.

It’s important to note that alcohol worsens sleep disorders. More than 18 million adults have sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Since alcohol results in extra breathing difficulties, it’s a double whammy for the health of anyone with the disorder, according to Dasgupta. Booze can also increase the symptoms or effects of parasomnia (sleepwalking) and restless legs syndrome. So if you have any of these conditions, you’ll want to be extra careful with your consumption.

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