Everyone enjoys a good drink every once in a while, whether it’s a craft beer, an elaborate cocktail, or a glass of fine wine. Because alcohol is a depressant, one of the biggest myths around it is that a drink before bedtime can help you get a good night’s sleep. But while alcohol might help you fall asleep faster, that’s the extent of its sleep-related benefits.
So right away we can answer the question this post poses: yes, alcohol does hurt your sleep. If you want to know why then keep reading. We’ll discuss the effects of alcohol on sleep, as well as alternate approaches you can use instead of drinking before bedtime.
How Alcohol Affects Your Sleep
The reason we’re often asked “Does alcohol help you sleep?” is in part due to the fact (per this National Sleep Foundation article) that 20% of Americans use alcohol to fall asleep at night. It makes sense if you’re having trouble sleeping since alcohol can make you drowsy. The problem with this method is that even though it might help you drift off, what happens afterward would not be considered a sound night’s sleep.
The same National Sleep Foundation article referenced above notes some specific drawbacks, including:
Less Restorative Sleep: This is the big one. While drinking alcohol before you turn in can cause the delta wave activity associated with deep sleep, it also can trigger alpha wave activity, which normally occurs while you’re resting quietly, not full-bore sleeping. These competing sleep patterns mean your mind and body will not receive the restorative night’s sleep they need to be at the peak of their powers.
Weakened Heart Rate Variability (HRV): The storyline around lack of restoration continues with HRV. According to this firstbeat.com article, “alcohol raises your heart rate and weakens your heart rate variability.” This occurs over the first few hours of sleep, with the deep sleep stage only going deeper due to what the article calls a “clear dose-response relationship.” And since alcohol inhibits REM sleep, this has an adverse effect on your memory functions, motor functions, and more.
Circadian Rhythm Disruption: Falling asleep quickly after drinking alcohol comes with a price: there’s a strong possibility you’ll wake up in the middle of the night. Drinking alcohol produces adenosine, a chemical that signals it’s time to go to sleep; however, that quick (and unnatural) fix of adenosine disappears soon after it arrives, increasing the likelihood that you’ll wake up sooner than you should.
Going to the Bathroom Frequently: Drinking before bed often leads to one or more trips to the bathroom in the night. Typically your body controls the urge to go to the bathroom while you sleep, but between the potential disruptions we’ve already discussed and the simple fact that what goes in must come out, consuming alcohol in the evenings means you’re going to struggle to stay asleep one way or another.
Restricted Airflow and Snoring: While alcohol relaxes your mind, it has the same effect on your body. This includes your jaw and throat muscles, which at best can restrict airflow and lead to snoring, and at worst can induce mild sleep apnea.
So as you can see, there are significant drawbacks to drinking before bed.
Alternate Ways to Unwind Before Bed
Before we discuss different ways to get primed for a good night’s sleep, it’s important to note that we’re not teetotalers here. Like with diet and other aspects of life, alcohol in moderation isn’t an issue, and its effects vary from person to person. It’s quite possible you could have a drink in the evening and it wouldn’t have the same negative impact on your sleep as it would on the next person.
However, if you’re struggling to sleep, and having a drink is part of your evening routine, then it’s worth considering some alternatives. Drinking to “unwind” is often just another way of dealing with stress, so there are plenty of techniques you can use instead:
Journaling: Taking the time to write down your thoughts in a journal or diary before bed is a great way to “unload” everything on your mind—basically, those things that keep you up at night.
Meditation: A popular stress-reducing technique, meditation has the power to calm the mind and prepare you for sleep (which is why it’s often prescribed for those suffering from insomnia).
Qi Gong or Tai Chi: Though these two practices are different, they both incorporate breathwork with movement. In addition to clearing your mind, there are physical benefits—like improving strength, balance, and flexibility—as well.
There are plenty of other activities to add to this list, and many are based on personal preference. Really it can be anything that helps you clear your mind before bed, such as praying or reading.
With Alcohol and Sleep, the Choice Is Yours
While alcohol and sleep don’t mix, it doesn’t mean you should stop having a drink altogether. You can take this information as far as you want; maybe you stop having a drink before bed on weekdays, or if you want to track alcohol’s effect more intensely you can invest in tech like an Oura ring that tracks HRV and body temperature trends—then see how those measurements and others change on the nights you imbibe. The most important takeaway from this post is a common refrain for those struggling to sleep: by reflecting on your habits, and potentially changing some of them, it might have a positive impact on the quality of your sleep. Alcohol is simply one of those habits that might be hurting more than helping.