Alcohol And Sleep – How To Manage Your Nightcap Properly

Alcohol And Sleep – How To Manage Your Nightcap Properly

After a long and hard day of work, some of us like to unwind with a glass of wine or a nightcap. After all, it is called a nightcap for a good reason, right? Still, alcohol and sleep seem to have a love-hate relationship. Every so often, we can fall asleep faster after having a drink before going to bed, and many of us have probably also experienced trouble with falling asleep or having bad quality sleep after drinking alcohol. Alcohol affecting sleep is a complicated biological process, and depending on several factors, drinking alcohol can deteriorate our sleep quality. In this article, CARE wants to explain how alcohol has an effect on sleep, how we can achieve better sleep quality after drinking alcohol, and how sleep disorders play into all this.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Sleep
10 min read · Sep 27, 2023

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How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Alcohol is a psychoactive substance that affects your brain and, therefore, has an effect on your sleep if you consume it in the evening. Since sleep is important for several essential biological functions that are crucial for our overall health and well-being, we should not compromise it. Why is sleep so indispensable for our well-being?

Sleep achieves physical and mental restoration, including tissue repair and waste removal, and it also aids in memory consolidation, enhancing cognitive function, emotional regulation, and immune system support. Our sleep also helps regulate hormones that impact growth, stress response, and appetite, and support our metabolism. Moreover, consistent, restorative sleep contributes to physical health, brain health, mood stability, and energy conservation. [1]

Altogether, sleep is a fundamental process vital for maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

The connection between alcohol and sleep quality is intricate and varied. Although drinking alcohol may initially make you feel tired and relaxed, it can actually disrupt the stages of sleep under certain circumstances. One significant consequence of alcohol for sleep is the disturbance of rapid eye movement (REM), which plays a role in memory consolidation and emotional regulation. Alcohol can decrease REM sleep, resulting in disrupted sleep patterns and lower quality of sleep.

Additionally, consuming alcohol before going to bed has been found to shorten the duration of sleep by causing frequent awakenings during the night. This reduction in sleep duration can worsen conditions like insomnia, making it harder to fall asleep or maintain sleep. Furthermore, alcohol's ability to relax muscles can worsen sleep apnea by relaxing the muscles in the airway and increasing the frequency of apnea episodes. [2]

In summary, while alcohol might initially make you feel sleepy, it can have negative impacts on your different stages of sleep and exacerbate sleep disorders. [3] Alcohol can lead to poorer quality and duration of sleep if you do not manage your nightcap properly consider a few things that we are going to point out in this article. But first, we want to address which biological processes mess with your sleep when you drink alcohol.

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How Alcohol Withdrawal Affects Sleep

The quality of sleep can be significantly affected by alcohol, or to be more accurate, by the alcohol withdrawal your body experiences when sleeping with alcohol in your system.

Alcohol initially has an effect on the central nervous system, creating feelings of relaxation and drowsiness. However, as the body processes alcohol, it undergoes a rebound effect. [4] As blood alcohol levels decrease, the brain becomes more active, leading to withdrawal symptoms like heightened alertness and difficulties with falling asleep. These symptoms can disrupt your ability to sleep. [5]

Now, we want to elaborate on sleep disorders and how those might be affected by alcohol.

Sleep Disorders

All of us have experienced bad sleep, in connotation with alcohol or even without having a drink at all. People who suffer from regular bad sleep or frequent disruptions while sleeping, on the other hand, might have a sleep disorder.

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that disrupt normal sleep patterns and can lead to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep. There are different types of sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg's syndrome, narcolepsy, and parasomnias like sleepwalking or night terrors.

But how does someone develop a sleep disorder, and how are those connected to alcohol consumption? Firstly, the reason someone develops or suffers from one of these types of sleep disorders can be broad.

Some sleep disorders, like narcolepsy, can have a genetic component, while others might be a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle or compromised sleep hygiene. The term sleep hygiene does not refer to clean sheets but rather to a set of practices and habits that are aimed at promoting healthy and restful sleep. Those habits include but are not limited to a consistent sleep schedule, a relaxing bedtime routine, and an overall healthy lifestyle like a conscious and moderate consumption of alcohol. [6]

Now, let’s take a closer look at some specific sleep disorders and their relation to alcohol consumption before going to sleep.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that involves interruptions in breathing during your sleep. These interruptions, which are referred to as apnea, can last for only a few seconds up to a minute or longer and can happen multiple times throughout the night.

There are two types of sleep apnea to differentiate between:

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

This form of sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax while you're sleeping, causing a blockage in your upper airway. When this happens, the flow of air decreases or completely stops, which leads to decreased levels of oxygen in your blood.

As a result, your brain briefly wakes you up to reopen the airway, although sometimes it happens so quickly that you may not fully realize it. These awakenings can disrupt your sleep patterns and quality of sleep and prevent you from getting a good rest.

At CARE, we can give you an insight into your blood oxygen levels through our comprehensive blood analysis. Our dedicated healthcare professionals take the time to explain all the different biomarkers to you, to help you prioritize certain aspects of your health to improve your quality of life.

2. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

This type of sleep apnea is less common. CSA happens when your brain fails to send signals to the muscles responsible for controlling breathing during sleep. Unlike OSA, there isn't any obstruction in the airway with CSA. CSA can be associated with conditions like heart failure or occur without an apparent underlying cause.

Drinking alcohol, in high amounts, can worsen symptoms and increase risks associated with both types of sleep apnea particularly obstructive sleep apnea. [7]

People who experience sleep apnea should be careful when drinking alcohol before going to sleep because it can disturb their sleep more and potentially make their apnea worse.

Narcolepsy – Daytime Sleepiness

Narcolepsy is a condition characterized by excessive sleepiness during the day and a tendency to unexpectedly and involuntarily doze off at inappropriate moments.

It occurs due to a shortage of a neurotransmitter called hypocretin, which plays a role in regulating wakefulness.

Drinking alcohol can make narcolepsy symptoms worse since it disrupts the sleep you get further and lowers your quality of sleep even further. The sedative effects of alcohol can intensify the present daytime sleepiness in individuals with narcolepsy, making it more difficult for them to stay awake throughout the day. [8]

Hence, people with narcolepsy are advised to be cautious when consuming beverages, especially in the evening.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a condition that affects your brain and causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. People with RLS often experience sensations like tingling, itching or a crawling feeling and can’t resist moving their legs uncontrollably, particularly during the evening or when typing to sleep. These sensations, naturally, tend to disrupt sleep patterns. [9]

The relationship between alcohol consumption and RLS is quite complex. While alcohol may initially provide relaxation, it can worsen RLS symptoms for some individuals, leading to restless nights and discomfort in the legs. [9]

Therefore, it's important for people with RLS to be mindful of their alcohol intake and how it may impact their sleep quality and symptoms.

So, how can you have better sleep quality without staying abstinent from alcohol? And is there a possibility for people with sleep disorders to consume alcohol without worsening their condition?

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3 Tips For Better Sleep Quality After Drinking Alcohol

To improve the quality of your sleep after having a drink, it's important to consider the timing and amount of alcohol you consume.

It's recommended that you finish drinking four hours before going to bed, allowing your body enough time to metabolize the alcohol. The higher the alcohol content in a drink, the longer it may take to metabolize. A distilled drink, like whiskey or vodka, for example, will need more time to be metabolized by your body than a light beer. It is also interesting to know that, generally, women require more time to metabolize alcohol than men. [10]

Additionally, staying hydrated and having a light snack before bedtime can help counteract the dehydrating and blood sugar-altering effects of alcohol. [10]

Lastly, maintaining a sleep schedule, practicing relaxation techniques, and creating a comfortable sleep environment can greatly contribute to a more restful night's sleep after a night out or having a drink.

We’ll now dive deep into some tips on how to sleep better after consuming alcohol.

Stay Hydrated – Drink Water

Drinking enough water after consuming alcohol is crucial for maintaining a good sleep quality. Alcohol's diuretic properties can lead to dehydration, causing discomfort during the night and increasing the likelihood of disrupting your sleep. Since alcohol affects your blood sugar levels, this can lead to nighttime awakenings, and it can also disrupt your body's temperature regulation, making it harder to stay asleep.

Adequate hydration can help mitigate the severity of a hangover, which can significantly impact your sleep quality.

Therefore, staying properly hydrated after and also while drinking alcohol contributes to your overall comfort and promotes a more restful and undisturbed sleep experience.

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Avoid Caffeine – Rather Have a Glass of Wine Than A Vodka Red Bull

Even though it seems logical for most of us to avoid consuming caffeine before going to bed, it is especially important to avoid consuming any kind of caffeine when you're drinking alcohol.

Caffeine is a stimulant that blocks the effects of adenosine, which is a neurotransmitter that helps promote sleepiness. So, if you have caffeine in your alcoholic beverages, which many people do, it can delay the time it takes for you to fall asleep even further. Now, your body does not only need to metabolize the alcohol but it is also kept busy with the stimulating effects of the caffeine. [11]

Even if you do manage to doze off after having caffeine, your sleep might be more disrupted and lighter. This means there's a chance of waking up during the night and not getting enough rest. The caffeine-stimulating properties can lead to leaving you feeling groggy and less alert the next day.

Regularly having caffeine (especially close to bedtime) can also throw off your circadian rhythms, your biological clock, eventually. This may cause negative effects on your natural sleep patterns and make it harder for your body to maintain a consistent wake-sleep schedule.

Despite avoiding caffeine and staying hydrated, there is one major “trick” that can help you enjoy a good night’s sleep while still enjoying a drink.

Keep At Least 4 Hours Between Your Last Drink And Bedtime

The key to enjoying alcohol in the evening without risking a bad night’s sleep is to avoid suffering from alcohol withdrawal when going to bed. You can achieve this if you wait at least four hours before going to bed after having your last drink.

This time allows your body to metabolize and eliminate alcohol before bed from your system, reducing the likelihood of experiencing withdrawal symptoms during sleep. Thereby, you minimize the rebound excitability in your brain associated with alcohol withdrawal and promote a more peaceful and uninterrupted night of sleep.

The waiting period is the key to ensuring better quality sleep when drinking alcohol because you grant your body the time to process (metabolize) the alcohol. If you go to sleep with alcohol in your system, it will intervene in your sleep cycle on some level, causing you to have sleep problems. If you suffer from any form of alcohol use disorders, this can even potentially affect your mental health eventually. [12]

So, in summary, allowing your body some time to metabolize alcohol before going to bed, staying away from caffeinated drinks, and staying hydrated throughout the day, allows your body to metabolize alcohol better.

Being aware of the effect of alcohol on your sleep and following these methods can help you reduce your disruptions in sleep and ultimately enhance your overall sleep quality after drinking alcohol.

If you want to get a more comprehensive understanding of your overall well-being through your blood levels, which can also mirror certain symptoms of bad sleep, then a blood analysis at CARE can help you take charge of your health and live your best life.

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!