How to Keep Alcohol From Ruining Your Sleep
I've never been a huge drinker, but I've definitely imbibed more than usual over the last year and a half. With all the added stress from the pandemic, I've found myself reaching for a large glass—or two, let's be real—of wine almost every night.
Not only does drinking alcohol leave me with a serious case of acid reflux, though—it also makes getting a good night's sleep pretty difficult. That's not surprising, given studies show alcohol negatively impacts sleep.
"While some people notice that an alcoholic drink or two causes drowsiness and aids them in falling asleep, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol, particularly in high doses, can interrupt and negatively affect the quality of one's sleep," says Emma M. Laing, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor and director of the didactic program in dietetics at the University of Georgia.
To get my sleep (and health) back on track, I've decided to temporarily quit drinking and do a dry month challenge. Here, learn more about how alcohol affects sleep and the many benefits you can expect from a dry month.
How does alcohol make you sleep worse?
In general, alcohol quickens how fast you'll fall asleep—and it also makes it harder for noise and commotion to wake you up.
Research shows alcohol increases the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of sleep—although recent data suggests this only happens in people who are already deficient in deep sleep. (This could be the case if you have a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea.)
These effects only occur in the first part of sleep—usually within the first four hours of the night as your body metabolizes the alcohol. Once your body has broken down all of the booze, you'll start to experience worse sleep. Now you're awakened and can be aroused from sleep more easily.
Why is that? According to studies on alcohol and sleep, you tend to spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep and REM sleep (the period when you dream) during the later part of the night, after you've thrown back a few cocktails.
In general, most people can metabolize one drink every one to two hours. But when it comes to how alcohol will affect your individual body and sleep, a lot of factors come into play. These include:
- What you drink: Some types of booze have a higher alcohol content than others and will therefore hit you harder. A standard serving of beer (12 ounces) usually has around 5% alcohol, a standard serving of wine (5 ounces) usually has around 12% alcohol, and a standard serving of distilled 80-proof liquor (1.5 ounces) usually has around 40% alcohol.
- How much you drink: The more alcohol you drink, the higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will be.
- How quickly you drink: The faster you down drinks, the higher your BAC will be.
- Your gender: Alcohol affects men and women differently. Women tend to weigh less than men and ultimately tend to get intoxicated more quickly. Women also have less dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. This can lead to higher BACs for women even if they drink the same amount of alcohol as men.
- Your body size: People with smaller body sizes will feel the effects of alcohol faster.
- What you eat: Food also plays a role in how alcohol will affect you. Having something in your stomach, whether it's carbs, fat, or protein, will help slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. The larger the meal, and the closer you time it to your drinking, can help lower your peak BAC.
That said, research shows as little as one drink could worsen your sleep, regardless of your gender or your weight.
A 2018 study found that one drink reduces the restorative quality of sleep by 9.3%. Moderate alcohol consumption (three drinks), meanwhile, was shown to lower sleep quality by 24%—and high alcohol consumption (seven drinks) was shown to decrease sleep quality by as much as 39.2%.
Results were similar for women and men, as well as for people of smaller and larger body sizes and people who were physically active vs. those who were more sedentary.
Alcohol and insomnia
Research shows alcohol can increase the amount of deep sleep people with insomnia get. But this increase in deep sleep is only temporary. After about six nights, people with insomnia will start to develop a tolerance to alcohol and need to drink more to get the same effect, according to one study.
One study found that one drink reduces the restorative quality of sleep by 9.3%
While the research isn't conclusive, it does suggest using alcohol as a sleep aid for insomnia could increase the risk of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and sleep apnea
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing down the part of the brain that controls breathing, along with the firing of the muscles that keep your airway open. When you have sleep apnea, this part of the airway gets repeatedly blocked during sleep. This causes brief arousals throughout the night.
Studies show drinking can exacerbate this problem in people with sleep apnea and those at risk of developing it.
Alcohol and sleep FAQs
Here, we answer your most common questions to help prevent booze from ruining your shuteye.
Can alcohol disrupt sleep?
Yes, alcohol can disrupt sleep. While it has sedative effects that can cause feelings of sleepiness, studies show alcohol, particularly when consumed in excess, can reduce sleep quality and sleep duration.
Can alcohol cause sleep apnea?
There's a link between alcohol consumption and sleep apnea. Drinking alcohol slows your breathing and relaxes the muscles in your throat. Moderate to heavy drinking can lead to episodes of sleep apnea, even if you don't have the condition. And for people who do have sleep apnea, alcohol can make things worse.
How to drink alcohol and sleep well
Drinking alcohol isn't going to do your sleep any favors—but if you're smart about when, what, and how much you imbibe, a glass (or two) of Pinot noir won't necessarily ruin your night, either. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Stop drinking a few hours before bed. Exactly how long you should leave between your last drink and hitting the pillow depends on how much you drink and how quickly your body metabolizes alcohol. Most of us metabolize about one drink every one to two hours.
- Don't overdo it. The more drinks you consume, the longer it takes your body to metabolize the alcohol. Regardless of whether your body metabolizes alcohol quickly or slowly, the less alcohol in your system, the less potential for your sleep to get disrupted.
- Watch out for heavy pours. Stick to standard-size drinks—not doubles, extra-large wine glasses, or mixed drinks with multiple shots of different liquors. Bonus: You'll certainly save money the next time you hit the bar.
Could doing a dry month help you sleep better?
Now you know all the ways alcohol can wreak havoc on your sleep. So naturally, you might be wondering whether taking a break from booze could improve your shuteye.
Here's what you need to know about Dry January, the benefits of doing a dry month, and how to stick with it to experience the best results.
What is Dry January?
Dry January involves taking a month-long break from alcohol. Because it begins on January 1, some people participate in Dry January to kick-start a New Year's resolution to cut back on alcohol. Other people use it as a way to reset after lots of holiday drinking.
The first Dry January took place in 2013. The campaign originated with Alcohol Concern, a UK organization, as a way to encourage mindfulness around alcohol consumption.
That first year, 4,000 Brits took the challenge, and it's since expanded worldwide. Close to 25% of Americans reported interest in participating in Dry January in 2019.
Other popular months to stop drinking include September and October, which you'll often see referred to as Sober September and Sober October. But really, you can do a dry challenge any month of the year.
What are the top dry month benefits?
Even taking a short hiatus from drinking alcohol can result in better quality sleep. According to 2015 research out of the University of Sussex, 62% of Dry January participants reported better sleep.
"Appreciating the various ways in which alcohol can disrupt sleep, it makes sense that taking a break from drinking can result in more restful nights," says Laing.
She does note, however, that heavy drinkers who decide to stop drinking abruptly may experience withdrawal symptoms before they start to see the sleep benefits. "Multiple factors, including how much and how often you drink, can contribute to the severity of these withdrawal symptoms," she says.
Hilary Sheinbaum, journalist and author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month, first took the Dry January challenge in 2017 and noticed improvements in her sleep.
"When I gave up alcohol for one month, one of the most surprising epiphanies was my quality of sleep," she says. Before taking the challenge, Sheinbaum says she used to sleep an average of five hours a night, often waking up in the middle of the night.
According to research out of the University of Sussex, 62% of Dry January participants reported better sleep.
"I truly thought that was due to my crazy-busy New York City life, my around-the-clock job, and my anxiety as a whole," she says. "Nope! Not long into my first Dry January, I realized that even though my work and lifestyle were as busy as ever, I was sleeping seven to eight hours each night, which was a personal record."
The only change Sheinbaum had made in her life? Giving up alcohol.
Laing says additional health benefits of cutting out alcohol, even for a short period, include an improved immune system and liver function, as well as a heightened ability to curb mindless snacking.
Per the University of Sussex research, 62% of Dry January participants reported more energy, while 82% felt a sense of achievement. Additionally, 49% of participants said they lost weight.
One of the more surprising benefits for Sheinbaum, meanwhile, had to do with her skin.
"My skin looked infinitely clearer and more glowy, even in the dead, dull, month of January," she says. "As it turns out, alcohol dehydrates your body—including your skin."
How do you make sure your Dry January is successful?
A month without booze might sound daunting, but there are some things you can do to ensure the process goes smoothly.
- Be clear about your intentions. Make a list of the top reasons you're giving up alcohol to remind yourself why you're taking this break in the first place, suggests Laing. "Keep your list in a prominent place and refer to it when the urge to drink strikes," she says. "If possible, talk about your intentions with your friends, family, and your healthcare provider, so they understand and are able to offer support when needed."
- Enlist a friend to do it with you. "For first-timers, I suggest recruiting a friend or friends to partake in the challenge with you," says Sheinbaum. Her first Dry January stemmed from a spontaneous bet she made with a friend on New Year's Eve in 2016. "The first year I did the dry challenge, and made a Dry January bet, it felt like a group effort," she says. "It was so helpful to have a friend to keep me accountable—and also share tips and tricks along the way."
- Replace drinking with another activity. These last few months, I'd always reach for a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day. But there are healthier ways to relieve anxiety, and Dry January is the perfect time to incorporate some of these activities into your routine. Try taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk around the block with your pet, or cooking a new recipe, says Laing.
- Keep alcohol out of sight. "If you think you'll be tempted by having alcohol in the house, put it away or give it to a friend to temporarily hold," suggests Sheinbaum. As she notes, the point of a dry challenge isn't to torture you. "It's to make a dry month as simple, easy, and as enjoyable as possible," says Sheinbaum.
- Sip tasty non-alcoholic beverages. "Replacing what is in your glass or cup doesn't have to be fancy or require a lot of effort," says Laing. "Making a cup of soothing hot or iced tea, coffee, or hot chocolate can be a helpful alternative, along with juices, smoothies, bubbly waters, and other beverages you have on hand that pique your interest." Sheinbaum likes flavored seltzers, as well as Gruvi's non-alcoholic prosecco and Athletic Brewing Company's non-alcoholic beers. (For more inspiration, we've rounded up these delicious mocktail recipes.)
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