People are often familiar with the impact of alcohol on their sleep: disrupted sleep, waking up early, not as restful etc. Higher intake of alcohol is linked to a reduced quality of sleep which can produce or worsen sleep issues. Alcohol is categorized as a central nervous system depressant which means that it slows down neurological activity. This produces the symptoms commonly associated with greater consumption: slurred speech, unsteady movement, distorted perception etc. These sedative effects can impact sleep and lead to the development (or exacerbation) of sleep issues. 

Impact of Alcohol on Sleep

The degree to which alcohol impacts a person depends on different factors including a person’s size, age, drinking behavior and capacity etc. After alcohol is consumed, enzymes in the liver work to process it. The metabolization of alcohol in the body happens gradually so as alcohol remains in the bloodstream, there are various effects produced. This includes delaying or interrupting sleep as the alcohol continues to be processed. How exactly does alcohol impact sleep?

Alcohol can impact sleep in several ways. To better understand how, it is useful to understand sleep. The process of sleeping involves sleep cycles which consist of four stages. During one night of sleep, people usually go through 4-6 sleep cycles that involve: 

  • Stage 1: this stage refers to the first 1-5 minutes of falling asleep where the body and brain starts to slow down. This is when people doze off. 
  • Stage 2: the body further relaxes: body temperature, breathing, and heart rate slow down. 
  • Stage 3: this stage is the deep sleep phase where the body – muscles, heart rate, breathing, brain etc. – is in a deep state of relaxation. 
  • Stage 4:  also referred to as REM sleep where the brain becomes active again, reawakening almost at the same level when one is not asleep. Even though the brain is becoming active, the body remains relaxed. In addition to the brain, the eyes and breathing muscles also become active – this stage involves rapid eye movements (REM). 

These stages can be impacted by alcohol in a few ways. Because alcohol operates as a sedative and aids in slowing the body down, people can actually enter sleep easier and quickly. But this can affect the duration of time spent in each phase, creating an imbalance. Alcohol can delay or disrupt stage 4 of the sleep cycle, impacting future cycles experienced during the night. This can cause people to sleep less, restlessness, waking throughout the night etc. Receiving less than the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours for adults) and poor quality of sleep can lead to chronic sleep issues. 

Link Between Alcohol & Sleep Issues 

Sleep disorders are a common chronic health issue that 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S. experience according to the American Sleep Association. The most common sleep disorders are insomnia and sleep apnea and alcohol can impact these conditions in the following ways: 

  • Insomnia: is the most common sleep disorder and describes difficulty falling asleep and/or remaining asleep. Insomnia can be experienced occasionally and chronically. Alcohol can disrupt sleep stages and cause people to experience the symptoms of insomnia: exhaustion, irritability, difficulty concentrating which can then impact sleep. 
  • Sleep Apnea: involves abnormal breathing throughout sleep that pauses and then resumes. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when the tissue in the back of the throat overly relaxes. This obstructs the airways which impacts airflow. Studies have suggested that alcohol contributes to the throat muscles relaxing which can create blockages that prevent air from freely traveling. This exacerbates the abnormal breathing and can produce snoring as well. 

Sleep can be deeply impacted by consistently high intake of alcohol. The best way to intervene and reduce the toll alcohol can take on sleep is to adjust your consumption. Drinking moderately and avoiding alcohol prior to sleeping are useful ways to protect your sleep. The Sleep Foundation recommends not consuming alcohol at least four hours prior to going to sleep.  Applying these simple tips can reduce the impact of alcohol and enhance your sleep. These self-managed strategies are important ways you can positively impact your health and wellness!