What happens when you sleep?
To understand how alcohol can affect your sleep, it first helps to understand what happens to your body when you nod off. There are two different states of sleep which your body goes through each night. These are known as rapid eye movement (REM), and nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. NREM sleep is broken down into three sub-stages, which show how ‘deep’ your sleep is.
During the night, you rotate through the following stages of sleep:
- Stage 1 (NREM): This is when you first go from being awake to falling asleep. Your heartbeat, breathing and eye movements start to slow down.
- Stage 2 (NREM): This is usually the longest of the sleep stages. Your heartbeat and breathing continue to slow, and your temperature gets lower too.
- Stage 3 (NREM): This is where your brain, heart and breathing rates are at their lowest. Eye movements stop and your muscles are completely relaxed.
- Stage 4 (REM): This happens around 90 minutes into sleep. Eye movements restart and your heart rate and breathing get faster. It’s in this phase that you’ll most likely dream, and your memories are made.
Why is sleep so important?
When you sleep, your body rests and repairs itself. This helps you to function properly every day. Getting regular, good-quality sleep (between seven to nine hours a night) improves how well you learn, remember information and helps you to live longer. It can also help reduce stress levels and maintain your emotional wellbeing.
How alcohol impacts your sleep
Alcohol acts on your nervous system and causes brain activity to slow down. This can make you feel relaxed or sleepy. So you might find that drinking alcohol helps you to unwind and fall asleep more quickly. But studies have shown that alcohol actually disturbs your sleep.
If you drink alcohol in moderate to heavy amounts, it increases the amount of time you spend in NREM sleep. And when you drink large amounts of alcohol, it decreases how much REM sleep you get. Heavy drinking can also cause you to:
- take longer to fall asleep
- spend less time sleeping when you’re in bed
- wake up more often
- have disrupted sleep
When your sleep is disrupted, it can affect the hormones and brain signals which are normally released during sleep. This can impact how well your body repairs itself as you rest.
You may have also noticed that you snore after you’ve had a drink or two. Alcohol can make breathing-related issues, like snoring or sleep apnoea, worse. This is because alcohol relaxes your throat muscles, making it harder for air to reach your lungs. To get enough oxygen, you must work harder to inhale air, causing vibration and snoring sounds.
Is there a link between alcohol and insomnia?
Insomnia is when you find it difficult getting to sleep, or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning. Alcohol can make you feel sleepy, so if you have insomnia, you might use alcohol to help you get to sleep. But studies suggest that alcohol may actually make insomnia worse over time. This can result in a vicious cycle of:
- using alcohol to help you sleep
- having a disturbed night’s sleep
- feeling tired through the day and therefore using stimulants like coffee to keep you awake
- needing alcohol to offset the effects of the coffee in the evening.
In fact, studies have shown that people with insomnia are more likely to have an alcohol problem.
When should I stop drinking before bed?
It takes around one hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol. A pint of lager (4 per cent ABV) or a small (175ml) glass of wine (13 per cent ABV) each contain 2.3 units. So it would take just over two hours to process one of these drinks.
For a good night’s sleep, it’s important to leave enough time between you having a drink and going to bed.
But knowing when to stop can be difficult as everybody processes alcohol differently. Some research has shown that drinking alcohol even six hours before bedtime can disrupt your sleep. So it’s a good idea to steer clear of alcohol for at least six hours before going to bed.
How can I get a good night’s sleep?
If you’re having trouble sleeping, there are lots of things you can do to help. Here are some simple tips you could try.
- Get into a routine. Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day, even on weekends. This helps establish your sleep cycle.
- Try not to nap during the day. If you really feel you need one, keep it short (10-20 minutes) and don’t nap after 2-3pm.
- Use alternatives to drinking to help you unwind before bed
If you find you’re having a drink at night to help you unwind from the day, find other ways to relax. You could try:
- reading a book for half an hour
- taking a bath
- sitting in a quiet place
- reducing your time on electronic devices
- keeping a journal or notepad to write down anything which has worried you through the day
When to ask for help
If you’re concerned about your alcohol intake and sleep, visit your GP. They’ll be able to discuss your difficulties and provide advice and support.
Below is a short list of useful resources that may be helpful for you: