How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com March 22 2011 3:00 AM ET

Need a good night’s sleep? You might want to consider skipping that nightcap. Even though alcohol can help us to nod off, it actually inhibits the restorative sleep our body needs to stay healthy.

According to Pete Bils, Vice President of Sleep Innovation and Clinical Research at Sleep Number, “alcohol has both sedative and stimulatory effects. As we drink and our blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, the alcohol has a stimulating effect. Once BAC peaks and begins to decline, the alcohol has a sedative effect. So depending on the timing of the alcohol intake, it could facilitate quickly falling asleep or inhibit it.”

But keep in mind that there’s a big difference between falling asleep and sleeping soundly. While alcohol will generally enhance the first half of the night’s rest, Bils says those cocktails will metabolize quickly, and by the middle of the sleep period, your blood alcohol concentration is negligible, which causes withdrawal symptoms to begin. At this point, studies say, sleep becomes fragmented and light. Yes, technically you’re sleeping, but the restorative properties of that sleep are stripped away. Which explains why you often spend the next day feeling tired and exhausted.

Bils says that alcohol is also known to exacerbate breathing problems, including snoring and sleep apnea.

And once the damage is done, the effects of excessive alcohol intake aren’t easily mitigated. But since alcohol is a diuretic (meaning it elevates the rate of urination), Bils says the best thing you can do for yourself after a night of imbibing is drink a couple glasses of water before retiring. It will help you avoid dehydration. Another suggestion: “If you have to get up to go to the bathroom during the night, don’t turn on any bright lights as it will disrupt the secretion of melatonin and further disrupt sleep. Use dim lights or night lights to guide you around.”