Can You Use Alcohol to Help Fall Asleep?

Pouring a glass of wine

If you regularly enjoy a nightcap before bedtime, you aren’t alone. About 20% of Americans report that they use alcohol to help fall asleep. While it might be an effective sleep aid, it may not help you stay asleep or feel rested in the morning.

What Is Healthy Sleep? 

Many sources claim that eight hours of sleep is the magic number, but science has shown why that isn’t as important as the number of hours spent in each stage. There are five stages of sleep that your body goes through at night, and a well-rested person spends a certain percentage of time in each.

  • Stage 1: The lightest stage of sleep.a Brain frequencies slow down. Breathing and heart rate occur normally. This stage makes up about 2 to 5% of total sleep time. 
  • Stage 2: Usually occurs after Stage 1 and represents deeper sleep. From this stage forward, the sleeper is less likely to be awakened. This stage should account for 45 to 55% of sleep time. 
  • Stages 3 & 4: These stages of sleep are also called “Slow Wave Sleep” (SWS) or delta sleep. An EEG will show slower frequency delta waves during this part of the sleep cycle. As people age, they spend less time in delta sleep and more time in Stage 2 sleep. If someone is woken suddenly from this stage, they’ll feel very groggy and irritable. This Stage usually only makes up 5 to 25% of total sleep time. 
  • Stage 5: This stage is also known as REM sleep and is associated with dreaming. Unlike other stages, an EEG reveals that brain waves during REM look similar to ones made when the brain is awake. Skeletal muscles cease movement, breathing becomes more erratic and heart rate increases during this stage. This is when the brain cleanses itself of toxins linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Stage 5 should make up about 20 to 25% of total sleep time. 

Most adults feel their best after having seven to nine hours of sleep and four to six complete sleep cycles. What causes you to feel unrested is if either of those factors is interrupted. 

Alcohol’s sedating effect can help you fall asleep quickly, so doesn’t that mean it’s an effective sleep aid? 

As you sleep, the body continues to metabolize anything consumed before bedtime. Alcohol may have a sedating effect, but once it’s metabolized, that effect dissipates. Sleep disturbances generally occur two to three hours after having a drink, which is linked to the time it takes the body to process the alcohol. Studies have found that alcohol significantly increases the chance of waking up halfway through the night, and this disruption of sleep usually causes the “rebound effect.” This effect causes you to be deprived of the benefits gained during certain sleep stages, so your body attempts to make up for them later. These disruptions will usually cause signs of sleep deprivation, even after a full night’s sleep. 

Alcohol and Health Disorders

Sleep disorders are often a side effect of mental health disorders. Insomnia is a common symptom of PTSD, depression or anxiety. The relationship between alcohol, mental health and sleep disorders can be both complex and bidirectional. This means that one issue may lead to another and may cause a snowball effect. For example, someone who has signs of insomnia may be at increased risk for substance abuse, and as a result, use alcohol to self-medicate. Getting enough healthy sleep is vital to preserving mental wellbeing, and using alcohol as a sleep aid could lead to a deterioration of that. 

In addition to mental disorders, alcohol can cause many physical health issues. Drinking before bedtime interferes with the cardiovascular relaxation that occurs during sleep. This is because the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for heart rate and breathing, is impaired by alcohol. Signs of sleep apnea are seen in people who consume alcohol before bed, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. One study claims that after a single drink, even normal sleepers can start snoring. 

To avoid these health problems, it’s recommended by doctors to stop consuming alcohol at least three hours before bedtime. 

Better Options for a Restful Sleep

There are many ways to improve sleep that don’t require alcohol. Managing “sleep hygiene” is an important first step to creating healthy sleep habits and will maximize the hours you spend sleeping. 

Tips for better sleep: 

  • Avoid nicotine, caffeine and other stimulants: These chemicals can impair your sleep and should be avoided at least eight hours before bedtime. 
  • Exercise early in the morning: Though exercise has been shown to improve sleep overall, it should generally be avoided right before bedtime. 
  • Create a dedicated sleep space: A quiet, dark and cool space is optimal.
  • Establish a pre-sleep routine: Brushing your teeth or meditating at a regular time before bed will signal your brain that it’s time for sleep. 
  • Go to bed when you’re tired: If you’re not asleep twenty minutes after your head hits the pillow, do something else like read or listen to music. 
  • Eat dinner earlier: Finish eating several hours before going to bed. This will help you avoid being woken up in the middle of the night by an upset stomach.  

Lifestyle changes generally lead to better sleep quality and quantity. While alcohol can help you fall asleep quickly, it’s also correlated with numerous health problems. If you have ongoing issues with insomnia, it may be helpful to see a doctor who can help identify the cause and make a treatment plan.

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