Sleep Care

Alcohol & Sleep

A relaxing nightcap before bed is often the remedy that people look for in order to induce a good night’s rest. However, even a minimal amount of alcohol before lying down can be detrimental to a good night’s sleep. According to an article in the Sunday Times, Alcohol: How it Affects your Sleep, one person in seven – and more than a quarter of insomniacs – use alcohol as an aid to sleep. However, alcohol actually disrupts sleep, even at comparatively low levels. In other words, just a small amount of alcohol, while it initially helps someone fall asleep, the quality of rest is rather poor and can have the opposite effect on a person causing them to feel fatigued and sleep deprived. Over time, this quick fix can lead to a variety of other issues.

To provide a better understanding of this topic, it is important to identify normal sleep patterns. During a standard night of rest a person usually experiences two different stages of sleep. The first is known as slow wave sleep or SWS and this occurs when a person is in their deepest sleep and the brain waves are slow. The other sleep stage is known as REM or rapid eye movement, usually transpiring when a person is dreaming. This type of sleep is not as heavy as SWS. However, studies have shown that without REM, death can take place in a matter of weeks (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1998). For that reason, it is imperative not to skew these stages in any way.


When alcohol enters the picture these important stages become distorted, limiting

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their restorative properties. As previously stated, the consumption of alcohol before bedtime welcomes the inception of rest with little difficulty, meaning that it takes a small amount of time to get to sleep. While this may seem like a benefit to some, the consequences can actually be very serious. When alcohol is present in the blood, it decreases the amount of REM sleep that a person gets, while also increasing Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM). As a result, wakefulness comes about more often, restlessness can increase, and vivid and/or nightmarish dreams can occur (St. Louis Psychologists and Counseling Information and Referral 1999). These sleep disturbances can also roll-over in to the next day, causing fatigue throughout the day. The longer that this process continues, the greater the number of issues are likely to surface. For instance, tests have indicated that those who have experienced sleep deprivation perform badly during a driving simulation, even when alcohol is no longer present in the body. In addition, reduced alertness may potentially increase alcohol’s sedating effect in situations such as rotating sleep-wake schedules (e.g. shift work) and rapid travel across multiple time zones (i.e. jet lag), (NIAAA 1998). Which can mean that people may not be aware that they are experiencing a greater extent of sleep deprivation and continue to consume alcohol, only increasing its adverse effects.


In the long run, the number of diseases associated with sleep deprivation, caused by the regular consumption of alcohol before bed, can be serious and at times fatal. Heart disease, stroke, depression, difficulty breathing while asleep, the association of memory loss, and arising issues concerning daily social and work activities are but a few of the issues that can occurs due to sleep deprivation. Not to mention, the increased risk of developing Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This disorder is caused by a deduction in the upper air passage, located in the Pharynx, during sleep. This intensifies in people who consume alcohol because drinking already narrows this passage, which can bring about symptoms of OSA even if they are not usually present. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the combination of alcohol, OSA, and snoring increases a person’s risk for heart attack, arrhythmia, stroke, and sudden death. Therefore, the results of combining alcohol and sleep will not only increase sleep related disturbances, but it can also bring about a number of other issues.


It is apparent that just one drink before bedtime can increase a person’s chances of having a disruptive night of rest. However, the long-term effects of consuming alcohol before going to sleep can be truly detrimental to a person’s overall health, but it can also lead to severe disorders and in some cases death. Therefore, it is important to remember that while just one nightcap may help bring about the inception of sleep, the patterns that occur later in the night can be far worse than a few minutes of tossing and turning.


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