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Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep?

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Many people who consume alcohol have likely experienced fatigue and drowsiness as a consequence. In fact, a large number of individuals report using alcohol to aid them with sleep. However, while alcohol, a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, can help with falling asleep, it can contribute to a poorer quality of sleep at various stages throughout the night. In fact, even a small amount of alcohol can affect sleep quality, and it is generally recommended to avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime.

If you or a loved one have tried to control alcohol use but have not been able to do so, you may have an alcohol use disorder that requires professional treatment. You may have also been suffering from sleep disturbances as a result and resorting to further alcohol use to fall asleep. At Guardian Recovery, our team of therapists and addiction specialists is dedicated to helping individuals break free from the cycle of alcohol misuse and poor sleep quality.

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How Alcohol Disrupts the Sleep Cycle

Frequent alcohol use can ultimately lead to long-term sleep disturbances and even serious disorders such as insomnia. Furthermore, some substances can adversely impact chemical messengers that regulate sleep patterns, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. Sleep deprivation can contribute to alcohol misuse, and vice versa. Often, individuals get stuck in a cycle of alcoholism and an inability to get the rest they desperately need, and poor sleep quality can continue long after abstinence.

The Stages of Sleep

A person’s natural sleep pattern occurs in various phases throughout the night. The two most significant phases, however, are known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM), which is the sleep stage in which people spend the most time, is marked by a period of deep slumber and the slowing of heart rate and brain waves. (1)

The second primary sleep stage is called rapid eye movement (REM). In this phase, the eyelids twitch, and the person starts to dream. Also, heart rate and respiration increase, which can last anywhere from 10 minutes at the beginning of the sleep pattern to 1.5 hours toward the end of a cycle.

The Relationship Between Alcohol & REM Sleep

Alcohol consumption can significantly affect REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is a crucial stage of the sleep cycle. During REM sleep, the eyes are closed but move rapidly, the heart rate accelerates, and breathing becomes irregular. In other stages, brain waves slow down, but the brain is highly active during REM sleep, and brain waves fluctuate. All sleep is important, but REM sleep in particular plays a vital role in dreaming, memory, emotional processing, healthy brain development, and preparation for waking. In general, alcohol’s effect on REM sleep can lead to poor quality sleep, disturbances, and disruptions in restorative functions.

Ways Alcohol Interacts With REM Sleep Include:

  • Suppression—Alcohol suppresses REM sleep, which can disrupt normal sleep architecture. Although it may initially help individuals fall asleep faster, it tends to reduce the overall time spent in REM sleep during the later part of the sleep cycle.
  • REM Rebound Effect—When alcohol’s sedating effects subside during sleep, a rebound effect can occur. The body attempts to compensate for insufficient REM sleep by increasing its duration and intensity during subsequent sleep cycles. This rebound effect can lead to more vivid dreams and a higher likelihood of waking up during REM sleep, contributing to sleep disruption and fragmentation.
  • Disrupted Dreaming—Alcohol can affect the content and quality of dreams. It can lead to bizarre, intense, or disturbing dreams when consumed before sleep or during withdrawal. This disruption in dream patterns can contribute to sleep difficulties and unrest.

Alcohol-Related Sleep Disorders—Chronic alcohol use may lead to sleep disorders that further impact REM sleep. Conditions such as substance-induced sleep disorders and alcohol-related sleep apnea can disrupt normal sleep patterns and result in decreased REM sleep. (2)

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The Connection Between Alcohol & Insomnia

Alcohol’s effects on individuals regarding sleep patterns can vary among individuals. In addition to REM sleep suppression and rebound effects, it can contribute to the development or worsening of insomnia.

Ways Alcohol Contributes to Insomnia Include:

Disrupted sleep patterns, including the stages of sleep and their timing. Alcohol can fragment sleep, leading to more nighttime awakenings, which can contribute to insomnia symptoms such as difficulty staying asleep or experiencing poor-quality sleep.

Worsened sleep-disordered breathing, including snoring and sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. (3) Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the airway, leading to obstructions and interruptions in breathing. This can interfere with sleep continuity and contribute to insomnia symptoms.

Withdrawal effects, which are common when alcohol-dependent individuals attempt to quit or reduce their alcohol use, including insomnia, restlessness, and sleep disturbances.

Alcohol’s Influence on Sleep Disorders

In addition to insomnia, alcohol can have a significant influence on various sleep disorders. While it may initially seem to provide some relief or relaxation, alcohol can actually worsen existing sleep disorders or contribute to the development of new ones. In addition to insomnia and sleep apnea, alcohol can influence other sleep-related conditions.

Ways Alcohol Affect Sleep Disorders Include: 

  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)—This condition is characterized by a compulsive urge to move the legs, especially while inactive or resting. Alcohol can increase the frequency and intensity of RLS symptoms, making it challenging to fall or stay asleep.
  • REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD)—RBD is a parasomnia where individuals act out their dreams, potentially injuring themselves or their sleep partners. Alcohol can contribute to the loss of muscle atrophy during REM sleep, making RBD episodes more likely.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders—Alcohol can disrupt the natural circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. It can interfere with the timing of sleep and worsen circadian rhythm disorders, such as delayed sleep-wake phase disorder or irregular sleep-wake rhythm. (4)

Alcohol Withdrawal & Sleep Disturbances

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) can lead to significant sleep disturbances as the body adjusts to alcohol’s absence. When individuals who have been regularly consuming alcohol stop or significantly reduce their intake, they may experience insomnia and various sleep-related symptoms during the withdrawal period. These include fragmented sleep, disturbing or vivid dreams, and nightmares.

AWS can also result in rebound REM sleep, increasing the likelihood of vivid dreams and awakenings. In addition, individuals may experience hypersomnia or excessive sleepiness. (5)

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Alcohol use disorder is considered by experts to be a chronic disease that has no cure but can be treated. Whether a sleep disorder contributed to your or a loved one’s alcohol misuse or vice versa, addiction treatment can help by using therapeutic strategies and providing medical and mental health support. The underlying causes of sleep disturbances can be addressed, and you can learn how to manage sleep disturbances while avoiding relapse. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation assessment and health insurance benefits check and begin your journey to long-lasting recovery.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/stages-of-sleep/slow-wave-sleep
  2. https://www.psychdb.com/sleep/substance-medication
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631
  4. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/circadian-rhythm-sleep-disorders
  5. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/hypersomnia

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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