13 Sep 2016

Alcohol: One of the causes of sleep problems

Finishing off a long day at work with a visit to the local pub or bottle shop is not uncommon for many Australians. Alcohol is used as a relaxant after stressful working weeks, and is often used as a “night-cap” for particularly harrowing days.

While alcohol sometimes helps to induce sleep, drinking alcohol is actually one of the causes of sleep problems.

The effects of alcohol last longer than you may realise. In fact, drinking in the afternoon can have a negative effect on your sleep that night. Moderation and timing are keys to minimising the sleep-robbing effects of alcohol.

Not a sleep enhancer

Estimates vary, but as many as 15% of people may use alcohol to help them sleep1. Among people with insomnia, that number is estimated to be significantly higher.

Alcohol is often used to help people fall asleep, and while it is true that alcohol can help relax you so you drift off to sleep, it’s doing more harm than good. A nightcap can be what causes sleep problems by interrupting your normal sleep patterns, which can make you very tired the next day.

Alcohol’s effect on your body

As the alcohol you’ve consumed metabolises into sugar, rising glucose levels can cause wakefulness, fragmenting your sleep. Since alcohol causes dehydration, you may also find yourself awake, thirsty for water.
On the other hand, another cause of sleep problems could be a full bladder, which occurs with alcohol, as it’s a diuretic.

With all of alcohol’s negative effects on your body, it’s easy to see why you’re likely to find yourself awake a few hours after going to bed if you’ve been drinking.

Alcohol’s prolonged effects

On average, it takes about one hour to metabolise one drink2, but the effects described above can linger much longer, depending on your weight, gender, and health. Even if plenty of time has passed between the afternoon “happy hour” and your bedtime, chances are it will be the cause of sleep problems and you’ll wake up frequently, thirsty or needing the toilet.

Evidence suggests3 alcohol produces changes in the body’s mechanism of sleep regulation, including alterations to normal periods of deep sleep and REM sleep, the two most restorative sleep phases.

Drinking and snoring

Alcohol can also increase the symptoms of sleep apnea and snoring because it relaxes the muscles of the upper airway4. So not only does the person who had a few drinks lose sleep, but anyone within earshot is bound to suffer.

The next morning

Since you didn’t get a good night’s sleep and you’re probably dehydrated as well, you can’t expect to look or feel your best the next day. The more alcohol you consume, the worse these effects could be.

Habitual sleep problems

If alcohol consumption becomes a habit, its sleep-inducing effect can decrease5, while its disruptive effects can increase. Regular drinking causes sleep problems and daytime fatigue can become persistent.

 If you continue to have sleeping issues with or without alcohol intake, it could be an indication that other areas of your life need fine-tuning. What causes sleep problems could be anything from eating the wrong thing in the hours leading up to sleep, to not finding your 30 minutes of recommended daily exercise.

To get a full understanding of everything that affects your sleep, download “Unlocking the Pillars of Health” eBook to see how you can achieve improved sleeping health.

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  1. Nix Nightcap for Better Sleep. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/nix-nightcap-better-sleep
  2. Getting back to zero. NSW Centre for Road Safety - http://roadsafety.transport.nsw.gov.au/stayingsafe/alcoholdrugs/drinkdriving/drinkgetbackto0_00.html
  3. Alcohol Alert. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa41.htm
  4. Snoring Causes. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/snoring/basics/causes/con-20031874
  5. Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm