How does alcohol affect my sleep?

Emerging research is showing that sleep is actually the foundation for our physical and mental health – and poor sleep is associated with really negative outcomes, like chronic disease, lower life expectancy, and lower wellbeing. Surprisingly, we have found that many people aren’t aware of how alcohol affects our sleep and energy, so here is a quick overview. 

Worse sleep quality: So many people disclosed that alcohol helps them get to sleep, and they’re worried about bad sleep if they stop drinking, while the truth is the other way around. Alcohol actually affects our sleep quality, by reducing our REM sleep. So even if it is easier to get to sleep (since alcohol is a depressant), we tend to have much worse quality sleep and wake up feeling groggy or unrested. 

Early morning awakenings: Our brains do a strange thing once the depressive effects of the alcohol wear off – they have a rebound effect and get really alert. This results in the early morning awakenings we might experience after a night of drinking; waking up with all systems go, way before we actually need to get up. It’s all due to alcohol’s effect on our brain chemistry, and we will often find that we crash a bit later in the day when it catches up with us. 

Hangxiety: This isn’t necessarily about sleep, but it does refer to something that happens when we’re asleep. Alcohol blocks the chemical glutamate (which is responsible for anxiety) in our brains – so when we’re alcohol affected, we’re less anxious. Unfortunately, our brains recognise this, so as we sleep they produce more glutamate to make up for this – meaning that when we wake up after a night of drinking, we often have a surplus of this anxiety chemical floating around our brains. Combined with the early morning awakenings, this can result in us feeling scattered and frazzled during the day – not a great way to start a morning. 

Greater fatigue & less energy: Alcohol has a complex effect on our brain chemistry; it is both a depressant and pick-me-up. 

Constantly having some alcohol in your system, even a little, is likely to be causing fatigue and less energy, even when we consider the amount of work our bodies need to do to process it. Most people find that taking a break of several weeks, to start with, helps them to understand the effect that alcohol was actually having on their energy levels and bodies. One reason that athletes don’t tend to drink when training is because of the impact of alcohol on fitness, weight, energy and mood – and this gives us a clue as to its impact on our performance. 

Now that we’ve given an overview of sleep and alcohol, what next? If sleep is an issue for you, I’d recommend visiting your GP and talking through the issue. Often there is a source of sleep problems, whether this is stress or habit, and small behavioural changes can make a huge difference. You can visit a sleep specialist or get some online help to get you back on track. 

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  • If people were self medicating for anxiety or trauma with alcohol, they might not see an improvement in sleep straight up.

    By Stella
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    March 11, 2021
  • This is so true , especially waking in the night, usually around 3am… wide awake and with huge amounts of anxiety. I sleep so much better not drinking alcohol.

    By Kelly
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    March 11, 2021
    • I have found that too – I have only quit drinking during the week, and I have had a marked improvement in sleep and I do not have the 3AM anxiety issues that much anymore.

      By Christo Strauss
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      March 11, 2021
  • This is so true. Having been sober for 16 months now, I have noticed the quality and consistency of my sleep is so much better than when I was drinking. The only reason I wake at night is if I need toilet and I have no problems getting back to sleep. If I only get 6 hours, due having to get up early to train or go to work, then I still feel 10 times better than I would after 8 hrs of alcohol induced “rest”.

    I still have the same job, so stress levels are the same – but the stress is much easier to deal with being sober. Problems are more manageable and relationships more harmonious – which contribute to being able to sleep well.

    The other factor that really ices the cake is exercise. I find that being physically tired really helps for a deep sleep.

    Thank you for all your good work at Hello Sunday Morning. The articles are interesting and informative and I enjoy reading about people’s positive experiences away from alcohol. It is inspiring!

    Good health!
    Craig 😊

    By Craig
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    March 11, 2021
    • Totally agree Craig.

      Even two glasses of wine with dinner causes me to have a bad night sleep. I don’t toss & turn in bed but from what I understand my REM sleep is interrupted and it feels like I’ve had 4 hours sleep when I’ve still had 7-8 hours. My brain is foggy and its harder to focus & I’m in an irritable mood.

      I’m drinking much less as I value rest more than alcohol. If I have wine during dinner I try to start the first glass early evening so its out of system before bed.

      Good health too!
      John

      By John W
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      March 11, 2021
    • Great feedback Craig. 16 months!!! You are amazing. I’m on the precipice of sobriety…until 5pm. 😩xSam

      By Samantha Stoney
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      March 11, 2021
  • Within a matter of weeks off the sauce my sleep improved greatly. No early evening beer comas (before my young daughter slept some nights) turning into a pee wake middle of the night, hours of insomnia, only to finally drift off before time to rise again feeling drained and de-energised.

    Approaching 6 months into sobriety i get a good 7/8 hours a night and wake daily around 7am, hangover free, rested and ready for the day. No ‘walking through treacle’.

    Much preferable

    By Sam
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    March 11, 2021
  • Gave it up for Lent and can see the huge difference in sleep quality. I will see if I can keep it going after Easter.

    I have said it before, and I will keep saying it: Hello Sunday Morning deserves a Nobel Prize.

    By Carl
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    March 11, 2021
  • I used to sleep badly and since quitting am sleeping straight through. Recently I had just 2 glasses of wine and had the 2am wake up again!

    By Sarah Jones
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    March 11, 2021
  • OH such a better sleep every night now, without alcohol running through my veins. Now my body can focus on restorative processes – rather than processing all that wine out of my system! I only wake up if I need the toilet, and I can go straight back to sleep – none of that anxious, internal dialogue, and promising ‘not to drink tomorrow’ …but then, by 5pm that day I was pouring a wine.

    Groundhog day! I was always tired!

    Now, properly alcohol free since 4 Jan, I really feel brighter and lighter when I wake up in the morning. It’s like a beautiful secret, that is under all of our noses.

    Thank you “Hello Sunday Morning” for helping us to celebrate our Everydays!

    By Justine
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    March 11, 2021
    • I love to hear all these positive stories like yours Justine.
      I can very much relate to the “promising not to drink tomorrow”.
      I feel so good the next day when I have gone a day without drinking alcohol yet these days are not the norm and most days are not alcohol free. I want to stop completely yet I don’t yet I so badly do. I want to sleep better and I do when I do not drink.
      Can I ask you what the catalyst was for your decision on the 4th Jan?

      By Janelle Gibson
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      March 16, 2021
  • Just reached 6 months alcohol free. The improvement in sleep happened within the first week. And the dreams!! Amazing. I was surprised how improved sleep has made a huge impact on mood, productivity, focus and anxiety. I always assumed I was quite an angry snarky bitch in general, but now I’m sleeping, I’m actually quite pleasant. Who knew? (Definitely not me says husband)

    By Leah
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    March 11, 2021
  • Great article and so very true. I recently started tracking my sleep patterns with a simple smart watch and was stunned by the different between a poison night and poison free night. Heart rate substantially lower all night when off the grog and triple the amount of restorative deep sleep. The watch provides real data that supports this truth… fun and empowering to see the difference.

    By Tony
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    March 11, 2021
  • Realising the effect that alcohol has on my sleep has been a huge eye opener for me! When I first had a sustained period of sobriety I could not understand why I was so tired all the time. It was then explained to me that alcohol had prevented my having proper sleep cycles at night such that I was in a huge sleep debt!
    Having caught up with sleep (took several weeks), I am more alert and productive during the day, do not wake in the early hours (except for a wee) and do not have that horrible hangxiety!!

    By Madeleine
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    March 11, 2021
  • There is a book called “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. Highly recommend. Been over 13 months with no alcohol and sleep is great. The book not only explains the effects of alcohol on sleep, it talks about several other “Sleep Aids” and how they block the precious REM sleep your body needs to fully heal itself.

    By Mike H
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    March 11, 2021
  • Have stopped drinking for 6 weeks but have been waking in the night with horrific nightmares and sweating profusely feel dreadful is this part of stopping thankyou

    By Gill Farren
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    March 11, 2021
    • Thank you for sharing. It sounds like it’s a tough time for you right now and we want you to know that there is support available. Check out the Daybreak app to connect with others who may be going through a similar experience or reach out to a health professional such as GP. Lifeline is also available for support 24/7 on 13 11 14.

      Take care, The HSM Team.

      By Hello Sunday Morning
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      March 12, 2021
  • If I’d have known how amazing the improvement in sleep was going to be I know I could have given up the booze earlier. I’m 70 days sober and still can’t believe how good it feels to fall asleep naturally and wake in the night and just drift back off again. It’s as good as that moment you open your eyes in the morning and know you are going to feel bloody marvellous all day because you didn’t have a drink the night before.

    By Rebecca
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    March 12, 2021
  • All of the below and Partner appreciates significant decrease in snoring. Now able to go for morning walks instead of having no energy.

    By Ross
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    March 12, 2021
  • Grog makes you sleep like shit ! Very little deep sleep and waking constantly. For someone who is a bad sleeper the only positive is its affects to help you initially fall to sleep.

    By Shane
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    March 12, 2021
  • I’ve not had a drink in 15 days and I’m sleeping better. I usually had a poor night sleep on Sunday evenings leading into the work week (partly anxiety?/partly alcohol?), and the last two have Sundays have been better – we will see how it goes tonight!

    By Sal
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    March 14, 2021
  • I started drinking on Saturday and Sunday of this week,after 200 days of non drinking.I feel I have let myself down and especially my family.I need to forgive myself and get on with the battle of not drinking at all.Please let me forgive myself.

    By Yvonne Pascall
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    March 16, 2021
    • Thank you for sharing. It sounds like it’s a tough time for you right now and we want you to know that there is support available.

      Check out the Daybreak app to connect with others who may be going through a similar experience or reach out to a health professional such as GP. Lifeline is also available for support 24/7 on 13 11 14.

      Take care, The HSM Team.

      By Hello Sunday Morning
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      March 17, 2021
  • Agree with everything that was said I’ve been dealing with it for years one night break lets me know how different I feel with no alcohol Wish I could stop altogether one-day

    By Anthony
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    March 19, 2021
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