People often think that having a few glasses of wine or a shot of liquor at night will help them fall asleep fast and sleep peacefully through the night. But the truth is that, even if you manage to nod off into dreamland, the chances of getting a good night’s sleep are slim.
In reality, alcohol and quality sleep just don’t mix. And the more alcohol you drink, the worse you sleep, which means you can look forward to brain fog and feeling lethargic the following day.
Why Does Alcohol Not Make You Sleep Better?
According to data, alcohol disrupts the normal phases of deep and light sleep that we all go through each night.1 These phases are known collectively as your sleep architecture.
When alcohol is added to your bedtime routine, it interrupts – or “fragments” – those healthy patterns, meaning you’re likely to wake up several times during the night instead of smoothly transitioning from stage to stage. Over time, this sleep disruption can create health problems.
Here’s how a night of alcohol-induced sleep unfolds:1
During the first half of the night, when the alcohol levels are still high in your bloodstream, you’ll likely sleep deeply and without dreaming. That’s because alcohol acts on gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect. Alcohol also suppresses rapid eye movement, or REM sleep, which is when most dreaming occurs.
During the second half of the night, when your alcohol levels have dropped, your brain kicks into overdrive. You start tossing and turning because your body is experiencing rebound arousal. You’re also more prone to waking up multiple times and having vivid or stressful dreams.
Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning it increases your urine output. And that means, you guessed it, you’re more likely to wake up needing to go to the bathroom.
You’re also more likely to snore when you drink before bed. Alcohol relaxes the muscles of your upper airways, causing normal breathing to be disrupted. This is especially dangerous if you have obstructive sleep apnea, which is a condition that makes people wake up several times during the night due to a momentary airway collapse that prevents breathing.
So What Happens to Your Sleep When You Stop Drinking?
Quality sleep is crucial after you quit drinking. That’s because amazing things happen during your sleep time. Sleep allows your body to take a break by lowering your blood pressure, relaxing your muscles, and releasing hormones that decrease inflammation in your body. These are restorative benefits that your body can’t afford to miss out on!
Sleep disturbances are some of the most common and persistent problems people experience after they quit drinking. Sometimes alcohol use is responsible for masking pre-existing and undiagnosed sleep issues. Other times, quitting alcohol leaves your brain and body scrambling to readjust to functioning normally, ultimately disrupting your ability to get quality sleep.
According to data from the Substance Use And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 72% of those with an alcohol use disorder suffer from sleeping problems.2 And these problems can last for months or even years after getting sober.
Effects of Sleep Loss In Sobriety
Sleep problems are among the most common issues people face in early sobriety, and they’re usually some of the last issues to show improvement.2 Unfortunately, sobriety and abstinence from alcohol become a lot harder to manage if you aren’t able to get enough quality sleep.
Difficulty sleeping, especially when you feel like you can’t sleep sober, may increase your risk of picking up alcohol again. In fact, insomnia during sobriety can lead to a lot of negative side effects. Here’s a few of them:2
- Mood swings
- Unprovoked irritability
- High risk of depression
- Unable to get comfortable in sobriety
Sleep issues experienced after quitting alcohol tend to include insomnia, disrupted sleep patterns, sleep apnea, and other types of sleep-disordered breathing (snoring, for example).
When you quit drinking alcohol, it tends to take you longer to fall asleep, you have issues sleeping through the night without waking up, and you rarely wake up feeling like your sleep was restorative.
Alcohol withdrawal causes a serious reduction in deep sleep and abnormal REM sleep. (REM sleep is characterized by increased brain activity, relaxation of the body, rapid eye movements, and increased dreaming.)
Insomnia is a common problem after quitting drinking. This condition makes you experience difficulty falling and staying asleep, and that can lead to daytime sleepiness, an inability to concentrate, and many other negative issues.
People in recovery are often more likely to have problems with sleep onset than with sleep maintenance, which is why some might conclude that they can’t sleep sober.
Insomnia can linger long after you stop drinking, but it’s important to remember that many people already had insomnia before drinking alcohol became a problem.
Alcohol and obstructive sleep apnea are directly related. In fact, data shows that drinking can increase your risk of sleep apnea by up to 25%.3
Sleep apnea is a condition that does a number on your airway while you’re sleeping. It relaxes and essentially closes your airway while you’re asleep, forcing you to wake up over and over throughout the night in order to breathe.
Do You Sleep Better When Sober?
We’ve already talked about the impact that quitting alcohol can have on your sleep health. But do those sleep disturbances ever go away? Or are you doomed to a life of restless sleep?
David Hodgins, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, told ScienceDaily, “Sleep has a reputation among the recovering community of being one of the last things that fall back into place for an individual. It’s also recognized as a potential precipitant of relapse.”4
Here’s the good news: things do get better! And Brody Hay is a great example to illustrate those eventual sleep improvements. Hay, a 28 year old man from Louisiana, stopped drinking five months ago. A few weeks into his sobriety, he felt like his sleep had significantly improved, but he wanted to put that theory to the test.5
Hay decided to track his sleep architecture data using a sleep app. He shared those sleep metrics – from before and after getting sober – with Newsweek. Here’s what he had to say about his sleep quality since quitting alcohol:5
“Since cutting alcohol, I feel as if I’ve stepped into an entirely new life as a new man. My mental clarity is sharper than ever; it’s almost as if I’ve emerged from this perpetual mental fog. My energy levels and motivation have been through the roof compared to the levels I had when drinking.”