Drinking to Go to Sleep: Does it Help or Hurt?

Drinking and sleeping don’t mix well. Having a drink before bed, may help a person relax and unwind. However, alcohol is not a sleep aid and is actually detrimental to getting rest.

Sleepy man holding a drink

Alcohol affects the brain by affecting protein compounds, including receptors for GABA-A (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that allows chloride ions to pass into the brain. When these ions infiltrate the brain, it causes neurons to fire off electrical signals that direct the brain to slow down. It is this process that produces the relaxed and tired sensation. However, the result of these chemical interactions is that the conscious brain is essentially turned off. This state leads to the next issue – disrupted sleep cycles.

While sleeping well, a person’s brain goes through a predictable pattern. This pattern has two distinct cycles: Non-REM (NREM) followed by REM (Rapid Eye Movement).

At the beginning of the NREM cycle, within seconds to just a few minutes after nodding off, alpha and theta brain waves cause eye movement to slow down. This is a stage of light sleep where the individual can be easily woken. The brain then moves on to the next stage of light sleep, but there is an increase in brave wave frequency, followed by a further slowing down. This process of powering up and then slowing down helps to further slow activity in the brain. Next, the brain begins producing slower delta waves. This causes eye movement and muscle activity to cease. It’s harder to wake the person as they become unresponsive to outside stimuli. This stage is what is referred to as “restorative sleep” – when the body works to repair itself and boost functions.

REM sleep is generally entered into about 90 minutes after a person initially falls asleep. During an average of five to six cycles per night, the brain becomes more active. Eye movement increases, often seeming to jerk around, breathing increases and can be irregular and shallow, blood pressure increases and dreams begin. REM sleep is a critically important stage. During this period, learning, memory, and processing functions of the brain are enhanced -affecting a person’s long-term memory capacity.

When alcohol has been introduced to the sleep cycle, the functions of the brain are impeded and the cycles become disrupted. This disruption is what causes the person to feel tired and “fuzzy” the next day, and can lead to further sleep issues, such as insomnia, or alcohol addiction over time.

The following are just a few of the issues that people who drink alcohol to fall asleep can expect:

  • Frequent need to get up during the night to use the bathroom. This causes the sleep cycle to start over from the beginning – leading to less effective rest.
  • Breathing issues, like sleep apnea or snoring, are affected by the relaxation effect of alcohol. This can cause a stop in breathing and the jolting to catch up. This reaction interrupts the sleep cycle which then needs to begin again.
  • Need to vomit. This causes an awakening with an urgency and disrupts the sleep cycle, causing it to start over.
  • Circadian rhythms are disrupted. These control the regulation of nearly all the body’s processes. Over time, alcohol consumption leading to a lack of sleep can translate to issues such as poor liver function, leaky gut, and even depression due to this disruption.

So, while it may seem that drinking to go to sleep is a good thing to do, in the long run, it has many negative effects on the body.