Opinion: Alcohol & Health

Waking Up to the Connection between Sleep and Alcohol

People often believe that alcohol facilitates sleep, which results in the use of alcohol to treat sleep problems.1 In contrast to conventional wisdom, sleep research shows that chronic alcohol use and abuse disrupt sleep.

Several issues complicate our understanding of alcohol’s effects on sleep, among them:

  • The timing of alcohol consumption, including the time of day people drink
  • How long a person consuming alcohol has been awake
  • How close alcohol consumption is to bedtime

In general, people fall asleep faster and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is reduced if they drink alcohol 30-60 minutes before bedtime. 2,3,4 (REM is the state of sleep associated with dreaming.) Although some research has reported alcohol increased deep sleep early on, several studies have failed to confirm these findings. 3,4,5 Additionally, the effects of alcohol on sleep appear to linger beyond the time alcohol is metabolized.6

We observed interesting findings related to the time of day one drank alcohol. Alcohol produces two behavioral results: first stimulating, as breath alcohol levels increase, and second sedating as breath alcohol levels fall. In our studies, we measured whether these results change when alcohol is drunk at different times of day. We looked at how fast people fall asleep when they drank alcohol around 9:30PM – when a person is most alert – and about 3:30AM – when one is most sleepy. We found when participants tried to sleep just after drinking, it took them longer to fall asleep because they were still feeling the stimulating effects of alcohol.7

In another study, we found that drinking alcohol close to 4:00AM, a time generally associated with sleep resulted in waking up more during sleep. 8 These findings are inconsistent with the anecdotal belief that a low dose of alcohol is a useful sleep aid, particularly when alcohol is consumed at specific times of day: when alert before bedtime, about 9:30PM, and during typical sleep hours, around 3:30-4:00AM.

Dr. Eliza Van Reen is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and researcher in sleep and circadian rhythms at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Her team conducted studies on the effect of alcohol on sleep in 2003-2007. The full results of the study were published in the Journal of Sleep, Volume 36, Issue 1. The abstract can be found here.

Footnotes Less
  • 1. Brower, K.J., Aldrich, M.S., Robinson, E.A., Zucker, R.A. & Greden, J.F. Insomnia, self-medication, and relapse to alcoholism. Am. J. Psychiatry158, 299-404 (2001).
  • 2. Rundell, O.H., Lester, B.K., Griffiths, W.J. & Williams, H.L. Alcohol and sleep in young adults. Psychoparmacologia 26, 201-218 (1972).
  • 3. MacLean, A.W. & Cairns, J. Dose-response effects of ethanol on sleep of young men. J. Stud. Alcohol43, 434-444 (1982).
  • 4. Williams, D.L., MacLean, A.W. & Cairns, J. Dose-response effects of ethanol on the sleep of young women. J. Stud. Alcohol44, 515-523 (1983).
  • 5. Van Reen, E., Jenni, O.G. & Carskadon, M.A. Effects of alcohol on sleep and the sleep electroencephalogram in healthy young women. Alcohol. Clin. Exp. Res. 30, 974-981 (2006).
  • 6. Landolt, H.P., Dijk, D.J., Gaus, S.E. & Borbely, A.A. Caffeine reduces low-frequency delta activity in the human sleep EEG. Neuropsychopharmacol. Off. Publ. Am. Coll. Neuropsychopharmacol.12, 229-238 (1995).
  • 7. Van Reen, E., Rupp, T.L., Acebo, C., Seifer, R. & Carskadon, M.A. Biphasic effects of alcohol as a function of circadian phase. Sleep36, 137-145 (2013).
  • 8. Van Reen, E., Tarokh, L., Rupp, T.L., Seifer, R. & Carskadon, M.A. Does timing of alcohol administration affect sleep? Sleep34, 195-205 (2011).

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Scientific evidence suggests that certain patterns of drinking during pregnancy can be harmful to the unborn child - in particular, heavy and problem drinking patterns. While there is ongoing debate about whether there is a “safe” level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, most governments with official guidelines on the subject recommend that pregnant women abstain from alcohol.

Alcohol Addiction During Pregnancy Presents Need for Care and Compassion

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