Alcohol and Sleep: The detrimental effects on rest

It’s widely believed that having a nightcap before bed is a harmless way to unwind and potentially even improve your sleep. But what if we told you this common belief might only partially be accurate? In this blog, we will dig deep into the science of sleep and explore how that glass of wine or cocktail can impact your slumber, especially in the realm of REM sleep.

Understanding sleep

Sleep is a fundamental biological process that plays a pivotal role in maintaining our physical and mental health. To comprehend how alcohol affects our sleep patterns and muscle recovery, let’s first understand the stages of sleep.

The stages of sleep

Sleep is not a uniform state but rather a dynamic process comprising several stages. These stages can be broadly categorised into two main types: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

  • Non-REM sleep:

This stage consists of three phases (N1, N2, N3) and encompasses the initial period of falling asleep. During non-REM sleep, our bodies move from light to deep sleep, with N3 being the deepest stage. It’s during N3 sleep that physical restoration, such as tissue growth and repair, predominantly occurs.

  • REM sleep:

REM sleep, aptly named for the rapid movement of the eyes during this phase, is associated with heightened brain activity, vivid dreaming, and cognitive restoration. While it’s not the primary phase for physical recovery, REM sleep is essential for maintaining cognitive function and emotional well-being.

Importance of Sleep infographic

The importance of sleep

Quality sleep is integral to overall health and well-being. Here are some key reasons why getting adequate, restful sleep matters:

  • Physical restoration:

One crucial aspect of quality sleep is physical restoration. During deep sleep stages, especially N3, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, including muscle tissue. This is where muscle growth and repair primarily occur, making it essential for athletes and those focused on fitness.

  • Mental restoration:

Sleep is vital for cognitive functions like memory consolidation, problem-solving, and learning. Without sufficient sleep, our mental acuity and ability to make sound decisions can suffer.

  • Emotional health:

Sleep plays a significant role in regulating our emotions and mood. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased irritability, stress, and even mood disorders.

  • Immune system support:

A well-rested body is better equipped to fend off illnesses. Sleep helps boost the immune system, making you less susceptible to infections.

  • Energy and vitality: Adequate sleep directly impacts your daily energy levels and overall vitality. It leaves you feeling refreshed and ready to face the day’s challenges.

Alcohol and sleep

Now, let’s delve into how alcohol affects your sleep cycle.

Alcohol, often considered a relaxant and a sleep aid by many, has a complex relationship with sleep. While it may initially seem to induce drowsiness and help you fall asleep, its impact on your overall sleep cycle is far from restorative.

How alcohol affects the sleep cycle

The consumption of alcohol before bedtime can significantly disrupt the natural sleep cycle, impairing both the quantity and quality of your sleep. But how much alcohol is going to start causing problems in your sleep cycle? Well, worryingly, the answer is; not a lot.

A 2018 research study reported the following:

Consuming a minimal amount of alcohol, which involved fewer than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women, resulted in a 9.3% reduction in sleep quality.

For those who consumed a moderate amount of alcohol, defined as two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women, sleep quality decreased by 24%.

High alcohol consumption, characterised by more than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women, led to a substantial 39.2% decline in sleep quality.

So, what does alcohol do to your sleep cycle? Below, we have devised a table comparing alcohol fuelled sleep vs. sober sleep to paint a clearer picture:


Aspect of Sleep Cycle Without Alcohol With Alcohol
Sleep Onset Typically quicker and smoother. May initially feel drowsy, but sleep onset may be disrupted as alcohol can interfere with the natural sleep cycle.
Sleep Duration Typically more consistent throughout the night. May experience more awakenings during the second half of the night as alcohol metabolises. Sleep duration may be shortened [1]
Sleep Stages Progresses through all sleep stages (including REM and deep sleep) in a normal pattern. Disruption in the natural sleep cycle, including reduced REM sleep in the first half of the night and more REM rebound in the second half. Less time spent in deep sleep. [2]
Awakenings Fewer awakenings, often associated with normal sleep cycles. More frequent awakenings, especially in the second half of the night. Difficulty falling back asleep.[3]
Sleep Quality Generally better sleep quality with all sleep stages experienced. Lower sleep quality, including fragmented and less restorative sleep.[4]
Morning Feelings More likely to wake up feeling refreshed and alert. Increased likelihood of waking up feeling groggy, tired, or with a hangover-like sensation.
Overall Impact Generally promotes better sleep and overall sleep health. Can lead to disrupted sleep patterns, lower sleep quality, and potentially long-term sleep disturbances if consumed regularly and excessively.

Alcoholics and REM sleep

According to Matthew Walker, alcoholics often suffer from a serious deficiency in REM sleep. This deficit in REM sleep can have terrifying effects on their mental state.

Over time, the lack of REM sleep accumulates, creating significant pressure to experience this crucial sleep phase. It is almost like the person accumulates a ‘sleep debt.’ This ‘debt’ builds up steadily, making it increasingly difficult for the individual to meet their body’s need for REM sleep.

Eventually, this mounting pressure reaches a boiling point, and individuals may experience vivid dreamlike scenarios even while wide awake.

These dream intrusions into their waking state can result in various distressing symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, and extreme disorientation. The affected individuals may find it challenging to distinguish between reality and the dreamlike experiences they are undergoing, leading to significant psychological distress.

This distressing and often terrifying mental state has a technical term: “delirium tremens.”

6 alternatives to the nightcap

Alternatives for the ‘nightcap’

If you’ve gotten yourself into the habit of reaching for a nightcap to put you to sleep, note there are healthier alternatives. Below, we look at some of the best ways to promote healthy sleep without the need for alcohol:

  • 1. Establish a consistent sleep schedule

Your body thrives on routine. Try to go to bed and wake up simultaneously every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up naturally. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule reduces the temptation of turning to a nightcap to help you sleep.

  • 2. Create a relaxing bedtime ritual

Develop a calming pre-sleep routine to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down. Activities like reading, taking a warm bath, or practising relaxation techniques can help prepare you for sleep. These soothing rituals can be a healthier alternative to relying on alcohol to unwind before bedtime.

  • 3. Limit exposure to screens

The blue light emitted by phones, tablets, and computers can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Try to avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime. This can help you avoid the temptation of reaching for alcohol as a quick fix for sleep disruptions caused by screen time.

  • 4. Get regular exercise

Regular physical activity can promote better sleep. However, avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime, as it can have the opposite effect. Aim for a workout in the morning or early afternoon. Engaging in physical activity can help you feel more naturally tired, reducing the reliance on alcohol for sleep.

  • 5. Limit naps

While short naps can be rejuvenating, long or irregular daytime naps can interfere with nighttime sleep. If you need to nap, keep it short (20-30 minutes) and earlier in the day. This can help you maintain a more consistent sleep schedule and reduce the need for alcohol-induced relaxation.

  • 6. Consider professional help

If you consistently struggle with sleep despite trying these tips, consider consulting a healthcare professional or a sleep specialist. There may be underlying issues like sleep disorders that need attention. Seeking professional help can provide you with effective strategies to improve your sleep without resorting to alcohol.

Alternatively, if you’ve found that alcohol addiction is becoming more of an issue in your life, it may be time to reach out for help.

At Linwood House, a dedicated team of experts is ready and waiting to provide the support you need, whether you’re seeking information or guidance on addressing potential alcohol-related issues.

Don’t wait any longer— reach out for help today and take the first step towards a healthier future.

close help
Who am I contacting?

Calls and contact requests are answered by admissions at

UK Addiction Treatment Group.

We look forward to helping you take your first step.

03301 736 751