Can't Sleep Without Alcohol? Sleep MD Explains How to Stop

You may not be able to sleep without alcohol because you’ve developed a psychological dependence, or you’re stressed, anxious, or have poor sleep hygiene.
Published
2024-03-20
13 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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Can't Sleep Without Alcohol? Why & How to Break the Habit

  • For casual drinkers, you probably can’t sleep without alcohol because you’ve developed a psychological dependence on it, you use it to relax before bed, or something else (like poor sleep hygiene) is keeping you up, and alcohol is masking the real problem. 
  • For those with alcohol use problems, you may not be able to sleep without alcohol because you’ve developed a physical dependence on it and you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which includes insomnia. 
  • The RISE app can help you improve two key components of natural sleep: sleep hygiene and syncing up with your circadian rhythm. This can help casual drinkers fall asleep without a drink and anyone else get the best sleep possible while they get treatment. 

A small nightcap before bed to help you drift off doesn’t sound too harmless, right? But alcohol isn’t a good sleep aid, and relying on something to get to sleep doesn’t feel great. 

Whether you’re a casual drinker or experiencing alcohol abuse problems, you can break the habit and start falling asleep without needing a drink first. 

Below, we’ll explain why you can’t sleep without alcohol, how to sleep without alcohol, and how the RISE app can help you get the best sleep possible — even if you decide to have a drink.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“Assuming you don’t have an alcohol use disorder, you may not be able to sleep without alcohol because you’ve developed a psychological dependence on it,” says Dr. Chester Wu, Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer, and double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“If having a nightcap has become a part of your bedtime routine, you might feel like you can’t sleep without it and get anxious when you try to sleep naturally. Alcohol isn’t good for your sleep though, so try making gradual changes to learn to sleep without it. Try drinking a smaller serving size, a non-alcoholic version of your drink of choice, or a different drink before bed, like chamomile tea. Focusing on sleep hygiene, in particular getting enough daytime light, cutting yourself off early from caffeine, and keeping a regular sleep schedule, while you make these changes can give you the best chance possible of getting enough healthy sleep.”

Why Can’t I Sleep Without Alcohol?

Alcohol's relationship with sleep is complex and paradoxical. Consuming alcohol before bed may initially promote drowsiness, making you think it’s a good sleep aid. But it ultimately leads to disrupted, non-restorative sleep. On the other hand, if you’ve become reliant on alcohol to fall asleep at night, you may find it, initially at least, difficult to sleep without it and/or it may exacerbate any sleeping difficulties you already have. 

There are many reasons why this could be. You may not be able to sleep without alcohol because you’re psychologically dependent on it, you’re stressed or anxious, the placebo effect helps you sleep with alcohol, or you’re sleeping better than you think without it. You may also be falsely attributing sleep improvements to alcohol, or factors a sleep disorder or poor sleep hygiene are keeping you awake. If you have an alcohol dependence problem, you could be going through withdrawal. 

That’s a lot to get your head around. Here’s more on each of those factors for why you could need alcohol to fall asleep: 

  • You’re psychologically dependent: If you have a nightcap to help you feel drowsy before bed every night, you might get anxious when you try to sleep without one and this anxiety can keep you awake. Even if you’re not an alcoholic, having a drink before bed can be habit-forming. When you don’t turn to alcohol, you might try to control and force sleep. This is known as sleep effort and it can exacerbate or perpetuate insomnia
  • You’re stressed or anxious: You might rely on alcohol to unwind at the end of a long day. Without it, daily stress or anxiety could keep you up long into the night. RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest challenges when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, sleep loss can make anxiety worse, so it can become a vicious circle causing you to self-medicate with more alcohol.
  • The placebo effect: Despite being a popular sleep aid, alcohol isn’t good for your sleep. It can be a stimulant in low doses, fragment your sleep (waking you up in the night), and reduce deep sleep and rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM sleep). It has biphasic effects (effects that have two phases) and it can be a stimulant and a sedative at different times. For healthy sleepers, though, alcohol may not help you fall asleep faster, and you can develop a tolerance to the sedative effects in as little as three days. But, if you believe alcohol helps you sleep — as many people do — it may work simply because you think it will. That means when you don’t drink, you may struggle to drift off. After a night of sleep with alcohol, you might drink more coffee to mask daytime sleepiness from the poor night’s sleep you’ve gotten, creating more sleep problems the next night. 
  • You’re sleeping better than you think: Alcohol may make you feel drowsy before bed, so you might think you’re falling asleep more easily. But it’s normal to take 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep when sleeping naturally. So don’t panic if you’re not out like a light when you don’t drink. You may also have what’s known as paradoxical insomnia, or sleep-state misconception. This is when you feel like your sleep problems are worse than they really are. You might think you get worse sleep without alcohol, but that’s not really the case, especially as we know how much alcohol can negatively affect our sleep.  
  • False attribution: It’s hard to determine what exactly affects your sleep. You might fall asleep faster when you have a drink, but really it’s because you spent the evening reading a novel in dim lighting with that glass of wine. Alternatively, you might toss and turn when you don’t drink, but that’s because you worked late on a stressful work project up until bedtime. And as alcohol is such a popular sleep aid, you also might not realize that sleep disruptions in the night are down to your pre-bed drinking habit. 
  • Something else is causing sleep problems: Similar to the above, skipping your usual evening drink may not be to blame for your trouble sleeping. Poor sleep hygiene (such as drinking too much coffee or getting too much bright light before bed), being out of sync with your circadian rhythm, sleep disorders, and medical conditions can all cause sleep problems. This is what may have driven you towards alcohol in the first place. Alcohol can make you feel drowsy and mask some of these problems, but it’s not fixing the root cause of your sleep issues. 
  • You’re going through alcohol withdrawal: If you’re physically dependent on alcohol and you’ve stopped drinking, you may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, one of these withdrawal symptoms is insomnia. Research shows it may take you longer to fall asleep and you may wake up more often in the night when you’re going through withdrawal. These sleep disturbances can last weeks, months, or even years after you stop drinking. Other withdrawal symptoms — like nausea, sweating, tremors, and anxiety — can make it hard to get to sleep, too. This can make it all too easy to relapse into drinking again. 

We’ve covered more on the effects of alcohol on your sleep here, including why it’s not actually a good sleep aid, despite the drowsiness you might feel.

Heads-up: Most research on alcohol and sleep problems is on those with an alcohol use disorder, which includes alcohol abuse and dependence. More research is needed to know why a casual otherwise healthy drinker (i.e. not an alcoholic) may not be able to sleep without alcohol. 

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What Can I Replace Alcohol With for Sleep? 

You can replace alcohol with another drink — like a non-alcoholic beer, sparkling water, or chamomile tea — or with other relaxation techniques — like taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, or doing yoga. 

Good sleep hygiene will help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, so you don’t need to have something before bed for sleep. 

Word of warning: Don’t replace alcohol with sleeping pills. They come with many risks and side effects, and may make your sleep worse when you stop taking them. Melatonin may help in the short term in some cases, like when overcoming jet lag, but you shouldn’t take it every night. More research is needed into natural sleep aids like CBD, valerian root, and magnesium to know if they’re effective.

We’ve covered how to sleep without sleeping pills here.

To see how you’re sleeping, keep an eye on your sleep debt. This is the amount of sleep you owe your body. The more sleep debt you have, the worse your energy, mood, and productivity will be. 

RISE tracks your sleep debt each night, so you can see whether skipping alcohol is really causing sleep loss.

Your sleep debt is compared against your sleep need — which is the amount of sleep you need. Your sleep need is determined by genetics and it varies from person to person.

For example, among 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and older, we found sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes — over double!

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
The sleep needs of RISE users.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

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How to Fall Asleep Without Drinking Alcohol?

You can fall asleep without drinking alcohol by making healthy swaps and gradual changes, managing anxiety, improving your sleep hygiene, getting in sync with your circadian rhythm, and talking to a doctor about sleep disorders, medical conditions, and alcohol dependence. 

How you fall asleep without alcohol will depend on what’s causing your sleep problems in the first place, and on how big of a drinker you are. But here are the key steps: 

  • Make healthy swaps and gradual changes: If you feel psychologically dependent on a nightcap to drift off, start slowly making healthy swaps. Try a smaller serving of alcohol, having a non-alcoholic version of your favorite alcoholic beverage, or swapping to a different drink altogether, like chamomile tea or sparkling water.  
  • Manage anxiety: If you drink to relax before bed, look into healthier ways to unwind. This could include reading, listening to music, taking a warm bath or shower, or doing a brain dump (writing down everything you’re worried about or have to do). If you feel anxious in bed when you haven’t had a drink, try a relaxation or breathing exercise to keep calm.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Good sleep hygiene can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often. You may find you don’t even need alcohol to feel sleepy at bedtime anymore. And if something else is causing sleep problems, good sleep hygiene will help make the sleep you get the best it can be. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ healthy sleep habits each day, including when to stop drinking coffee, when to have your final meal, and when to get and avoid bright light.
  • Get in sync with your circadian rhythm: Your circadian rhythm is your internal body clock that controls things like your sleep cycle and when certain hormones are produced. As part of this, there’s a roughly one-hour window of time each evening when your body’s rate of melatonin production (the sleep hormone) is at its highest. Head to bed in this window for an easier time falling and staying asleep naturally. Check RISE for when your Melatonin Window is each night.  
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I): If you do have insomnia, CBT-I may help. It’s often a first-line treatment and involves multiple components such as sleep hygiene education, sleep restriction (when you temporarily reduce your sleep to help you spend more time asleep in bed), and stimulus control (only going to bed when sleepy and getting out of bed if you can’t sleep after 20 to 30 minutes). Speak to a doctor or sleep specialist about CBT-I. Different types of insomnia may require different treatments, your treatment plan may look different if your insomnia is caused by alcohol abuse, and your sleep problems may not be classified as true insomnia (so they may need different treatments too). 
  • Get tested for sleep disorders and medical conditions: Seek medical advice to get to the root cause of your sleep problems. A doctor can test you for sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea (which alcohol can trigger or worsen), and health conditions like type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, which could be causing sleeplessness. They can recommend the best treatments to help you start sleeping naturally. 
  • Talk to a doctor about alcohol addiction: If you’re a heavy long-term drinker or think you have an alcohol abuse problem, reach out to a healthcare professional. They can help you cut down and may suggest slowly reducing how much you drink, instead of going cold turkey, to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms. Support groups and talking with loved ones can also help.

We’ve covered more tips on how to stop alcohol insomnia here. 

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors.

Expert tip: For casual drinkers, you can enjoy the occasional drink and still get a good night’s sleep. The key here is timing your alcohol consumption right. Aim to have your final alcoholic drink at least three to four hours before bed to give your body time to break down alcohol in your system before you go to sleep. 

We all react differently to alcohol, though, so some people may need even more time than this. Research shows alcohol can impact your sleep even if you stop drinking six hours before bed. 

We’ve covered more on when to stop drinking before bed here. And RISE can give you an exact time each day based on your circadian rhythm. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their avoid late alcohol reminder here and set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

Get a Good Night’s Sleep Without a Nightcap 

For the average drinker, if you find yourself unable to fall asleep without a nightcap, it may be because you’ve developed a psychological dependence on it, you use alcohol to unwind before bed, or something else (like poor sleep hygiene or being out of sync with your circadian rhythm) is keeping you up. 

The RISE app can help you fall and stay asleep without a drink. RISE can tell you the best time to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits at times that make them the most effective for you. RISE can also predict your circadian rhythm, so you can sync up your sleep times to match for an easier time falling asleep. 

And if you do decide to drink every now and again, check RISE to find out when to stop to reduce the negative impact alcohol can have on your sleep. 

These simple habit reminders can make a big difference: 

“I’m sleeping better regardless of time asleep (we all know life happens) because it’ll give me notifications about when to stop drinking coffee and alcohol, and when my ideal time to go to bed is…Invaluable tool, cannot overstate how great it is.” Read the review

And you might notice the difference in a matter of days — 80% of users get better sleep within five days.

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