Does Alcohol Help You Sleep? No, Sleep Expert Explains Why

Alcohol can make you drowsy, but it can also wake you up in the night, suppress your REM sleep, and trigger sleep disorders, so it’s not a good sleep aid.
Updated
2023-11-03
16 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Does Alcohol Help You Sleep? 

  • Alcohol can be stimulating at first, keeping you awake. But this effect wears off quickly. 
  • Alcohol then acts as a sedative, making you feel drowsy and fall asleep faster. But the sedating effects of alcohol wear off in the second half of the night, causing you to wake up.
  • Alcohol can also lead to less restorative sleep. And the more you drink, the more sleep problems you may have, some of which you might not even realize are affecting your sleep and next-day energy. 
  • Avoid alcohol about three to four hours before bed to stop it from disrupting your sleep. The RISE app can tell you when exactly to stop drinking alcohol each day based on your own biology. 

Alcohol can make you feel drowsy, but that doesn’t mean you should reach for a glass of wine before bed. Depending on how much you drink and how close to bedtime you drink it, alcohol can mess with your sleep in a number of ways. 

Below, we’ll dive into common questions about alcohol and sleep, including how it impacts your sleep, why alcohol makes you sleepy, and how you can get a better night’s sleep after you’ve had a few drinks. Plus, we’ll cover how you can use the RISE app to get a better night’s sleep, whether you’re drinking or not.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

For an expert’s take, we spoke to Rise Science sleep advisor and medical reviewer Dr. Chester Wu, who is double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“Alcohol and sleep aren’t friends. You may feel drowsy after drinking, but this drowsiness won’t last all night. It wears off in the second half of the night, causing you to wake up more often. Broken sleep can lead to sleep deprivation and fatigue the next day. You don’t necessarily have to give up alcohol to get better sleep, though. Try enjoying a drink earlier in the day and sticking to alcohol-free options three to four hours before bed.”


How Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep?

Alcohol affects sleep in many ways. What it does will depend on how much you drink and how close to bedtime you drink it. Plus, alcohol can affect us all differently depending on factors like our age, sex, and metabolism.

In general, here’s what alcohol can do to your sleep: 

  • It can keep you up: Alcohol can have a stimulating effect at first, which can cause trouble falling asleep. This can happen with a low dose of alcohol and as blood alcohol levels rise, which is usually within the first hour of drinking. Alcohol can be sedative in high doses and as blood alcohol levels fall, making you feel relaxed and sleepy. This can happen 1.5 hours after drinking it.
  • It can wake you up in the night: The sedative effects of alcohol are short term. They wear off in the second half of the night and you may find yourself waking up often. One small study found drinking alcohol six hours before bed caused wakefulness to double in the second half of the night. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning you might be up more often to use the bathroom, and it can trigger night sweats, which can also wake you up and make it hard to fall back asleep
  • It can cause or worsen sleep disorders: Alcohol can cause or make sleep disorders worse, including insomnia, hypersomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea, when your airways close off in the night. Alcohol can increase your risk of sleep apnea by 25%. It can also cause sleepwalking, sleep talking, and increased snoring
  • It can reduce REM sleep: Alcohol suppresses rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, especially at the start of the night. REM sleep is one of the four stages of sleep in the sleep cycle, and it’s needed for learning, creativity, memory consolidation, and emotional regulation. One study found moderate doses* of alcohol before bed can reduce REM and this can cause impaired memory of a recently learned task. When you don’t get enough REM, your brain may make up for it and get more REM than usual when it can. This is known as REM rebound. REM rebound can happen in the second half of the night or the next time you go to sleep. This messes up normal sleep patterns and is linked to nightmares and waking up more often. 
  • It can reduce deep sleep: Some research shows alcohol can increase slow wave sleep, or deep sleep (although this is at the expense of the other sleep stages, so that’s not a good thing). But one study found even small doses** of alcohol can decrease how much deep sleep you get. And people with alcohol use disorders may get less deep sleep, too.
  • It can reduce melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that primes your body for sleep. Alcohol can reduce how much melatonin your body makes. One study found melatonin levels were down by 15% two hours 20 minutes after consuming alcohol and down 19% three hours 10 minutes after alcohol.
  • It can cause or worsen anxiety: Alcohol can affect sleep indirectly. Even small amounts of alcohol have been linked to mental health issues like anxiety, and anxiety can make it much harder to get the sleep you need. RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest hurdles to a good night’s sleep. Plus, sleep loss can make anxiety worse, creating a vicious circle that may lead to more alcohol consumption to self-medicate (and more sleep loss and anxiety). 

* A moderate dose was defined in this study as 0.7 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. This is equivalent to a 70-kilogram person (about 154 pounds) drinking 49 grams of alcohol — or about 3.5 standard alcoholic drinks, such as a 12-ounce serving of wine, 5-ounce serving of beer, or 1.5-ounce serving of spirits. 

** This study defines a small dose of alcohol as 0.16 grams of alcohol per kilogram of bodyweight. That would mean a 70-kilogram person (about 154 pounds) would drink 11.2 grams of alcohol — or one standard drink. 

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Is Alcohol a Sleep Aid?

No, alcohol is not a (good) sleep aid. It can make you sleepy and decrease sleep onset latency, which is the time it takes to fall asleep. But the sleep you get will be manufactured sleep, not the natural restorative sleep you need to feel your best.

You may also wake up more often in the second half of the night, get less sleep in total, and develop sleep disorders, resulting in worse sleep overall — not better. 

Alcohol can also sometimes act as a stimulant, making you feel more awake instead of sleepy. This can happen with low doses, when your blood alcohol levels are rising, and when you drink alcohol at different times of the day. This can also happen if you drink alcohol with caffeine (think espresso martinis or vodka Red Bulls) or with a lot of sugar (i.e. sugary cocktails or energy drinks). 

One study found if you drink alcohol during a natural dip in energy (like your afternoon slump), your urge to sleep may override the stimulating effects of alcohol. If you drink when your energy is naturally rising (like in the early evening), alcohol may be more stimulating and increase how long it takes to fall asleep. 

Alcohol has biphasic effects, meaning some of its impacts have two phases, such as stimulating and sedating. This biphasic nature can be seen in other areas, too. For example, research shows high doses of alcohol may decrease your blood pressure for up to 12 hours and then increase your blood pressure after that. 

Heads-up: You may not notice that alcohol is waking you up more in the night. This is due to retrograde amnesia, which causes you to forget about the brief awakenings. This is one reason people think alcohol can help you sleep.

Some of us may also be so caught up with the positives of drinking alcohol — like feeling relaxed and happy — that we ignore the negative effects — like sleep problems. 

Why Do I Fall Asleep When I Drink Alcohol? 

You fall asleep when you drink alcohol because, in certain situations, alcohol acts as a sedative. 

Alcohol is classed as a central nervous system depressant because it slows brain function. This is mostly via gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect. 

As alcohol increases GABA activity in the brain, you may start to feel sleepy. But this doesn’t mean a nightcap should be part of your bedtime routine. Alcohol causes poor sleep, so it’s not a good sleep aid. 

Why Does Alcohol Make You Tired? 

Alcohol can make you tired for a few reasons. 

Firstly, alcohol can cause tiredness as it can act as a sedative. It’s a central nervous system depressant and it slows your brain activity. This can happen as your blood alcohol levels fall or with high doses of alcohol. 

Some research shows alcohol can make you feel sleepy soon after consumption and this may be due to eating a meal at the same time. Alcohol can also dehydrate you, and even mild dehydration can cause fatigue. 

Secondly, alcohol wakes you up in the night, making it harder to get enough sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, you build up sleep debt and this can tank your energy levels. 

Sleep debt can cause daytime sleepiness the next day, but also for many days to come if you don’t catch up on sleep

When you’ve got a lot of sleep debt, you might reach for an extra cup of coffee or take a long daytime nap. But these behaviors can make it harder to sleep the next night, leading to even more sleep debt. 

You may also have a hangover to contend with the next morning or the entire following day. Research shows the more alcohol-related sleep disruption you have, the worse your hangover can be. And, as most of us know, a common hangover symptom is fatigue.

Thirdly, alcohol causes restless sleep, which, as well as adding to sleep debt, is less restorative than unbroken sleep and can make you feel more fatigued. 

Research from 2022 shows less time awake at night is linked to better sleep satisfaction. And research from 2021 found how people feel about their sleep had a bigger impact on fatigue than how much sleep they got. 

You can use RISE to find out how much sleep debt you have and whether drinking alcohol increases it.

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app tells you how much sleep debt you have.

RISE users say making the connection between sleep debt and daytime energy levels is a game changer. 

“Before seeing the sleep debt numbers I didn’t understand how exhausted I really was. The biggest difference was when I finally reduced it to 0. It was a journey of several months, but I felt years younger after.” Read the review

You can learn more about how to know if you’re getting enough sleep here. 

Heads-up: Sleep debt is measured against your sleep need, which is the amount of sleep you need each night. This is unique to you and determined by genetics. 

RISE uses your phone use data and sleep science algorithms to work out how much sleep you need — and it could be more than you think.

When we looked at the sleep needs of 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and older, we found 48% of them needed eight hours of sleep or more. Sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can work out how much sleep you need
The RISE app can work out how much sleep you need.

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

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What Alcohol Helps You Sleep Best? 

There’s no alcohol that helps you sleep best. Any type of alcohol can disrupt your sleep and cause you to wake up in the night. 

Alcoholic drinks with a lot of sugar or caffeine may disrupt your sleep further, but beer, gin, vodka, and wine can all impact your sleep. 

Research shows beer, but not wine or liquor, was linked to mild or worse sleep-disordered breathing in men. However, this may be because beer drinkers tend to drink more alcohol in general, or because more participants in the study drank beer, so it was easier to find links compared to other drinks. 

For a good night’s sleep, non-alcoholic drinks are your best bet. Research shows drinking one non-alcoholic beer with dinner can improve subjective sleep quality and decrease how long it takes to fall asleep. This may be due to the hops, which can be sedating.

How Do You Get Good Sleep After Drinking? 

The best way to ensure alcohol doesn’t mess with your sleep is to avoid it altogether. But many of us want to enjoy a drink and a good night’s sleep.

Here's how to reduce the effects of alcohol on your shut-eye:

  • Stop drinking three to four hours before bed: If possible, keep your alcohol consumption to the daytime and cut yourself off three to four hours before bed. This should give your body enough time to metabolize the alcohol in your system before you go to sleep, but it depends on how much you drink. Plus, everyone reacts differently to alcohol, so you may need to cut yourself off sooner. 
  • Limit your alcohol intake: The more you drink, the longer alcohol can last in your system and mess with your sleep. Research shows even a small amount of alcohol* can impact your recovery, and binge drinking comes with health risks alongside sleep disruption. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends men stick to two drinks or less a day and women stick to one drink or less. If you regularly enjoy an evening drink, try to give your body a few nights off a week.
  • Choose your drinks wisely: Avoid sugary cocktails and anything with caffeine — so no espresso martinis or drinks mixed with caffeinated soda or energy drinks. These drinks could disrupt your sleep further.
  • Stay hydrated: Alcohol can dehydrate you and research shows short sleep duration is linked with dehydration. Try to drink water throughout the day, rather than downing several glasses of water before bed as this can cause even more middle-of-the-night bathroom trips. Staying hydrated can also help to minimize your hangover.    
  • Watch out for other sleep disturbances: If you’re drinking, you may also be engaging in other sleep-disrupting behaviors like eating a large meal or unhealthy snacks, smoking cigarettes or cannabis, drinking caffeine, or getting lots of artificial light, including from screens or brightly lit environments. When possible, avoid these in the run-up to bedtime. 
  • Eat a small snack before bed: A small snack before bed can help to give your body the fuel it needs to break down alcohol and stabilize your blood sugar levels (low blood sugar could wake you up in the night). Although it’s tempting after a few alcoholic beverages, avoid anything too greasy or fatty and try not to overeat. Go for a light snack like Greek yogurt or a piece of fruit.
  • Pay extra attention to other sleep hygiene habits: Sleep hygiene refers to the daily behaviors you can do to get better sleep. Avoiding alcohol close to bedtime is one of them. If you are drinking, pay more attention to other habits, like avoiding caffeine and bright light and making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. This can make sure nothing else gets in the way of sleep. RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day and tell you the best time to do them.  
  • Avoid sleep aids: If you can’t sleep after a night of drinking, don’t reach for a sleep aid. Mixing alcohol and melatonin can cause trouble breathing, sleep apnea, anxiety, and increased drowsiness and blood pressure. And mixing alcohol and sleep aids like benzodiazepines can increase the effects of both drugs and cause impaired cognition and an increased risk of side effects and overdose. 

* This study defines a small dose of alcohol as 0.25 grams or less of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. That’s equivalent to a 70-kilogram person (about 154 pounds) drinking 17.5 grams of alcohol, or 1.25 standard alcoholic drinks. This would be slightly more than a standard 12-ounce serving of wine, 5-ounce serving of beer, or 1.5-ounce serving of spirits. 

Expert tip: Lower your sleep debt. If you know you’ve got a night out coming up where you want to enjoy a few drinks, try lowering your sleep debt beforehand. You can lower your sleep debt by taking short afternoon naps, going to bed a little earlier, or sleeping in a little later. Having low sleep debt can make the sleep disruptions that come from alcohol more manageable. Once you’ve enjoyed your night out, focus on catching up on sleep.

The key advice with alcohol is timing. We’ve covered more on how long before bed you should stop drinking alcohol here. 

RISE can tell you when exactly you should stop drinking alcohol based on your circadian rhythm, or body clock, each day. We found RISE users with low sleep debt are most likely to use this habit reminder.

RISE app screenshot showing when to avoid alcohol intake
The RISE app can tell you when to stop drinking alcohol before bed.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their avoid late alcohol reminder here.

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Does Alcohol Help Insomnia? 

No, alcohol does not help insomnia. In fact, it can cause or worsen insomnia. 

Alcohol can be stimulating, making it harder to fall asleep. It can also wake you up often during the night. 

Even if alcohol helps you feel drowsy, you can develop a tolerance to the sedating effects. If you have trouble sleeping and rely on booze to fall asleep, this may cause you to drink more to get the sleepiness effects you used to feel. 

Research shows the sleep-promoting effects of alcohol can start to wear off in as little as three days. Drinking more alcohol can lead to more tolerance and sleep problems, as well as alcohol dependency and health issues. 

The more you drink, the higher your odds of insomnia are. Heavy drinking puts you at the most risk.

Research on older adults, aged 50 and older, found those who binge drank two days or less a week had 35% greater odds of insomnia compared to non-binge drinkers. Those who binge drank two days or more a week had a 64% greater chance of insomnia compared to non-binge drinkers. 

In general, the more you drink, the more sleep problems you can have.

People with alcohol dependence or going through alcohol withdrawal may experience reduced deep sleep and insomnia. And, unfortunately, insomnia is the most frequent complaint among alcoholics when they give up drinking.

The link can go both ways, too. A 2023 study found people with sleep apnea had a higher risk of developing alcohol-related disorders. The researchers theorized that participants may self-medicate their sleep problems with alcohol.

Seek medical advice if you think you have a sleep disorder or alcohol abuse problem. A healthcare provider can recommend the best treatment options for you.

Alcohol Doesn’t Help Your Sleep 

Alcohol may make you fall asleep initially, but it is definitely not a viable sleep aid. 

It can wake you up in the night, trigger sleep disorders, and mess with different stages of sleep — just to name a few impacts. 

For the best sleep possible, either avoid alcohol altogether or avoid it as close to bedtime as you can (at least three to four hours before bed). RISE can tell you the exact time to stop drinking based on your body clock each day. 

If you do have a drink, pay extra attention to other sleep hygiene best practices to protect your shut-eye. RISE can remind you when to do 20+ healthy sleep habits daily. 

RISE users love these reminders, whether they’re drinking or not: 

“The reminders to stop drinking caffeine and eating earlier are great and are earlier than I would have ever consciously thought them to be. Another reason why my previous sleep wasn’t working for me!” Read the review

Improving your sleep hygiene can also help if you usually rely on alcohol to fall asleep. It works fast too — 80% of RISE users get more sleep within five days. 

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