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Why Can't I Sleep After Drinking Alcohol? Sleep MD Explains

You probably can’t sleep after drinking alcohol because alcohol can be stimulating, cause or worsen anxiety and sleep disorders, and fragment your sleep.
Published
2024-03-16
Updated
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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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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We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man drinking alcohol before bed and can't sleep

Can't Sleep After Drinking Alcohol? What You Need to Know

  • If you can’t sleep after drinking alcohol, it may be because alcohol can be stimulating in some cases. It can also cause or worsen anxiety and sleep disorders, fragment your sleep and make you need to use the bathroom more, and you can develop a tolerance to the sedating effects. 
  • To sleep better after drinking, avoid alcohol at least three to four hours before bed, drink less alcohol, and improve your sleep hygiene, so nothing else (like coffee or bright light) disrupts your sleep. 
  • The RISE app can tell you when you should stop drinking each day and when you should do 20+ sleep hygiene habits for the best possible night’s sleep.

A glass of red wine in front of the TV sounds like a relaxing way to spend the evening, so why do you find yourself struggling to sleep after alcohol? After all, it makes you feel drowsy right? 

Unfortunately, despite the drowsiness, alcohol isn’t a good sleep aid. In fact, it’s not good for your sleep at all. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up alcohol altogether. 

Below, we’ll cover why you can’t sleep after drinking alcohol and how you can use the RISE app to fall and stay asleep more easily, even when you have a drink.

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

Advice From a Sleep Doctor

“Alcohol is known to fragment your sleep, meaning you might wake up more often in the night if you’ve had a drink,” says Dr. Chester Wu, one of our Rise Science sleep advisors and a double board certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.

“And despite many people using it as a sleep aid, alcohol can actually be stimulating in low doses, making it harder to drift off in the first place. If you don’t want to give up alcohol, try avoiding it at least three to four hours before bed for an easier time falling and staying asleep.”

Why Can’t I Sleep After Drinking Alcohol? 

You may not be able to sleep after drinking alcohol because it can be a stimulant in some cases, and it can fragment your sleep, reduce melatonin, and cause or worsen anxiety and sleep disorders. You may have also developed a tolerance to the sedative effects of alcohol and other factors, like poor sleep hygiene, could be keeping you awake. 

Why Can’t I Fall Asleep After Drinking Alcohol? 

  • Alcohol can be a stimulant: Despite being known for making you drowsy, alcohol can be stimulating as blood alcohol levels rise, usually within the first hour of drinking, and if you drink a low dose of alcohol. It can also be stimulating if you drink it when your energy levels are naturally rising (like in the early evening). This is one of alcohol’s biphasic effects (effects that have two phases) — it can be stimulating and sedating at different times. 
  • Alcohol can reduce melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that primes your body for sleep. One study found melatonin levels were reduced by 15% two hours 20 minutes after moderate alcohol intake and reduced by 19% three hours 10 minutes after alcohol.
  • Alcohol can cause or worsen anxiety: RISE users say stress and anxiety are their biggest sleep challenges. But an alcoholic beverage isn’t a good way to relax. In fact, alcohol can cause or worsen anxiety, and this can leave you wide awake in bed. It could also trigger a vicious circle as sleep loss makes anxiety worse, which could cause you to self-medicate with more alcohol to try to unwind, or you may feel like you can’t sleep without alcohol to relax you.
  • You can develop a tolerance to the sedating effects: If you drink alcohol to make you feel sleepy, you can develop a tolerance to this. Research shows this could start happening in as little as three days. This might lead you to drink more alcohol to get the same effects, which can cause more sleep problems. You might start noticing stress, sleep disorders, or medical conditions are now causing sleep problems that alcohol can no longer mask.
  • Caffeine or sugar are keeping you up: If you’re drinking espresso martinis, energy drinks mixed with spirits, or sugary cocktails, the caffeine and sugar can keep you up alongside the alcohol. 
  • You’ve got poor sleep hygiene: These are the daily behaviors that impact your sleep. They could keep you awake independent from alcohol, or you may have worse sleep hygiene because you’re drinking. For example, if you’ve had a drink, you may also have had a large meal before bed or gotten too much bright light from screens or a bright environment. You might also be going to bed much later if you’ve been drinking, and this change to your sleep patterns could make it harder to sleep.

Unfortunately, the problems aren’t over when you manage to fall asleep. 

Why Can’t I Stay Asleep After Drinking Alcohol?

  • Alcohol can fragment your sleep: Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It may make you sleepy at first, but the sedative effects can wear off in the second half of the night and cause more nighttime awakenings. This is one reason you might find yourself waking up at 3 a.m. after a drink. It’s not a small amount, either. One study found drinking alcohol six hours before bed doubled wakefulness in the second half of the night.
  • You may need the bathroom more: Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning you might wake up needing to use the bathroom more. You might down several glasses of water before bed after you’ve been drinking, and this will probably lead to a few middle-of-the-night bathroom trips, too.
  • Alcohol can trigger night sweats: And once you’re up with night sweats, you might struggle to get back to sleep. 
  • Alcohol can dehydrate you: Research shows short sleep duration is linked with dehydration. 
  • Alcohol can cause or worsen sleep disorders: One study on older adults (50 and up) found those who engaged in binge drinking more than two days a week had 64% increased odds of insomnia. If they binged two times or less a week, they still had 35% greater odds of insomnia than non-binge drinkers. And alcohol can increase your risk of sleep apnea by 25% — this is when your airways close and cut off your breathing while you sleep. Alcohol can also cause sleepwalking and sleep talking. And 2024 research shows even light alcohol consumption can increase snoring, which doesn't make for a restful night’s sleep, especially if your partner’s waking you up.
  • Alcohol messes with deep and REM stages of sleep: More research from 2024 shows a small amount of alcohol one hour before bed suppresses rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM sleep. When your body next gets the chance, it’ll spend more time in REM to make up for what it’s lost out on. This is known as REM rebound and it’s linked to waking up more often. Alcohol can also reduce slow wave sleep, aka deep sleep, which may leave you more vulnerable to being woken up by a noise, light, or poor sleep hygiene.
  • You’ve developed a dependence on alcohol: If you drink a lot, you may have a problem with alcohol dependence, which research shows is linked to short sleep duration and sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. These, in turn, may drive more drinking to self-medicate. Sleep problems are common among those with alcohol use problems and those going through alcohol withdrawal. 

Alcohol sleep loss isn’t just a short-term issue. It could cause sleep disturbances long after you’ve drunk it. If you have a restless night after a drink or two, you might reach for an extra cup of coffee the next day to combat daytime sleepiness. The extra caffeine can then keep you up that night. If you’ve had a lot to drink, you might even have a hangover to contend with the next night, which won’t make sleeping any easier. 

We’ve covered why you can’t sleep when hungover here. 

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How Does Alcohol Affect Your Sleep? 

Alcohol affects sleep in many ways. It can be stimulating in some cases, wake you up more in the night, suppress the sleep hormone melatonin, cause or worsen anxiety or sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea, reduce your deep sleep and REM sleep, trigger night sweats, and increase how much you to use the bathroom during the night. 

We’ve covered more on whether alcohol helps you sleep here. As you’ve probably guessed, it doesn’t. 

Expert tip: Check your sleep debt. Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body. You might notice you build up sleep debt on nights when you’ve had a drink. 

Sleep debt is compared to your sleep need, which is the genetically determined amount of sleep you need. This number is unique to you. 

When we looked at 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, we found their sleep needs ranged from five hours to 11 hours 30 minutes. Although almost half needed eight hours of sleep or more a night. 

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

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

How Many Hours Before Bed Should You Stop Drinking? 

You should stop drinking alcohol at least three to four hours before bed. Some people may need more time, though, as research shows drinking six hours before bed can disrupt your sleep. Avoiding alcohol in the hours before bed gives your body time to break it down in your system before you try to sleep. 

You can check RISE for a personalized time to stop drinking alcohol based on your daily circadian rhythm, the internal clock that dictates your sleep cycle. 

We’ve covered more on how long before bed to stop drinking alcohol here. 

RISE app screenshot reminding you when to avoid alcohol
The RISE app tells you when to stop drinking before bed.

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

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How to Sleep After Drinking Alcohol? 

You can sleep after drinking alcohol by avoiding alcohol at least three to four hours before bed, limiting your alcohol consumption, paying extra attention to other sleep hygiene behaviors (like avoiding bright light before bed and making your bedroom cool), managing anxiety, eating a small snack before bed, and staying hydrated.

Here’s more on how to protect your sleep when drinking: 

  • Avoid alcohol at least three to four hours before bed: This should give your body time to clear alcohol from your system before you sleep. Alcohol affects us all differently, though, so you may need to cut yourself off sooner to minimize the negative effects. Research shows your sleep can be disrupted even six hours after drinking. Check RISE for an exact alcohol cut-off time each day. 
  • Limit your alcohol consumption: For the most restorative sleep, you might want to quit alcohol. But if you do want to enjoy a drink and a good night’s sleep, try limiting yourself to one to two drinks and drinking only a few nights a week or less, instead of every night. 
  • Pay extra attention to your sleep hygiene: If alcohol is going to make it hard to sleep, you don’t want anything else causing sleep disruptions. Pay extra attention to when you have your last meal and coffee, when you get and avoid bright light, and how cool your bedroom is — this is even more important if alcohol triggers night sweats. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ good sleep habits at the time that’ll make them the most effective for you. 
  • Manage anxiety: If drinking triggers anxious thoughts, try doing some breathing exercises, a brain dump (writing down your worries or tomorrow’s to-do list), or some gentle yoga to unwind before bed. Speaking to a therapist or doctor about your mental health can also help.
  • Eat a small snack before bed: We’re not advocating greasy fast food. Opt for a small and healthy snack — like Greek yogurt or a piece of fruit — to give your body fuel to break down the alcohol in your system. 
  • Stay hydrated: Drink water throughout the day, but avoid drinking a lot of water just before bed. Staying hydrated should help both your sleep and your potential hangover. 
  • Avoid sleep aids: As tempting as it is when you know you might experience trouble sleeping, don’t use sleep aids. When alcohol and sleeping pills like benzodiazepines mix, the effects of both drugs can increase, along with the risk of side effects and overdose. Even the seemingly innocent melatonin supplement doesn’t mix well with alcohol. The combination can cause trouble breathing, sleep apnea, and anxiety — which isn’t a recipe for a good night’s sleep. Health risks aside, sleep aids (including alcohol) create manufactured sleep, not the healthy normal sleep you need for maximum energy. 
  • Speak to a doctor: Your sleep problems may not be classified as true insomnia. If they are, you may need different treatments to help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a first-line treatment for the sleep disorder. A healthcare provider can check for insomnia, another sleep disorder or medical condition, or an alcohol use disorder and recommend the best course of action. 

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

RISE app screenshot showing sleep hygiene habit reminders
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors.

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

Alcohol and Sleep Don’t Play Nice 

Drinking alcohol is a popular pre-bed activity, but you might find you can’t sleep after a nightcap. This may be because alcohol can be stimulating and fragment your sleep, it can cause or worsen anxiety and sleep disorders, or you may have developed a tolerance to the sedative effects and now poor sleep hygiene (among other things) is keeping you up. 

If you don’t want to give up booze altogether, try avoiding it at least three to four hours before bed and limiting how much you drink.

Having bulletproof sleep hygiene can also help you fall and stay asleep, and this is even more important if you’ve had a drink. RISE can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits at the time that makes them the most effective for you. 

Users say this helps improve their sleep and energy levels.

“Providing times for when to stop drinking alcohol, start winding down for bed, and my optimal wake-up and go-to-bed times have been so helpful…I think it’s helping me set a course to be more in control of my sleep and energy throughout the day.” Read the review

And it doesn’t take long to notice the difference — 80% of RISE users get more sleep within five days.

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