What Alcohol Really Does to Your Sleep Cycle

Whether you love a glass of wine, a frosty mug of beer, or a mixologist-made cocktail, you know that one side effect of alcohol is feeling sleepy. “Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant so it slows the system and leads to sedation,” explains Fitbit Sleep Advisor Allison T. Siebern, PhD, consulting assistant professor at Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center and director of the Sleep Health Integrative Program at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina.

Although this sounds like it could be ideal—enjoy a cocktail and fall asleep quickly!—it is a limited benefit. “Many people use alcohol to get to sleep. In fact, alcohol is probably the most widely-used sleep drug in the world,” explains Michael Grandner, PhD, MTR, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “But the relationship between alcohol and sleep is complex and somewhat counterintuitive.”

Here, the facts about sipping alcohol and snoozing.

Alcohol May be Good Now; Bad Later

Yes, a nightcap may help you drift off to dreamland faster and it can even help you sleep more deeply in the first part of the night. (One exception is if you have a drinking problem as these benefits tend to disappear and alcohol can actually cause insomnia.) However, pre-bed cocktails can also suppress one of the most restorative stages of sleep called REM, which is where dreaming takes place. Disruptions in this stage, which occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, can leave you feeling drowsy in the A.M. and, as a result, less productive and able to concentrate. In fact, alcohol can lead to increased nightmares in this stage, cautions Siebern. Lastly, if you are drinking to help you fall asleep, you increase your chances of being dependent on pre-bed cocktails.

Alcohol Needs Time to Make its Exit

It’s stressful work for your body to clear alcohol out of its system and this can make your sleep less restful. “As the alcohol is broken down, it can cause changes in your body and brain that can actually serve to wake you up,” explains Grandner. This is why, after a night of heavy drinking, many people are wide-eyed a few hours after they hit the sack and cannot get back to sleep. “It takes about one hour per serving of alcohol to clear out of your system,” explains Grandner. A general rule of thumb is to stop sipping about three hours before bed.

You May Lose More Than Sleep

Toasting with a few nightcaps can lead to increased urine production, dehydration and breathing disruption, explains Siebern. Though a few bathroom trips and feeling thirsty aren’t a big deal, breathing issues are. In fact, cocktail consumption may bring sleep apnea on more quickly than usual. This is a serious condition where your breathing is disrupted or briefly comes to a stop while you snooze, decreasing the amount of oxygen flowing to your brain and body. In turn, this ups your risk of serious health issues like hypertension stroke or heart failure.

30 Comments   Join the Conversation

30 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you very much for the information. Is there a different impact on sleep between cocktails and red wine?

    • Hi Robbin, I’m not a medical professional, however in the article above, and as far as I’ve always understood, all forms of alcohol carry the same effect on one’s sleep. All alcohol beverages metabolize into sugar which counters the sedative effects of alcohol, and cause sleep disruptions. I usually avoid it on nights when I have to be up in the morning at a particular time. I hope your sleep improves!

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  • Unfortunately, even with no alcohol involved, I’ve lately been struggling to get a solid night of sleep. In my case I can only conclude that it’s stress and related intrusive thoughts. I will wake up after a “nightmare”, and then desperately try to get back to sleep. Depending on what time this occurs, I just give up entirely and just watching TV. Of course then if I do manage to drop off to sleep within the last two hours before I have to get up, I then awake feeling even worse! The source of my stress is not going anywhere. So I guess I just have to convince myself that the middle of the night is not the time to ruminate over it!

  • i love the awareness Fitbit brought to me. My sleep
    Pattern in particular. I want to understand my sleep
    grid more so I can improve my REM
    It definitely needs it!
    More please

  • I love my Blaze and I am so thrilled my husband choose this particular version of the Fitbit family as a birthday gift a year ago! I have worn it everyday since.
    However, I am not sure the sleep study is accurate ! Sometime I have steps logged when I am so sure I did not get out of bed at all! Also I do work different hours at time and my sleep pattern may vary so how is the assessment acurate?

    • Adga- i found the same thing but realise that Fitbit count the ‘steps’ on arm movement ( try it now while you are reading this and looking at your step counter) so you need to be careful not to move arms around too much whist sleeping. I discovered this when my daughter gave her Fitbit to me while she was doing 20 laps at the swimming pool ( I had her Fitbit in my bag) – I walk along the pool beside her for the 45 minutes – and found that the swinging motion on my bag had gained her Fitbit 2000 steps!! She was delighted! In general I don’t find the sleep assessment accurate – I still wear at at night for the pulse but again have noticed a couple of times it tracked that I was asleep when I sat still watching TV – so I wouldn’t use it as a correct tool for sleep. Love my Fitbit for excercise tracking, heart rate and steps but I think there are limitations.

      • That’s a bummer to hear. I mean I knew it’s accuracy wasn’t perfect but I didn’t think it was too bad. The thing you said about arm movement was very helpful. I’m a big time reastless sleeper and my step count after sleep was 600-1200! I do stay up past midnight watching tv getting up to prepare for bed but that wouldn’t be enough steps….. interesting.

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      • I always had slept between six and seven hours and always go to bed at 10 and get up at six. In the last month I am more restless than sleep and only get 3 to four hours of sleep. I do not wake up fatigue. Had my charge Fitbit since it has come out.

      • I always had slept between six and seven hours and always go to bed at 10 and get up at six. In the last month I am more restless than sleep and only get 3 to four hours of sleep. I do not wake up fatigue. Had my charge Fitbit since it has come out.

  • When I really can’t sleep I will take a Benadryl with a glass of wine
    I sleep good and deep.
    Otherwise No, I sleep Cruddy

  • I have had my Fitbit since February and usually wear it day and night. It has tracked my sleep pretty accurate but all the sleeps show no stages ? How is this correct? My sleep has just improved to around 5 hours but last night was 6 and still no R.E.M. or other stages ?

  • I am still waiting for by Charge to catch up technology with my partners blaze. He gets great “sleep stages” as opposed to “sleep patterns” and this is WAY more informative re R.E.M. Sleep, deep sleep, restlessness, light sleep. I am disappointed actually, as sleep detail was one of the reasons I upped my cellphone status so I could have the facility to have the Fitbit. I understand that this is being worked on with Charge.

  • I don’t drink alcohol! I have MS but my phone told me not to drink before bed how sad I am very disappointed in the this judgement! Sad

  • I do find a big difference in my sleep patterns when I drink
    excessive alcohol especially hard liquor. A glass of wine is ok but stay away from the martinis. I do go to sleep faster but wake up and find it very difficult to get back to sleep.

  • I don’t drink so it has nothing to do with my sleep pattern. I do have fibromyalgia and that affects sleep. I wish there was something that would give me a good nights sleep but Dr. Said no to Benadryl as a sleep remedy. Told me to take melatonin but that doesn’t do anything but makes me feel drugged all the next day.

  • Actually, alcohol is doing more harm than good to our body system and as a Health Coach, I will recommend an extreme reduction on alcohol intake. Your body has to last you a lifetime. Your health will definitely decline if you continue towing the path of alcohol.

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