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How does alcohol affect your sleep?

Some people use alcohol as a sleep aid.  And though it may help in the short term, drinking alcohol before bed can actually lead to a night of horrible, restless sleep.

“There’s some evidence that alcohol actually disrupts the release of melatonin in your brain,” says Aristidis Iatridis, M.D., a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist at Piedmont. “Melatonin is the hormone that your brain releases when it wants to go to sleep.  As a result, people who drink alcohol tend to have very broken sleep and don’t sleep well. They also wake up in the morning not feeling as rested as they should.”

Problems associated with drinking before bed

The biggest problem that alcohol causes is insomnia. After a few hours of sleep, alcohol can cause you to wake up and have a difficult time going back to sleep.

Alcohol also has a negative effect on Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

“REM sleep is the deepest sleep, where you have your most vivid dreams,” says Dr. Iatridis.  “It’s probably the most restorative sleep. And alcohol can reduce the amount of REM sleep you have at night.”

Drinking alcohol before bed can also worsen sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a common disorder where the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep.

“The part of the airway that runs from the voice box to the back of the throat is held up only by muscle, but when you fall asleep muscle goes slack,” says Dr. Iatridis.  “In some people, it goes so slack the airway obstructs and they wake up choking and gasping for air.  Because alcohol is a muscle relaxer, it can make this problem even worse.”  

How many hours before bed should you stop drinking?

It’s important to stop drinking at least 4 hours before bed to prevent sleep disruption, says Dr. Iatridis.

“People don’t do that, but that would be optimal,” says Dr. Iatridis.  “And when you go out, you want to limit yourself to no more than a couple of drinks. What’s considered a reasonable amount of alcohol is two drinks a night for a male and one drink a night for a female.”

The key is to drink in moderation and give yourself time before going to bed so the alcohol can clear your system.

To learn more about treatment for sleep disorders, visit Piedmont Sleep Services.

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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