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The real problem with using alcohol as a sleep aid (and what you should try instead)
The real problem with using alcohol as a sleep aid (and what you should try instead)
Base Medical Team avatar
Written by Base Medical Team
Updated over a week ago

Many of us have had a glass of wine to unwind at the end of a busy day or a cocktail or two to close out a hectic week. After all, in addition to feeling like a special splurge, drinking alcohol spurs the release of chemicals (like endorphins) in the reward center of the brain that can make us feel good. Of course, alcohol can also make you drowsy, which the 70 million Americans who suffer from chronic sleep problems might see as a potential boon.

Indeed, alcohol can help you fall asleep faster after climbing into bed, an issue that many, many people struggle with as a result of stress, anxiety, or the inability to turn their mind off to relax. So what’s the real harm in relying on alcohol to increase your chances of shuteye?

Keep reading to discover the effects alcohol has on your sleep, plus learn why ditching the before-bed sip in favor of uncovering the root cause of your sleep issues is the key to finding deep, restful sleep.

Why does alcohol make you feel sleepy?

Primarily, this effect comes down to how alcohol works on the central nervous system, AKA the brain and spinal cord. Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant or sedative, meaning that it slows down brain activity and makes you feel relaxed and tired. But just like any other drug, this effect is temporary. Many studies have found that while alcohol does make you drowsy enough to help you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper for the first portion of the night, it also causes an increased number of sleep disruptions in the second half of the night---so much so that the overall quality of sleep declines.

Why the sleepiness doesn’t last

Alcohol typically starts to cause those sleep disruptions a few hours after you finish your nightcap. After the endorphin boost has worn off and your blood alcohol levels start to drop, it will trigger an increase in levels of epinephrine (which you may know by its more commonly recognized name: adrenaline). Epinephrine is a stress hormone that increases your heart rate and essentially “wakes up” other systems in the body until, in most cases, you wake up in the middle of the night. Since epinephrine is one of the hormones that triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, this likely won’t be a case of changing positions and falling right back to sleep.

In addition to the way it affects your hormones, alcohol can also relax the throat muscles, causing or contributing to breathing problems like sleep apnea that result in frequent nighttime wake-ups and less than restful sleep. Depending on the number of drinks you had before climbing into bed it may also increase your need to use the restroom in the middle of the night, further disrupting your shuteye.

Is it a good idea to use alcohol as a sleep aid?

No. While alcohol is a sedative, it suppresses REM sleep and causes sleep disruptions, which will actually worsen the overall quality of your sleep. What’s more, drinking regularly as a means of improving sleep increases your chances of developing an alcohol addiction or dependency, which can be dangerous for your overall health.

Plus, the reason you’re chasing those ZZZ’s comes down to a desire to sleep better so you have more energy in your awake hours. But using alcohol as a sleep aid can get you stuck in a cycle of endless fatigue and poor sleep. Even if it helps you fall asleep, the sleep disruptions that follow will likely result in you feeling neither refreshed nor rested when it’s time to get up. So you sleepwalk through the day, potentially getting behind on your to-dos, which leaves you feeling anxious and reaching for a drink when it’s time to hit the hay again.

Getting to the root of your sleep issues

If you’re looking for DIY sleep aids and turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms to get more shuteye, it’s likely time to look into the root causes of your sleep issues. While there are multiple factors that can contribute to sleep problems, many of them stem from an imbalance in the hormones responsible for ensuring you fall asleep fast, stay asleep, and sleep deeply. You can easily measure your hormones, nutrients and vitamins that are affecting your sleep with Base.

Here are some of those hormones that provide clues about your underlying sleep issues:

Melatonin and Cortisol Tell You About Your Circadian Rhythms

Melatonin (the sleep hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone) work together to regulate sleep. When they are produced and how much is produced is tied to your circadian rhythm, or your biological clock. Your body clock is tied to things like your activity levels, temperature, and exposure to light and dark. So in a world in which you’re getting optimal sleep, you would start to wind down your activity in the evening as it cooled off and got darker, which would signal to your body to ramp up the production of melatonin and curb the production of cortisol, resulting in easy, restful sleep. Then in the morning as it gets lighter and warmer, melatonin production would wane and cortisol would increase, helping you wake up and giving you the energy to go about your day.

Unfortunately, many of the factors that govern healthy circadian rhythms can also disrupt them and throw your sleep out of whack. Exercising late at night or working a night shift will throw off the activity cue, boosting cortisol and blocking melatonin. Looking at the blue light coming from your cell phone or laptop before bed or using blackout curtains in your bedroom that block the sun from coming in make the light and dark cues difficult for your brain to pick up on, ending in the same result. And while experts say that the optimal temperature for a restful sleep is between 60 and 67°F, one 2020 poll of US adults found that 69% of people prefer to sleep warmer than that, resulting in---you guessed it---the same disruptions in melatonin and cortisol.

If any of these examples caused a lightbulb to go off for you, it’s likely that there’s an issue with your melatonin and cortisol levels, and by extension your circadian rhythms, that is disrupting your sleep. Taking steps to limit your activity and light exposure before bed and keeping your bedroom cool can help get these systems back on track to help improve your sleep.

Estrogen and Progesterone Tell You About Your Cycles

The female sex hormones play complicated roles in your ability to get enough shuteye. Progesterone has a calming, sedative effect that can help you fall asleep, while estrogen plays a role in regulating body temperature, reducing night time wake-ups, and breaking down hormones that could be keeping you awake. The problem is that levels of estrogen and progesterone rise and fall over the course of a 28-day cycle, so whether or not you’re getting these sleep-promoting benefits is going to change. And then once perimenopause begins, new disruptions in these hormones occur, throwing everything out of whack again.

If you find that you have more trouble sleeping at certain times of the month, your issues could be tied to estrogen and progesterone. Taking steps to regulate these hormones, such as hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy, could be the key that allows you to catch some zzz’s.

DHEA, Testosterone, and Thyroid Hormones Tell You About Your Energy Levels

DHEA (full name dehydroepiandrosterone) is a precursor to testosterone, which plays a critical role in keeping energy levels steady throughout the day (in all people). The problem is that testosterone is produced during sleep, so if you’re not sleeping enough testosterone levels will drop, plunging you into a cycle of sleepy days and restless nights.

Thyroid hormone levels also play a role in regulating your energy during the day and determining how well you sleep at night. Too little thyroid hormone, or hypothyroidism, can cause difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, while too much thyroid hormone, or hyperthyroidism, can cause frequent nighttime wake-ups. Meanwhile, when you aren’t feeling rested in the morning it typically leads to a wired-and-tired feeling in the evening that makes it hard to drift off, perpetuating the cycle of poor sleep.

If you’re having trouble sleeping and also struggling to fully wake up during the day, one of these hormones could be to blame. The above steps that work to regulate your circadian rhythms may help as they will give your body a chance to balance hormone production while you sleep.

The Bottom Line

Your body is naturally programmed to give you deep, restful, restorative sleep at night. But when your hormones are disrupted, whether by your environment, your cycles, chronic illnesses, or something else, your body has trouble doing just that---and using something like alcohol as a band aid isn’t going to help you get back on track. If you suspect a hormone imbalance is behind your sleep woes, the Base Sleep Test is a great place to start.

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