Can’t Sleep Without Alcohol? Try These Alternatives

Last Updated: February 26, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Although alcohol may make it easier to get to sleep, it harms the overall sleep quality and could lead to dependence over time.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows brain activity. This can cause sleepiness and may make you think it’s easier to fall asleep when using alcohol at bedtime. However, alcohol negatively affects the quality and duration of sleep, and using it to sleep can be counterproductive.

Those who stop using alcohol will likely experience better quality and longer-lasting sleep eventually. In the beginning, however, sleep may be more difficult for those who have relied on alcohol to get to sleep. Stopping alcohol use takes away this sleep aid, possibly leading to difficulty initially getting to sleep.

6 Alternatives to Alcohol for Sleep

The good news for those quitting alcohol use is that there are many ways to fall asleep without using alcohol. The goal of these interventions is to replace the role that alcohol once played in getting you to sleep and help you learn good sleep hygiene.

  1. Using an Alternative Beverage

Alcohol not only has a chemical effect that brings on sleep, but it can also become part of a night-time routine, making it even harder to sleep when the habit of drinking alcohol before bedtime is stopped. An alternative beverage, such as chamomile tea, can soothe you to sleep without changing your bedtime routine.

  1. Exercise or Activity

Exercising or being active before bed can help you sleep by making you more tired. Exercise can also boost endorphins, the chemicals in your brain that enhance mood and your ability to relax.

  1. Meditation

Meditation alone or as part of a meditative yoga routine can help you become more present and relaxed, improving your ability to fall asleep. The controlled, measured breathing related to meditation or yoga induces relaxation and reduces stress, enhancing sleep quality.

  1. Consistent Sleep Routine

At the core of good sleep hygiene is a consistent bedtime routine. Your body has a 24-hour clock, called the circadian rhythm, that helps you naturally fall asleep and wake up. If you consistently go to bed and wake up at the same time, your body will quickly adjust to your routine, and you will find that falling asleep and waking up will come more naturally.

  1. Dedicated Sleep Environment

You will fall asleep easier if you’re in a dark, quiet and relaxing environment at a comfortable temperature. Sleep experts also recommend that you only use your bedroom for sleep or intercourse so your subconscious associates the bedroom space with sleep.

  1. Avoiding Stimulation

Avoiding stimulation before sleep will help improve your ability to fall asleep quickly. Examples of stimulation may vary from person to person, but avoiding caffeine before bedtime and limiting screen time in the hour before going to bed are recommended. Avoiding any stressful activity right before bed or attempting to manage any stress you may be experiencing is also recommended.

How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Alcohol negatively affects sleep in many ways. One of the most significant is suppressing rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. While asleep, you go through four distinct sleep stages characterized by various types of brain waves. REM sleep is the deepest of these stages, which is most important for being entirely rested and rejuvenated after sleep. Alcohol prevents the body’s ability to experience REM sleep, leading to fatigue after even a long period of sleep.

Alcohol also causes your muscles to relax more during sleep, including the muscles in the back of your throat and tongue. This can cause or worsen obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which the tongue relaxes during sleep and obstructs the airway. The inability to breathe wakes you up for a few seconds so that you can catch a breath, but you won’t realize you’re awake. The result is that you can wake up dozens or even hundreds of times throughout the night and not know it, interrupting your natural sleep cycle.

While suppression of REM sleep and OSA are the two main adverse effects of alcohol on sleep, alcohol can also cause dehydration, an increase in body temperature and a more frequent need to urinate, making it difficult to sleep.

Alcohol and Insomnia

Insomnia is characterized by trouble falling or staying asleep. Alcohol contributes to insomnia by suppressing REM sleep and causing OSA. This makes it difficult to stay asleep, but it may not be directly noticeable. Insomnia due to alcohol can be hidden, creating symptoms of fatigue and sleepiness during the day without an apparent cause. Insomnia and alcohol use can cause a negative feedback loop, as drinking alcohol to get to sleep can cause more of a hidden insomnia.

Insomnia and Alcohol Withdrawal

While alcohol use can cause hidden insomnia, a more obvious form can occur during alcohol withdrawal. Because alcohol makes falling asleep easier, stopping alcohol use can make it more difficult, even though sleep quality will improve once you are asleep. The insomnia experienced during alcohol withdrawal is one reason people quitting alcohol use often seek professional help.

Common Questions About Alcohol and Sleep

Why does alcohol help me sleep?

Alcohol depresses the body’s neurological system, making relaxing and falling asleep easier. Although alcohol can help you get to sleep more easily, it will ultimately harm sleep duration and quality.

Is alcohol a sleep aid?

Alcohol may help you initially get to sleep but is not recommended as a sleep aid because it worsens your sleep quality. Many FDA-approved sleep aids can help people get to sleep and sleep better, but many of these do not ultimately address the underlying problems that make it difficult to get to sleep.

How much alcohol does it take to affect sleep?

Any alcohol can disrupt sleep; however, the more alcohol you consume, the more your sleep will be disrupted. One study found that moderate and heavy drinking significantly affected sleep.

Does alcohol cause sleep apnea?

Alcohol can cause sleep apnea by causing your throat and tongue muscles to relax more than they should while you sleep. This allows your tongue to fall into the back of your throat while you sleep, obstructing your airway and causing sleep apnea. The risk of sleep apnea occurring depends on many factors, including how much alcohol you use, the position you sleep in and your weight.

Can you drink alcohol and take a sleeping pill?

Combining alcohol and sleeping pills can be very dangerous. Both suppress your central nervous system, potentially increasing the risk of a dangerous overdose. Additionally, alcohol can slow your body’s ability to process sleeping pills, giving them greater effects than they typically would. 

Can alcohol actually keep you awake?

Alcohol does not promote wakefulness and will not help keep you awake. It will, however, keep you from getting REM sleep and make your sleep shallower. While alcohol won’t keep you awake, it will keep you from sleeping deeply and make you feel less rested.

How long before bed should I stop drinking?

When drinking alcohol, the longer you go without it before bed, the better your sleep will be. One study recommends abstaining from alcohol six or more hours before sleeping for the best results.

Alcohol, Sleep & Addiction: When To Get Help

While many people will have an occasional alcoholic beverage, using alcohol daily to fall asleep can indicate that alcohol use is becoming unhealthy. Using alcohol to sleep can mean dependence on the effects of alcohol to live your normal life.

If you or someone you know needs alcohol to get to sleep, it indicates that cutting back or stopping alcohol use should be considered. The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper has a proven record of helping people stop using alcohol and experience the benefits of sobriety. Contact us today to learn how we can help you on your journey to an alcohol-free life.

Sources

  1. Park, Soon-Yeob; Oh, Mi-Kyeong; Lee, Bum-Soon; Kim, Haa-Gyoung; Lee, Won-Joon; Lee, Ji-Ho; Lim, Jun-Tae; Kim, Jin-Young. “The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep.” Korean Journal of Family Medicine, November 20, 2015. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  2. Irish, Leah A.; Kline, Christopher E.; Gunn, Heather E.; Buysse, Daniel J.; Hall, Martica H. “The Role of Sleep Hygiene in Promoting Public Health: A Review of Empirical Evidence.” Sleep Med Rev, October 16, 2014. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  3. John Hopkins Medicine. “Exercising for Better Sleep.” 2021. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  4. Rusch, Heather L.; Rosario, Michael; Levison, Lisa M.; Olivera, Anlys; Livingston, Whitney S.; Wu, Tianxia; Gill, Jessica M. “The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Ann N Y Acad Sci, December 21, 2018. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Tips for Better Sleep.” July 15, 2016. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  6. Pietilä, Julia; Helander, Elina; et al. “Acute Effect of Alcohol Intake on Cardio[…] Observational Study.” JMIR Mental Health, March 2018. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Insomnia.” MedlinePlus, September 9, 2021. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  8. Srivastava, Janmejai K; Shankar, Eswar; Gupta, Sanjay. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Molecular medicine reports, November 1, 2021. Accessed August 3, 2023.
  9. Stein MD, Friedmann PD. “Disturbed sleep and its relationship to alcohol use.” PubMed Central, November 10, 2009. Accessed August 3, 2023.

Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.