Alcohol disrupts sleep, and how to drink less (without trying)

I was talking with someone yesterday who is generally fit and well, but has a bit of a ‘sleep issue’. He sometimes fails to get off to sleep easily. But even when he does, he tends to wake several times during the night, and can often have difficulty getting back to sleep again.

It’s sometimes not obvious why someone has problems sleeping. One quite-common factor is alcohol. If someone has sleep issues and usually drinks alcohol in the evening, drinking less or nothing invariably helps.

Of course it’s possible for someone to have sleep issues that have nothing to do with alcohol. Indeed, tee-totallers can have problems sleeping. However, if someone has sleep issues and drinks alcohol, drinking less almost always helps, in my experience.

When I got home last night I noticed a study which reminded me of the insomniac man I had met earlier in the day. In short, the study tested the effects of alcohol on sleep. In particular, the study subjects were assessed through sleep with a measure known as ‘heart rate variability’. This can give information about the activity of what is known as the ‘autonomic nervous system’.

This is the part of the nervous system which influences everything from breathing and heart rate to the stress response and sleep. The autonomic nervous system has two main parts: the ‘sympathetic’ and ‘parasympathetic’ nervous systems. In general terms, the sympathetic strand is activated when we are alert and stressed. The parasympathetic part, on the other hand, is more dominant when we are relaxed and at rest.

When we sleep, it’s important for the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to be weighted on the parasympathetic side – it is partly this that allows sleep to be deep and restful.

What this study found was that alcohol disrupts parasympathetic activity, and more alcohol generally meant more disruption. In other words, there is evidence here that alcohol can disrupt our ability to get deep, restorative sleep.

Here are three things I’ve found can help individuals drink less without sacrifice and deprivation (I wrote previously about these tactics here).

1. Do not start drinking when you’re thirsty

It stands to reason that the thirstier we are, the more we will tend to drink. I know it’s obvious, but the less thirsty we are, the less alcohol we will tend to drink. It makes sense, therefore, to ensure we’re properly hydrated prior to starting drinking. The aim should be to drink enough water to keep our urine pale yellow, and there should be no sense of thirst prior to starting drinking any alcohol.

2. Do not start drinking when you’re hungry

While the fact that thirst can stimulate drinking is quite obvious, what is less well recognised is that hunger can be a factor here. Alcohol can provide ready fuel for the body, and at least some people will find that hunger can stimulate the desire to drink. Some people will, for instance, crave alcohol if their blood sugar level drops below normal levels.

One common manifestation of this phenomenon is a tendency to drink a glass of wine, beer or short with mixer prior to food in the evening. Individuals coming home or entering a restaurant in a quite-hungry state will often reach for the alcohol before anything else. I’ve found in practice that when individuals manage their appetite better, they almost always drink less without thinking.

One simple tactic here is to eat something properly sating such as some nuts at the end of the afternoon or early evening.

3. Match each alcoholic drink with one of water

One tactic that generally works wonders to quell alcohol intake is to match each alcoholic drink (e.g. glass of wine) with a glass of water. This usually leads to less wine being drunk, and also ‘dilutes’ any negative effects the alcohol may have.


1. Sagawa Y, et al. Alcohol Has a Dose-Related Effect on Parasympathetic Nerve Activity During Sleep. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Epub 16 Aug 2011

11 Responses to Alcohol disrupts sleep, and how to drink less (without trying)

  1. Paul 19 August 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    There’s evidence that exercise reduces alcohol intake (although you have to extrapolate from hamsters to humans in the example research below)

    It’s my definite experience that going for a run immediately after work makes me enjoy my evening meal and be much less likely to have wine with the meal. Instead I’ll drink several glasses of water or mugs of tea. I noticed this effect before I came across any research about it. I’m guessing that my work causes stress, and both alcohol and exercise are responses to the stress, but you only need one of them.

  2. J. Murphy 19 August 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    These seem to be good ideas. Along the same lines I once knew a person who drank a large glass of water right before cocktail time (and dinner time) to help fill the stomach and reduce caloric consumption. Thanks for your helpful newsletter.

  3. Nancy Bruning 19 August 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    As a wellness and weight loss coach, I couldn’t agree more with the sneaky effects of drinking alcohol. Often a client will drop 20 or 30 pounds if they stop drinking, without any conscious changes in the diet otherwise! Often it is the idea and ritual of a drink after work that they are attached to. “I’m drinking, so I ‘m done with work… ahhhh! ” So, I suggest substituting a different, low-GI, nonalcoholic beverage after work instead of the usual. For example, a virgin mary with a stalk of celery, a tall glass of plain seltzer with a spritz of fruit juice and a fancy ornament like a fruit slice–socialize, put your feet up, do whatever you do normally with your drink, but skip the alcohol.

  4. Chris 20 August 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    A former work colleague of mine many years ago, someone with a bit of experience in these matters but no other formal qualifications, used to say that you needed 30-60 minutes of sleep to sleep off each unit of alcohol consumed. He meant the restive qualities of sleep did not become effective until after you’d slept of the quota of alcohol consumed. So if Homer Simpson went to bed after four pints of ‘Duff’ and slept for seven hours the first three to four hours would be passed ‘sleeping off the alcohol@ and only after that would his sleep count as restive and restorative. In the course of a life I have conducted ad hoc experiments on several occasions and have not yet made any observations that disprove his theory.

    Where the prevalent social trait and tendency for factions of society to binge drink is concerned aggressive advertising and marketing clearly is a cause related to effect; however, I’ve long held concern that the this ’cause’ does not fully explain ‘effect’. I am pretty sure that metabolic abnormalities, perhaps a trend from satisfactory metabolic regulation and balance towards some degree of dys-regulation possibly caused in part by sub-optimal diet and nutrition and/or the presence of disruptive factors such as food additives, could also constitute a measure of cause relating to the binge-drinking effect. No evidence, no concerted study of the matter as yet – just plain old sixth sense.

  5. gill oliver 20 August 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    I also liked the ritual of having a glass of wine in the evening,I now substitute this with a slimline tonic and slice of lemon but I put it in a wine glass.

  6. Dr. Gabriella Kadar 21 August 2011 at 4:05 am #

    I have found that the consumption of fresh fruit is inversely proportional to the desire for wine. It’s one or the other, or a little or this and a little of that.

    Good pointers on hunger inciting drinking and avoiding alcohol when thirsty.

  7. Chris 3 October 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    I’ve cut back quite a bit this last month and have found that my sleep is better.

    When I drank lots, I would often wake up in the early hours and would then find it difficult to get back to sleep. Often I would feel restless, hot and frustrated.

    Cutting back is definitely worthwhile.


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