Alcohol can disrupt sleep and how to drink less without even trying

I came across this report this week, which focuses on research (as yet, unpublished) which, apparently, finds that alcohol has the ability to disrupt ‘rapid eye movement’ (REM) sleep. REM sleep is quite shallow sleep, and is usually the predominant form of sleep in the second half of the night. REM sleep seems to be particularly important for the maintenance of basic brain functioning and mood.

This research reminded me of a study I wrote about in 2011 which found that alcohol has the ability to disrupt the functioning of what is known as the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ during sleep. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated during rest and relaxation, and its disruption likely impairs quality of sleep too.

The report that I link to above also mentions that alcohol has the ability to help people drop into deep sleep earlier in the night, and this may promote snoring which, by interrupting oxygenation throughout the night, may contribute to a feeling of grogginess in the morning.

All this science and theory aside, what I do know is that in the real world alcohol does indeed seem to disrupt sleep quality. I have seen countless ‘drinkers’ who then drink significantly less or nothing at all for a spell report that they feel much more rested and raring to go in the morning. In fact, hardly ever is this not the case.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of drinking less or nothing at all on certain evenings. I’m a big believer that if a change in lifestyle is going to be sustainable, it must be easy and, ultimately, unconscious. For those seeking to drink less, I tend to advise focusing less on this, and more on behaviours that generally lead to less alcohol being drunk quite automatically.

In the previous blog post I link to above I suggest 3 tactics: not being hungry when we drink, not being thirst when we drink, and matching each alcoholic drink with one of water. To this, I’d like to add another tactic which is to sometimes opt for forms of alcohol we don’t especially like. The ‘nicer’ and more rewarding a drink is, the more of it we’re likely to consume. I, personally, like red wine, but I also know that even a couple of glasses plays havoc with my sleep. My default drink now is vodka, lime and soda. I don’t mind drinking it but I don’t find it particularly interesting which puts, for me, an automatic ceiling on how much of it I tend to drink. Plus, the relatively pure nature of the vodka lessens the risk of any hangover the next day.

Awhile back I wrote about motivation, and the idea that motivation to do things is easy if we perceive they will give us more pleasure and/or less pain. I know that while I prefer red wine, the pleasure I get from being sharp and alert the next day more than outweighs the pleasure of drinking a couple of glasses of red wine. With that mindset, I can honestly say I don’t ‘miss’ the red wine, and I certainly don’t miss the feeling of grogginess it tends to leave me with the morning after.

10 Responses to Alcohol can disrupt sleep and how to drink less without even trying

  1. Pippa 26 January 2013 at 12:12 am #

    What I like about you, John Briffa, is that you are human, and understand that it is just to hard for some people just to stop having whatever drink they like, so you think of workable and sustainable solutions. I don’t like alcohol much personally, so I’m lucky, but I’m definitely in the minority. I did used to drink regularly in my youth to keep up with the crowd and it did make me fall into a heavier sleep more quickly, but it also made me wake up at about 4am and without doubt, in my case, interfered with normal sleep patterns. Smoking, however, was even worse and when I gave that up (what a freedom!) I slept like a baby and still do, unless I drink.
    My recipe for great sleep: drink coffee only in the morning. Take several brisk walks if you can throughout the day. Try to get physically tired by doing something tiring everyday (housework, gardening, painting, sports); avoid refined carbs and sugar at night in particular, eat supper not too late e.g 6.30 -7pm and read P.G Wodehouse before falling asleep. Works every time.

  2. Dr. Bill Wilson 26 January 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    I agree with you John. I sometimes like a glass or two of red wine with my dinner, but I work 12 hours shifts so sometimes I don’t eat until quite late. When I don’t drink anything, I generally feel much perkier in the morning and believe me, you need to be perky working 12 hour shifts in a busy acute care hospital!

    In your books you also recommend using L-glutamine to suppress carbohydrate cravings. For those who have trouble keeping their booze intake at a reasonable level, L-glutamine is also very effective at suppressing alcohol cravings. Carbohydrate cravings and alcohol cravings seem to be two sides of the same coin. That’s why when alcoholics give up the booze, they often end up binging on sweets. Because sweets, like alcohol, can also adversely affect brain function and behavior, these folks are then labeled “dry drunks”.

  3. Chloe 27 January 2013 at 12:18 am #

    I have been sober for January so far. I feel great! Pubs aren’t very fun sober though especially on a Friday night when everybody is drunk by 7pm after work, as I discovered last night!!!

  4. Marina Donald 27 January 2013 at 11:33 pm #

    I am not in the least surprised that research has found that alcohol can disturb sleep, having found that to be the case for me about 12 years ago. Problem is pursuading people at parties that I’m not a drying out alchy, as popular mythology sees it as an aid to sleep. I can drink at lunchtime, though!

  5. Margaret 28 January 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    I have recently almost stopped drinking alcohol because I noticed that it messed up my sleep. My biggest problem is finding something else to drink in the pub that feels like a treat. I don’t want sweet fruit juices or pop. Tomato juice is nice but a very short drink. I often end up with lime and soda, which I don’t like very much, or just fizzy water. I’m thinking of trying to persuade my local to stock pomegranate juice shots – they’re not too sweet and look a bit like wine – but I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

  6. Lorraine 29 January 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    I agree with you Dr Briffa that the unconscious decisions are ultimately the best. I think it’s true that when your not hungry or thirsty, it’s easier to drink less. I don’t drink very much, if I do it’s usually a small glass of red wine with my meal. Also, I find eating a spoonful of coconut oil can help with the effects of alcohol.

  7. Helen 31 January 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Its true that it is far too easy to drink more wine, as it is so enjoyable, leading to feeling rough the next day. I also find the sulphite content of the wine plays a part. Cheap wines [with high sulphite content] meaning waking with a start, sweats and palpitations at 4am. A sulphite free wine doesn’t have this effect. I have been avoiding sulphites recently and feeling much better. Would be interested to read more information on this.
    Vodka, lime and soda is definitely a good way of drinking less [and ingesting less sulphites too]

  8. Anne Maher 1 February 2013 at 12:22 am #

    I have noticed that when I drink red wine, I am prone to leg cramps in the night. I therefore now restrict my intake to 1 glass with dinner and drink water too.
    Do you think there is a link between my wine intake and my cramps? I do not drink any other type of alcohol. Or is this just coincidence?

  9. James Woods 28 February 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    I’ve found an easy way – for me at least – to stop over-imbibing. Unless we have friends in for the evening, I’ve stopped drinking at home. My sleep has improved greatly – bed is a pleasure! If we’re eating out, or on holidays, I’m relaxed about it, and have a G&T and wine if I feel like it. Usually I do! It’s worked for six months or so, and I’m confident this will continue.

  10. Dr John Briffa 28 February 2013 at 6:44 pm #


    Sounds like a good, effective, sustainable tactic – I like!

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