Waking up early after drinking

Here’s why you wake up early after a night of drinking

The INSIDER Summary:

  • Waking up early after a late night drinking is common.
  • After two drinks, alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns.
  • After alcohol is metabolized, adaptations your body made to adjust for its effects are now unnecessary, throwing your body out of whack and jolting you awake.

A drink or two (or four) may help you fall asleep as soon as you crawl into bed, but they don’t seem very soporific four hours later, when you’re wide awake and regretting all the decisions leading up to the hangover you’re currently experiencing. If you’ve ever wondered why you wake up early after drinking all night, trust me — you’re not the only one. Aside from being one of the universe’s cruelest ironies, it’s an actual, documented phenomenon. So what gives?

As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, alcohol tends to make you so drowsy you’ll pass out on any available surface. According to research, a nightcap does help you fall asleep faster; as long as you stick to just one drink, it’s been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. The problem arises when you knock back any more than that — after two drinks, alcohol totally disrupts your sleep patterns. In a 2013 paper reviewing existing research, scientists laid things out: As a rule, alcohol makes you fall asleep quicker, and during the first half of the night, it increases slow-wave sleep. Sometimes known as deep sleep, this dreamless stage is associated with memory formation, and it appears to be primarily responsible for reducing sleep need. Basically, after you’ve had a few drinks, you initially sleep more deeply.

Then comes the second half of the night, which is when people start to experience a phenomenon called the “rebound effect.” As sleep researchers Dr. Timothy Roehrs and Dr. Thomas Roth explained in a paper analyzing alcohol and sleep, this effect describes what happens when “certain physiological variables… change in the opposite direction to the changes induced by alcohol and even exceed normal levels once alcohol is eliminated from the body.”

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Basically, in case you forgot, alcohol totally counts as a drug, and your body has to adjust for its effects — like the production of sleep-inducing adenosine and inhibition of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate — when it enters your body. After the alcohol is metabolized a few hours later, these adaptations are now unnecessary, and your body is all out of whack. Needless to say, this can jolt you awake.

Then there’s alcohol’s well-documented effect on REM sleep coming into play. The stage associated with dreams and learning, REM sleep is one of the most restorative parts of sleep — and it’s reduced by alcohol. Not only are you more likely to wake up thanks to the rebound effect, but you’re also missing out on the most restorative stage of shut-eye. No wonder hangovers make you feel the reanimated corpse of a reanimated corpse.

The good news is that a drink or two isn’t going to disrupt your sleep patterns too horribly, if at all. If you’re planning on drinking more than that, your best bet is probably to avoid pounding back shots until last call, so you can give your body time to metabolize the stuff before you go to bed.

Or just plan for spending the morning wrapped in a blanket burrito watching cartoons while you wait to fall asleep again — it’s your call.

Anyone who drinks alcohol from time to time knows that beer, wine, or spirits can sometimes leave you feeling drowsy. In fact, as many as 20 percent of Americans use alcohol to help them fall asleep. But while alcohol, a depressant, can help you fall asleep faster, it also contributes to poor quality sleep later. Here’s what happens—behind your closed eyes—when you go to sleep after drinking.

There’s a battle of sleep rhythms.

Drinking alcohol before bed is linked with more slow-wave sleep patterns called delta activity. That’s the kind of deep sleep that allows for memory formation and learning. At the same time, another type of brain pattern—alpha activity—is also turned on. Alpha activity doesn’t usually happen during sleep, but rather when you’re resting quietly. Together the alpha and delta activity in the brain after drinking may inhibit restorative sleep.

It can interrupt your circadian rhythm.

While you may fall asleep quickly after drinking, it’s also common to wake up in the middle of the night. One explanation is that alcohol may affect the normal production of chemicals in the body that trigger sleepiness when you’ve been awake for a long time, and subside once you’ve had enough sleep. After drinking, production of adenosine (a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain) is increased, allowing for a fast onset of sleep. But it subsides as quickly as it came, making you more likely to wake up before you’re truly rested.

It blocks REM sleep.

Another reason people get lower-quality sleep following alcohol is that it blocks REM sleep, which is often considered the most restorative type of sleep. With less REM sleep, you’re likely to wake up feeling groggy and unfocused.

It can aggravate breathing problems.

Alcohol causes your whole body to relax, including the muscles of your throat. And that makes you more prone to snoring and sleep apnea.

It leads to extra bathroom trips.

Typically, your body knows that nighttime is time for sleep, not time for trips to the bathroom. That means that your body has learned to put your bladder into hibernation for the night. But alcohol, a diuretic, can make you need to go more, interrupting your normal sleep pattern.

Why Alcohol Disrupts Your Sleep

When you’re wound up at the end of a long, stressful day, a nightcap may sound like the perfect way to relax before bed. But while a little alcohol may make you feel sleepy, it can set you up for a restless night. Can you unwind with a late-night drink without winding up fatigued in the morning? Probably not.

“Alcohol is a depressant, which can help somebody feel like it’s relaxing them and helping them to fall asleep,” said Charlene Gamaldo, MD, associate professor of neurology, pulmonary, and critical medicine and director of the Neuro-Sleep Division at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “But alcohol also is rapidly metabolized in your system and, when your body washes the alcohol out, it’s more likely to cause what we call a rebound alertness.”

Sleep investigators have found that this rebound alertness tends to strike in the second half of the night, which is when you would normally be in the period of rapid eye movement (REM) deep sleep. Missing out on REM sleep can worsen daytime sleepiness — that’s why you’re likely to feel that you’re dragging through the day after a night of drinking. Poor sleep quality can also cause problems with alertness the next day.

Sleep problems due to alcohol get worse over time. Between 10 and 15 percent of cases of chronic insomnia are related to substance abuse, including alcohol abuse.

“For folks who chronically use alcohol, particularly to aid with sleep, it can really mess up their natural cycle of getting to sleep and staying asleep,” explained Dr. Gamaldo. “They never get into deep REM sleep because they’re waking up when the alcohol wears off.”

When you overdo it on the alcohol and drink in excess, it may lead to a morning-after headache, nausea, and the overall miserable feeling of a hangover. But it doesn’t take a binge to suffer these effects. If you have a nightly drink, you’re likely to wake earlier and earlier. “The more and more you do that, your body gets more and more acclimated to metabolizing the alcohol even faster. It’s a vicious cycle — you feel like you need it to get to sleep because you’re waking up so much in the middle of the night, but the behavior is complicating the issue even more,” added Gamaldo.

Why Alcohol Is a Sleep Disruptor

Drinking too much wakes you up for two main reasons, explained Gamaldo. First, alcohol is a diuretic, so your body works hard to metabolize it and creates large volumes of urine to help you get the alcohol out of your body. So, you’ll likely need to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. “That sense of a hangover is actually from intense dehydration from your body getting rid of all that alcohol,” said Gamaldo.

Second, you’ll have the rebound waking as your body bounces back from the depressant effects of the alcohol. Also, too much alcohol can weaken airway muscles, triggering (or worsening) sleep disturbances like sleep apnea or heavy snoring.

When a hangover wakes you up early, it’s partly because your body is craving fluids to replace what was lost through the increased urine output. Have plenty of water or electrolyte replacement drinks.

Skip the Booze to Sleep Soundly

If you’re looking for a solid night of sleep, work on developing good sleep habits instead of reaching for a drink. A Japanese study looked at the impact of cutting out alcohol before bed. Within one month, those who stopped having a nightcap saw the biggest improvements in their sleep; participants felt less sleepy and reported an improvement in the quality of their sleep.

Other smart steps to better sleep include:

  • Exercising every day
  • Spending time in the sunlight each day
  • Making sure your bedroom is comfortable, dark, and quiet
  • Avoiding eating and drinking too close to bedtime, and avoiding caffeine in particular
  • Creating a sleep/wake schedule
  • Developing a soothing pre-bedtime routine

In moderation, alcohol has some benefits, but use caution. “The take-home message is not to resort to alcohol as a go-to sleep aid. If you’re having trouble sleeping, wean off alcohol, especially if you’re having problems maintaining sleep,” said Gamaldo.

Alcohol Likely to Keep You Awake, Not Help You Sleep

Do you have a drink or two in the evening as a way to relax and help you to fall asleep? If so, you’ve got plenty of company. Alcohol is among the most common “sleep aids” that people employ to help them drift off at night. We know, however, that alcohol doesn’t solve problems for sleep: It creates them. And a new study suggests yet another reason that alcohol can be a roadblock to good sleep: The stimulating effects of alcohol are felt more strongly in the early evening hours. That evening drink you think is sending you toward slumber? It’s likely doing just the opposite.

The effects of alcohol in the body are what are known as biphasic, meaning “in two phases.” When first consumed, alcohol has a stimulating effect. Later, after alcohol has been in the system for a period time, its effects are sedating. But as this new research indicates, the effects of alcohol—particularly the stimulating effects—are magnified during certain periods of the body’s 24-hour circadian cycle.

Many people are drawn to alcohol for both its stimulating effects and its sedating ones. Often people drink in the evenings to help them unwind and fall asleep at night. It may feel as though a drink or two in the evening can help to relax and pave the way for a good night’s sleep. But it’s actually not the case. Alcohol consumption, in excess or too close to bedtime, diminishes the quality of sleep, often leads to more waking throughout the night, and lessens time spent in REM sleep and slow wave sleep in the later part of the night, the deepest and most restorative phase.

This latest study sheds some interesting and important light on how the timing of alcohol consumption may influence how strongly its biphasic effects are experienced. Researchers at Brown University investigated how the effects of moderate alcohol consumption might vary depending on the phases of the body’s circadian clock, and the timing of drinking. They found that the timing of drinking appeared to make a difference in the effects of alcohol. In their results, drinking in the evening and before bedtime is associated with significant stimulating effects, compared to other times of day.

Researchers conducted a study using 27 men and women between the ages of 21-26.

While in the laboratory, researchers were able to isolate and analyze the effects of alcohol during several distinct periods within each participant’s circadian cycle. At four times throughout the day and night, participants were given either a mixed alcoholic drink or a placebo drink that mimicked the taste of the alcoholic drink.

Researchers took several measurements throughout each day and night, including:

  • Breath alcohol concentration, to measure amount of alcohol in the bloodstream.
  • Sleep latency onset, to measure the amount of time it took to reach the first stages of sleep, from the beginning of a sleep period. The shorter a sleep latency onset measurement, the faster a person has fallen asleep. This is a standard, objective measurement of sleepiness
  • Biphasic alcohol effects, to measure the degree and timing of stimulation and sedation as perceived by each individual. This is a subjective measurement of the effects of alcohol as both a stimulant and a sedative.

Their results…:

  • Confirm the biphasic nature of alcohol as it is processed in the body. People who drank took longer to fall asleep as their blood alcohol content rose. They also reported feeling more stimulated, compared to people who drank the placebo. As blood alcohol content fell, those people felt sleepier and fell asleep more quickly than those who drank the non-alcoholic placebo beverage.
  • Indicate that the timing of drinking, relative to the body’s circadian clock, matters in how alcohol affects sleepiness and sleep onset. During the late day and early evening circadian phase (Happy Hour), people who drank alcohol experienced longer sleep latency onset compared to other points in the circadian cycle. The same was true for the subjective, self-reported measurement of stimulation and sedation: The ratings of stimulation were not only higher among people who drank than those who didn’t, but they also were highest during the late-afternoon/early-evening circadian period.

We’ve seen other research that shows the influence of time of day on the impact of alcohol as a stimulant and a sedative. We’ve also seen research that indicates circadian timing plays a role in alcohol’s effects on sleep. This latest study is the first to pinpoint the varying effects of alcohol in specific circadian phases, and to isolate the significant stimulating effects of alcohol consumed in the late day and early evening. This, of course, is precisely the time when people are most likely to drink (think: happy hour) and also most likely to use alcohol as a sedative toward sleep.

These results are an important step forward in understanding the effects of alcohol in the body. They provide another compelling piece of evidence that alcohol’s role as an “aid” to sleep is misguided. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t drink in moderation. But we all need to be aware of the effects alcohol has on our ability to sleep well.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

Facebook image: Motortion Films/

Jan. 22, 2013 — Think a nightcap may help you get a better night’s sleep?

Think again.

A new review of 27 studies shows that alcohol does not improve sleep quality. According to the findings, alcohol does allow healthy people to fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply for a while, but it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

And the more you drink before bed, the more pronounced these effects. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after we fall asleep. It’s the stage of sleep when people dream, and it’s thought to be restorative. Disruptions in REM sleep may cause daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and rob you of needed ZZZs.

“Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as it helps induce sleep, but overall it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night,” says researcher Irshaad Ebrahim. He is the medical director at The London Sleep Centre in the U.K. “Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea,” or pauses in breathing that happen throughout the night.

The more a person drinks before bed, the stronger the disruption. One to two standard drinks seem to have minimal effects on sleep, Ebrahim says.

Sleep is important for our health and wellbeing. In fact, we can’t live without it. So what happens when alcohol interferes with your sleep?

Alcohol effects the quality of your sleep.

Alcohol interferes with the normal sleep process, making you feel much less rested than you normally would. Lack of sleep or poor sleep can affect your health and quality of life, causing fatigue, affecting concentration and memory, acting as a trigger for some mental health problems and affecting daytime alertness and performance. Ultimately, you may be less productive and more prone to accidents.

Together with good nutrition and proper exercise, sleep is a key component of good health.

Exhaustion and fatigue

While drinking alcohol before bedtime may help you fall asleep, it can also reduce and change the sleep stages necessary for good health.

  • Rapid-eye-movement sleep state (REM) can be reduced or missed out on altogether. Typically, you have six to seven cycles of REM sleep during the night, leaving you feeling refreshed. If you’ve been drinking, you’ll most likely have only one or two cycles so you tend to wake up feeling exhausted.
  • Deep sleep state (when the body and mind restores itself) is also interfered with when you drink. As the alcohol starts to wear off, your body can come out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from. That’s why you often wake up after just a few hours of sleep when you’ve been drinking.

Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic so it encourages the body to lose extra fluid. For this reason, you may have to get up during the night to go to the toilet or find yourself sweating a lot.

Snoring

Drinking can make you snore loudly. It relaxes the muscles in your body including the tissue in your throat, mouth and nose, preventing air from flowing smoothly and causing you to snore.

Lots of people have a little booze before bed to help them get to sleep — but while a night cap may help in the dozing-off department, too much alcohol can actually do a number on the overall quality of your shuteye. Let’s take a look at some of the important differences between drunk sleep and sober sleep, including why it’s so damn hard to sleep in after a tipple-tastic night on the town.

Dosage

Most people assume correctly that liquor and beer can actually get your eyelids feeling downright leaden, as anyone who’s had a taste of alcohol has surely experienced its sleep-promoting qualities. The ethanol in your intoxicant of choice acts as a sedative, and for most people one drink is enough to feel its effects. There’s even evidence that capping your intake at one brew, cocktail, or glass of grapes — what most researchers deem a “low dose” of alcohol — can actually up your total sleep time, while decreasing the number of instances you wake during the night.

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Speaking of which, it’s important to remember the “one drink” limit is really just a rule of thumb. Drink-ceilings vary from person to person. Plus, a single drink can have different effects even on the same individual — depending, for example, on what he or she’s eaten that day. For a better idea of what your one-drink limit is, try out these handy calculators, courtesy of the NIH.

Anyway, if you plan on downing more than one drink, you’re looking at some pretty serious bedtime disturbance. In fact, even a single-cocktail nightcap can have an undesired effect on your sleep cycle if you make a habit of it. According to Timothy Roehrs and Thomas Roth — director of research and division head, respectively, of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit, MI — the scientific literature shows that among nonalcoholics, the occasional use of alcohol as a sleep aid can improve sleep initially, but that people tend to develop a tolerance for its effects pretty quickly. As tolerance increases, so does your alcohol-intake, and then you’re looking at more serious problems than an inability to get to catch some truly restful winks. Like, you know, a raging case of alcoholism.

The Rebound Effect

But even moderate alcohol consumption can ruin a good night’s sleep. According to Roehrs and Roth, a modest dose of alcohol (defined as inducing a Blood Alcohol Content in the range of 0.06–0.08) within an hour of bedtime may knock you right out — but it’ll exact a serious toll on your body during the second half of your normal sleep period, during what’s called a “rebound effect” (emphasis added):

The term “rebound effect” means that certain physiological variables (e.g., sleep variables, such as the amount of REM sleep) change in the opposite direction to the changes induced by alcohol and even exceed normal levels once alcohol is eliminated from the body. This effect results from the body’s adjustment to the presence of alcohol during the first half of the sleep period in an effort to maintain a normal sleep pattern. Once alcohol is eliminated from the body, however, these adjustments result in sleep disruption.

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Given that the average person metabolizes alcohol at a rate of around 0.01% to 0.02% per hour, a person with a BAC in the range of 0.06—0.08 immediately before dozing off will finish processing the sauce in his or her system after about four or five hours. Ever woken up bright and early after a rowdy bout of late-night/early-morning boozing? Now you know why: the clearance of alcohol from your body probably triggered a rebound effect, ripping you right out of the deepest period of your sleep cycle.

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“Your deep sleep is when body restores itself, and alcohol can interfere with this,” says John Shneerson, head of Papworth Hospital’s Resipiratory Support & Sleep Center, the largest sleep facility in the UK.

“As the alcohol starts to wear off, your body can come out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from. That’s why you often wake up after just a few hours sleep when you’ve been drinking.”

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So how best to ensure a restful night’s sleep? Try to time it so that most of the alcohol in your system has been metabolized before you hit the hay. If you’re on the cusp of being good to drive (i.e. right around a BAC of 0.08 — true for all 50 states and D.C. as of January, 2013), you’ll want to quit hitting the sauce no less than four hours before bedtime. Easier in theory than in practice, we know, but at least now you know the rules your body is playing by.

For tons more info on alcohol’s effects on sleep, check out this exhaustive overview at The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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Alcohol and Sleep

You’ve had a long and busy day. A drink or two will help you sleep, won’t it?

Alcohol might help you nod off, but even just a couple of drinks can affect the quality of your sleep. And if you’re regularly drinking more than the UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines by consuming more than 14 units a week you may find you wake up the next day feeling like you haven’t had any rest at all.

How alcohol affects your sleep patterns

Regular drinking can affect the quality of your sleep making you feel tired and sluggish. This is because drinking disrupts your sleep cycle.1

When you drink alcohol before bed you may fall into deep sleep quicker. This is why some people find drinking alcohol helps them drop-off to sleep. But as the night goes on you spend more time in this deep sleep and less time than usual in the more restful, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep.2

This can leave you feeling tired the next day no matter how long you stay in bed.

But having alcohol-free days can help. You should be sleeping better and find it easier to wake up in the morning.

Drinking can equal a disturbed night’s sleep

When you drink more than usual, you may have to get up in the night to go to the toilet. And it’s not just the liquid you’ve drunk that you’ll be getting rid of. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it encourages the body to lose extra fluid through sweat too, making you dehydrated.

Drinking can also make you snore loudly. It relaxes the muscles in your body, which means the tissue in your throat, mouth and nose can stop air flowing smoothly, and is more likely to vibrate.

So, all in all alcohol can equal a fitful night’s sleep.

Find out if you’re drinking too much with our Alcohol Self Assessment Test

Why you should avoid alcohol just before bedtime

If you are drinking alcohol, try to avoid it too close to bedtime. Give your body time to process the alcohol you’ve drunk before you try to sleep – on average it takes an hour to process one unit, but this can vary widely from person to person.

Find out how many units are in your drinks with our unit and Calorie Calculator

to keep track of what you’re drinking over time and set yourself goals for cutting back.

You could still be over the drink driving limit the next morning. Understand the risks here

Tips for a good night’s sleep

Some things to try if you want to sleep soundly and wake up feeling fresh:

  • Stay away from caffeine and alcohol late in the evening. Try a hot, milky or herbal drink instead.
  • Make sure your bedroom is cool and uncluttered, and your bed is comfortable.
  • Take exercise to relieve the day’s stresses and strains.
  • Make lists of things to be tackled the next day before you go to bed, so they’re not swimming around in your head.

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