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

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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

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