Friends toasting with beer in a pub
No, it isn’t in your head. Alcohol really does have a sedative effect — but it doesn’t necessarily promote a restful night of sleep.

The Sedative Effects of Alcohol

We’ve all been there; we’ve made plans for a big night out with friends — dinner, followed by drinks and dancing — but after splitting that bottle of wine (or two), the crowd is feeling drowsy instead of ready to hit the dance floor.

Is it just the time of night that we’re drinking? Or is it the alcohol?

No, it isn’t in your head. Alcohol really does have a sedative effect — but it doesn’t necessarily promote a restful night of sleep.

The Research

According to Time magazine, Christian Nicholas and a research team from the University of Melbourne studied 24 young adults, aged 18 to 21. For the study, they gave the participants a beverage of vodka and orange juice one night and a placebo the following night (orange juice with a straw dipped in vodka).

The participants then went to bed at their normal time, while wearing electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure their brain activity while sleeping.

The EEGs showed surprising results. On the nights that the participants had alcohol prior to bed, the EEG showed slow wave sleep patterns and more delta activity (which is linked to deep sleep).

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However, it also showed increased alpha activity — something that wasn’t shown on the night the participants didn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t happen during normal sleep. Alpha activity is brain activity that occurs when the brain is awake but resting.

It is thought that sleeping with both delta and alpha activity in the brain leads to disrupted sleep because the alpha activity disrupts the restorative effect of the delta activity.

In fact, in prior research studies, delta-alpha activity has been linked to drowsiness during the day, headaches and irritability.

According to Harvard Health, alcohol has a sedative effect — so it will make you drowsy. However, several hours after imbibing in a cocktail, the alcohol causes an increase in the body’s level of epinephrine. This rise in epinephrine increases the heart rate and stimulates the body, causing wakefulness.

Healthier Alcohol Consumption

If you use alcohol as a sleep aid, it is wise to stop. Use of alcohol to promote sleep can lead to insomnia and alcohol independence.

In fact, according to sleep specialist Michael Breus, regular use of alcohol as a sleep aid can lead to a greater chance of sleep walking, sleep talking and memory problems.

Healthier Sleep Habits

It is better to rely on healthier sleep hygiene as opposed to alcohol as a sleep aid. First, talk to your physician to rule out any other sleep conditions, such as sleep apnea, that may be causing issues.

Aside from that, there are ways to promote adequate sleep:

  • Keep a consistent bedtime routine. This means going to bed at the same time every single night.
  • Avoid naps. Naps can lead to fragmented sleep and difficulty falling sleep the following night.
  • If you find yourself awake for more than 10 minutes, get out of bed. Lying in bed with your mind racing does not promote rest. Get up and sit in a dark area, without the TV or using your smartphone, which can cause further stimulation.
  • Don’t watch TV in bed. The bed is for sleep.
  • Be cautious with caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the body, so drinking it too close to bedtime can cause sleeplessness.
  • Exercise promotes sleep. Make sure to do any vigorous exercise before 2:00 p.m. If you choose to do exercise prior to bed, make it a relaxing exercise, such as yoga.

Next time you’re planning that night out with friends, don’t fret about an occasional sleepless night. Just don’t make a habit out of it!