You don’t know what happened.
It used to be, you could go out drinking with friends and hang out for hours. But now? Not so much.
Where once a gin and tonic left you in the mood to party, it now makes you feel like you need to go to bed. Are your drinking days officially done?
Let’s talk about why alcohol makes some people sleepy and what that means for your relationship with alcohol.
- Why does alcohol make me sleepy?
- Understanding The Sedative Effects of Alcohol
- How Alcohol Impacts Your Sleep
Why does alcohol make me sleepy?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. When you drink, alcohol affects the activity of certain neurotransmitters, such as GABA and glutamate. When the activity of these neurotransmitters speeds up, your brain activity slows way down, making you feel sleepy.
Understanding The Sedative Effects of Alcohol
While many drink alcohol to ramp up their mood and start a party, the science behind what effects alcohol has on your body is actually the reverse. It’s also why many people have a nightcap in the evening to help them fall asleep faster. Again, this is because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant – it has a sedative effect.
It triggers a sleepy response throughout your body. As it enters your bloodstream and circulates to the brain, it affects a vital substance that naturally works to help calm you down.
It’s your brain’s way of keeping you calm and is thought to enhance sleep.
When you drink, the alcohol enhances the way GABA functions, making you feel calmer, less stressed, and less anxious – which sounds great in theory, but the natural response is to want to doze off.
In fact, it’s precisely this response that prompts many to use alcohol as a sleeping aid, especially when experiencing insomnia. This, by the way, is a bad idea because alcohol actually disrupts the quality of your sleep.
Due to the biphasic effect of alcohol, you may doze off initially, but the effects are not long-lasting.
How Alcohol Impacts Your Sleep
While alcohol triggers a response that will see you feeling sleepy initially, it doesn’t mean you’ll have a full eight hours. In fact, it’s been proven that the rest of your sleep will likely be disrupted, and the quality and quantity of your sleep will be negatively affected.
Effects On REM Sleep
Sleep quality is adversely affected by the consumption of alcohol because of the way your REM sleep cycle is disrupted. REM sleep is the period of deep sleep where most of your rest occurs, and while it’s not the deepest stage of sleep, it’s essential for feeling rested and refreshed.
Alcohol tends to prevent a consistent amount of time spent in REM sleep, so while you may doze off just fine, you won’t sleep well for the entire time.
It’s also been shown that alcohol can trigger very vivid dreams and nightmares, which also prevents you from sleeping well and feeling refreshed. If you’re waking from sleep because of bad dreams, hangxiety, or feeling hungover, it stands to reason you won’t get a solid night’s sleep, despite having felt drowsy just a short while ago.
Alcohol is also a vasodilator, making your blood vessels and capillaries open up more. For some people, a flushed face and feeling warm just a few sips into a glass of wine are proof of this fact.
But while you feel warm at the moment, your core temperature actually drops as the heat moves to the surface of your skin. This also means that you’re likely to feel colder after you’ve dozed off.
Effects On Circadian Rhythm
In addition to affecting GABA, alcohol also suppresses melatonin, which is key to regulating your sleep-wake cycles.
This means that the natural circadian rhythm – the 24-hour cycle that is your body’s internal clock – is disrupted. The result is that your body doesn’t naturally respond to the external cues that keep this rhythm.
For example, you usually start feeling drowsy when it gets dark. Drinking alcohol regularly can disrupt that process.
You may now find that your sleep-wake cycle is out of whack, leaving you wide awake and unable to sleep at the appropriate time and feeling drowsy during hours you’re supposed to be working or being productive.
This disorganized rhythm also comes with low energy due to a lack of restorative sleep, and with the effects of dehydration (and a hangover), you’ll likely struggle to concentrate.
So, even if you did manage to get some sleep after a few drinks, you won’t feel refreshed or particularly on the ball the following day. Together with a messed-up circadian rhythm and lack of REM sleep, here are other effects of alcohol that can leave you feeling worse the day after:
- Frequent waking to go to the bathroom
- Feeling sick can cause vomiting and subsequent dehydration
- Lack of ample hydration leaves you feeling less alert the day after
- Feeling thirsty and hungry will keep you from sleeping deeply
Alcohol Makes Me Tired, Not Drunk… Why?
When you’re young and start drinking, alcohol’s effects are different. But after you’ve been drinking a while, those effects might change. Where you once experienced a buzzy bliss, you now feel exhausted and ready for bed.
It’s thought that as we age – and with experience – we build up a tolerance to alcohol, meaning the body’s response to the effects of alcohol changes. It takes more alcohol to have the same effect.
Because frequent, heavy drinkers show a developed tolerance to alcohol, the sedative effect can become more noticeable when they’re not feeling tipsy or drunk. The brain adapts to the alcohol in your system and no longer reacts the same way – it will balance out the brain chemistry to accommodate the alcohol present.
It’s important to note how concerning this is because when you’re at a point where you need to consume larger quantities of alcohol to initiate the same buzz, it’s a major red flag. Studies have shown that a developed tolerance may indicate alcohol use disorders.
How Do I Keep From Getting Sleepy After Drinking?
Honestly, the best way to avoid the unpleasant side effects of drinking is not to drink at all. This is especially true for those who have already built a tolerance to alcohol and need to find ways of scaling it down.
There is no magic trick to make alcohol affect your body differently. It just doesn’t work that way.
For a lot of people, the idea of quitting drinking can be very scary, and I get that!
But if you’ve reached a point of alcohol tolerance that negatively impacts your ability to sleep and function well, at the very least, it’s a sign to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
This means acknowledging that alcohol can be very damaging and leave you feeling worse as time progresses. Some people can learn to transform their relationship with alcohol. Many cannot.
Only you can know which camp you fall into. I’ll include a quiz at the bottom to help you identify whether you’re more of a gray area drinker or someone with a problematic relationship with alcohol.
If you’re not ready to quit drinking, these are your best bet tips for avoiding sleepiness when you have a few drinks:
- Drink responsibly and in moderation – too much will see you crash fast.
- Don’t drink if you’re already tired or in a negative emotional space. As a depressant, alcohol will only amplify what you’re feeling tenfold.
- Ensure you’ve eaten before drinking and keep hydrated – intersperse your drinks with lots of water.
- Choose your drinks carefully. Opt for an alcoholic beverage with a lower ABV. Some alcohol is more potent than others, and opting for a beer will have less of an effect than a lineup of shots – knowing yourself and being honest about your response to alcohol is essential.
- Take a break from alcohol if you notice a developed tolerance and resume with a renewed mindset that moderates how much you drink.
- Avoid medications when you’re drinking. Some combinations of painkillers and other drugs interact badly with alcohol and will not just prompt drowsiness but could be potentially dangerous.
Alcohol As An Aid For Insomnia
It’s understandable why some people try to harness the sedative effects of alcohol to help them deal with insomnia. A nightcap before bed will relax you, make you feel calmer, and lull you to sleep – this much is true – but that’s not to say it’s a good idea.
We’ve seen how an initial period of sleepiness results from drinking alcohol and how disruptive it is for the remainder of your sleep cycle. There’s more to it; however, that warrants discussion.
Using alcohol to doze off as a means of shutting out the world stops you from dealing with problems in a healthy way. It can quickly become a harmful coping mechanism, which compounds as you develop a tolerance.
Where in the past, a drink or two would help you fall asleep, you now need double that to doze off. It’s easy to see how this can become a very harmful habit.
Plus, with its nature as a depressant, alcohol also compounds negative emotions – if you’re already feeling down, you will not feel any better after a few drinks.
Research has shown that people who drink heavily are far more likely to be diagnosed with depression. In fact, alcohol can exacerbate existing anxiety and depression, which can make your insomnia even worse. It’s not uncommon for people to report feeling more depressed after drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages.
A Note on Changing Your Relationship with Alcohol:
I have many resources for helping you quit drinking, but I have little to offer in the way of helping you change your relationship with alcohol and continue drinking.
That’s because I don’t believe there is a healthy amount of alcohol to consume, and the amount of effort it requires most people to drink only moderately feels Herculean. You might as well not drink.
But I live in reality! I know that people drink.
Every adult in my life drinks.
There are really smart people out there approaching the problem of drinking from new perspectives and angles.
If you’d like to learn from one of these people, I recommend Annie Grace. She’s the author of This Naked Mind and has a few webinars and course offerings you might find beneficial.
I’m an affiliate for Annie, so if you decide to go with one of her paid programs, I may receive a commission at absolutely no extra charge to you! I’m very selective about who I partner with and wouldn’t recommend her if I didn’t believe she could actually help.
Curious to see what she’s about? She hosts a free, live webinar you can catch at this link.
Alcohol Use Disorder Quiz
The following quiz is similar to the alcohol use disorder questionnaire used in medical offices. It is not a substitute for an official medical diagnosis. This is for informational purposes only.