Some people drink closer to bedtime to help them fall asleep. But it can trigger a dangerous cycle of more fragmented sleep, followed by heavy drinking. “I see a lot of people self-medicating for insomnia with alcohol, which is definitely not good practice,” said Dr. Sabra Abbott, assistant professor of neurology in sleep medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. According to her and other experts, prolonged nighttime drinking can establish disturbing patterns that can persist even after people stop drinking.
To help gauge how alcohol may be affecting your sleep, experts recommend an alcohol-free reset period, or what Dr. Martin has called a “drinking vacation,” lasting at least two weeks. “It can be very revealing to appreciate how much alcohol affects your sleep,” she said. Many people who think they have insomnia, she says, may simply be drinking too much or too close to bedtime.
“It turns out that if they don’t drink, they sleep much better,” said Dr. Martin, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. After the “holiday,” she said, “they can just make a more informed decision about how much and how often they drink alcohol.”
Experts also suggest building in a buffer zone of at least a few hours between drinking and bedtime. A nightcap is not your friend. “It’s probably okay to have a glass of wine with dinner four hours before bedtime,” Dr. Abbott said. Or maybe limit your alcohol intake to happy hour or cocktail hour.
Alcohol can also disrupt your morning routine. “People may turn to stimulants” like caffeine, drinking coffee late into the afternoon, said Dr. Armeen Poor, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Metropolitan Hospital Center in New York and an assistant professor of medicine clinic at New York Medical College.
“It makes it harder to fall asleep at night,” he said. “And then you need more of that sedative, and then it goes and goes and goes and goes.”