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Alcohol and Mental Health

How Does Alcohol Affect Our Dreams?

October 18, 2023
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
October 18, 2023
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
October 18, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
October 18, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
October 18, 2023
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You’ve had a couple glasses of wine and start dozing off on the couch. You make your way to your bed, hit the lights, and conk out as soon as your head hits the pillow. After several hours, however, you start to stir. You spend the rest of the night drifting in and out of sleep, hopping from one vivid, bizarre dream to another. What’s going on? 

What is the connection between alcohol and dreams, and alcohol and nightmares in particular? Does alcohol cause nightmares? And why do we dream of drinking alcohol? In this post, we’ll explore how dreaming works, why dreams are important, and how alcohol affects our dreaming life. We’ll also offer some tips to get a good night’s rest. Let’s get started! 

How Do We Dream? 

Before we dive into how alcohol affects our dreams, it’s helpful to understand what happens when we dream. It’s pretty remarkable! Some of us wake up having absolutely no recollection of what transpired during our sleep, while others wake up remembering our dreams in vivid detail — so much so that they can sometimes be hard to shake.

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Dreaming is a natural part of our sleep cycle. In fact, whether or not we remember our dreams, just about everyone dreams every time they sleep — for a total of around two hours per night. 

Over the course of the night, we go through four to six complete sleep cycles, each of which is composed of four individual stages; each complete cycle takes about 90 minutes. Stages 1 and 2 are considered “light sleep,” as our body begins to relax and brain activity begins to slow. Stage 3 is referred to as “delta sleep” or “slow-wave sleep,” as our brain activity during this period follows the pattern of delta waves. 

The fourth stage of sleep is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which usually accounts for about 25% of our sleep time. We can tell someone is in REM when their eyes are moving rapidly under their eyelids, which is how this stage gets its name. 

While dreaming can occur during any stage of sleep, it’s most prevalent and intense during REM sleep. Interestingly, dreams that happen during non-REM and REM sleep tend to show different patterns. REM dreams are typically more vivid, immersive, or bizarre; non-REM dreams tend to involve more coherent content that involves thoughts or memories grounded in a specific time and place. 

When we wake up and say, “I had a really weird dream,” it probably occurred during REM sleep. The reason for this is largely due to the heightened brain activity. In fact, sleep studies show that brain waves are almost as active during REM cycles as they are when we’re awake. During REM sleep, there is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional and autobiographical memory regions of the brain. However, there’s also decreased activity in other regions, like the ones involved in rational thought — which is the reason for our nonsensical dreams. 

Why Do We Dream?

The different sleep stages and their dreams are fascinating, but why do we even dream in the first place? Do our dreams serve a purpose, or are they just random occurrences?  

Sleep experts, psychologists, and neuroscientists continue to debate the purposes of dream, but there are some leading theories: 

  • Consolidating memories. Dreaming helps us consolidate memories, strengthening memory and informational recall. Studies show that during REM sleep, low-frequency theta waves were more active in the frontal lobe, just as they are when people are learning, storing, and remembering information when awake. Similarly, dreaming may be our brain’s way of tidying up, clearing away partial or unnecessary information. 
  • Processing emotions. Dreams play a role in emotional brain regulation and help us process and cope with memories, trauma, or difficult feelings. Research shows that the amygdala (which processes emotions) and the hippocampus (which condenses information) are active during vivid, intense dreaming. This may be why it helps to “sleep on it” if we have to make an important decision and why, if we go to bed with a troubling thought, we may wake up with a solution or at least feel better about the situation.
  • Preparing and protecting. One theory of dreaming states that dreaming prepares us to confront dangers in the real world. This theory suggests that because our amygdala — the part of our brain associated with survival instinct and fight-or-flight response — is more active during sleep, it may be our brain’s way of preparing us to handle threatening scenarios, such as running away from a pursuer. In other words, dreams offer us a safe environment to practice important survival skills. 

Furthermore, some studies have looked into the importance of dreams to our health and well-being. One study found that those who weren’t allowed to dream had more tension, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, and weight gain, compared to those who experienced REM sleep. 

The bottom line is that despite advancing scientific knowledge, there are still many unknowns about the underlying mechanism and functions of dreams. What scientists do know, however, is that REM sleep is one of the most important stages of sleep for our physical and mental restoration. It’s especially important for cognitive functions, such as memory consolidation, emotional processing, learning, and creativity. In fact, REM sleep deprivation interferes with memory formation and can impact our mood and mental focus. Lack of REM sleep can even weaken our immune system, blocking the growth of new healthy cells and tissue in the body.

Alcohol and Dreams: The Connection

So where does alcohol fit into the picture, and what is the link between alcohol and dreams? Many people might assume that alcohol helps us sleep better — after all, it’s not unusual to get sleepy after having a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine. This sleepiness is largely because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, slowing brain activity and making it easier to nod off. 

However, alcohol actually suppresses REM sleep — the stage that promotes restoration and vivid dreaming. So when we first fall asleep, we’ll spend most of our time in slow-wave sleep or “light sleep.” Interestingly, many people report wild, vivid dreams after consuming alcohol. But wait — if alcohol suppresses REM, and REM is the stage where we vividly dream, how can drinking cause vivid dreaming? Good question! It all comes down to what happens after we’ve been asleep for several hours. 

As alcohol continues to be metabolized in our body throughout the night, its sedative effects wear off, resulting in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions. This is why we tend to wake up frequently in the second half of the night after drinking.

Once this occurs, REM is no longer suppressed, and our brain starts to go through a “REM rebound.” In other words, our brain compensates for the lack of REM sleep by boosting the duration of REM sleep and increasing the ease at which we enter this stage. 

However, since alcohol causes us to wake up more frequently, we can often recall our vivid dreams in detail. In other words, we’re likely to remember a dream if we wake up as it occurs. Otherwise, we’ll go into another sleep cycle, passing through dreams without any memory of them. Because alcohol fragments our sleep, there are more chances we’ll wake up and have vivid recall. 

Can Alcohol Cause Nightmares?

Yes, the disruption of sleep is especially conducive to nightmares. For one thing, they tend to be more vivid, so we might recall them more easily when they happen. The withdrawal effect that happens during the night as alcohol leaves our bodies also tends to contribute to nightmares in particular. For some, the psychological effects of drinking, including heightened emotions or stress, may also contribute to more frequent nightmares.

Alcohol and Dreams: The Following Night

Furthermore, according to sleep experts, alcohol doesn’t just affect our sleep the night we’ve been drinking; it can also affect us the following night. Because alcohol disrupts our sleep, our body tries to spend more time in REM sleep the following night in order to make up for the time lost. The more time we spend in REM, the more active our brain becomes, contributing to bizarre, intense dreams. This is why people may experience vivid dreams the night after drinking. 

In general, alcohol disrupts our sleep cycle and reduces our overall quality of sleep by limiting the amount of time we spend in REM. And even just a couple of drinks can have a negative effect. For instance, one study found that having fewer than two servings of alcohol per day for men or one serving per day for women decreased sleep quality by nearly 10 percent. 

Why Do We Dream of Drinking Alcohol?

As for “alcohol dreams” specifically — ones where we find ourselves drinking, especially if we’re trying to cut back or quit — what’s going on there?

  • Lifestyle reflection. If drinking is a regular part of our lives, it's not surprising to see it show up in our dreams, just like any other daily activity.
  • Desire or craving. If we think a lot about our drinking when awake — perhaps having frequent cravings — it’s natural to dream about it. Our dreams often reflect our interests and desires.
  • Processing memories. Our brain sorts through our day-to-day experiences during sleep. If those include drinking — especially if we’re conflicted about it or are questioning our alcohol use — it might surface at night as “alcohol dreams.”
  • Dealing with internal shifts. For those who are trying to cut back or quit, dreaming about drinking might indicate shifting thoughts around alcohol as the brain adjusts to the new normal and integrates the past with the present. This can be uncomfortable, but might actually be a sign of growth!

What Other Things Influence Our Dreams?

Alcohol isn’t the only thing that influences our sleep cycle. Here’s a closer look at 4 factors that can affect our dream life and sleep quality:

  • Stress. Stress can make its way into our dreams, causing us to experience stress dreams — vivid, intense, distressing dreams caused by stress or anxiety. In fact, research shows that those who experience greater levels of worry in their lives report higher frequency and intensity of nightmares. 
  • Mental health. Similarly, studies indicate that people with mental health conditions such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression tend to have more distressing dreams and more difficulty sleeping in general. 
  • Not enough sleep. Just as our body tries to make up for lost time in REM sleep the night after drinking, being sleep deprived for other reasons — like crossing time zones or pulling an all-nighter — can increase REM, triggering vivid, wild dreams. Research shows our brain actually tries to “catch up” on its REM cycles in the REM rebound effect. 
  • Exercise. Research shows that regular exercise fosters deeper sleep and may lead to more vivid dreams — but timing may play a role. For instance, one study shows that exercising before noon helps sync our circadian rhythm so that we’re more inclined to fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep than if we didn’t exercise or if we exercised late at night. 

We often don’t give a lot of thought to how certain things affect the content of our dreams or the quality of our sleep. But these four factors play a vital role, and we should look into them if we find ourselves struggling with sleep. 

Illustration: 5 tips for better REM sleep - dark room, comfy bed, no caffeine, regular schedule, relax before bed

Tips for Getting More REM Sleep

Besides limiting our alcohol consumption or eliminating it entirely, certain activities can help promote restful REM sleep. Here are 5 tips: 

  1. Develop a sleep routine. Creating a bedtime routine that you follow every evening signals to our brain that it’s time for sleep. For instance, maybe you take a shower or bath, put on pajamas, brush your teeth, and start reading. Or maybe you develop the habit of journaling for 10 minutes before turning the lights off. 

  2. Be consistent. Try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time — even on weekends and holidays. Even a couple of late nights and wake ups can throw our biological clock out of whack and leave us feeling tired. Keep in mind that experts recommend getting at least 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. 

  3. Practice relaxation techniques. Since stress can significantly disrupt our sleep, practicing relaxation techniques can prepare our body and mind for sleep. For instance, we might try guided meditation, yoga nidra, mindfulness, or deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing. For more ideas, check out the 10 best meditations for stress relief. 

  4. Unplug from technology and electronics. Exposure to blue light suppresses the body’s release of melatonin (a hormone that makes us feel drowsy), making it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Try to establish an electronic curfew — a time in the evening when all TVs, phones, and computers are turned off. This should be at least 30 minutes before bedtime, ideally an hour before. 

  5. Create an optimal sleep environment. Research shows that cool, dark rooms are typically more conducive to restorative sleep. Experts recommend setting your thermostat to 60-68 degrees F or 15-20 degrees C (65 degrees F or 18 degrees C is usually ideal). If it’s too noisy or too quiet, create white noise in the form of a fan, humidifier, or noise machine. 

The Bottom Line

When we first fall asleep, alcohol suppresses REM, which is the stage of sleep that promotes vivid dreaming. However, as it’s metabolized out of our body, we may experience vivid dreams in the latter half of the night as our brain tries to compensate for lack of REM sleep. Because alcohol causes us to wake up more frequently in the second half of the night, we may recall more dreams than we would if we hadn’t consumed alcohol. REM sleep is vital for our physical and mental restoration, so it’s important to do everything we can to promote it. We can do this by developing a sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time, practicing relaxation techniques, unplugging from technology, and creating an optimal sleep environment.

If you’re using alcohol to help you sleep, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and get a better night’s rest. 

Summary FAQs

1. How do dreams work?

Dreaming is a natural part of our sleep cycle. While dreaming can occur at any stage of sleep, it’s most prevalent and intense during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

2. Why do we dream?

Experts continue to debate whether dreams serve a purpose. Some theories suggest that dreaming helps us consolidate memories, process emotions, or prepare us for challenges. 

3. How does alcohol affect our dreams?

Alcohol suppresses REM sleep in the beginning of the night. However, as it’s metabolized out of our body, we may experience vivid dreams in the latter half of the night as our brain tries to make up for lack of REM sleep. Similarly, because alcohol causes us to wake up more frequently, we may experience more dream recall than we would if we hadn’t consumed alcohol.

4. What other things influence our dream life?

Stress can seep its way into our dreams, causing us to experience stress dreams. Similarly, if we struggle with anxiety or depression, we may have more distressing dreams. Furthermore, we’re likely to experience more vivid dreams if we haven’t slept for a prolonged period of time. 

5. How can we get more REM sleep?

Developing a sleep routine, going to bed and waking up at the same time, practicing relaxation techniques, unplugging from technology, and creating an optimal sleep environment can help promote restorative rest. 

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