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Why Do You Wake Up Early After Drinking?

December 28, 2023
18 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.
December 28, 2023
18 min read
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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.
December 28, 2023
18 min read
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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.
December 28, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
December 28, 2023
18 min read

You pick up a drink, hoping it will give you a good night’s rest. Then you find yourself awake before dawn, unable to fall back asleep again. So why does this happen? Is it a sign that something is wrong? But also, isn’t alcohol supposed to help us get better rest? Let’s explore some potential reasons why you might wake up so early after drinking.

The Science of Sleep and Alcohol

Alcohol has many negative impacts on our sleep, affecting our sleep cycle and brain chemistry. Understanding the science of sleep and its interaction with alcohol involves exploring the impact of alcohol on various physiological and neurological processes. Here's a detailed look at the science behind sleep and alcohol: 

Neurotransmitter effects. Alcohol enhances the activity of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. This results in a sedative effect, making it easier to fall asleep initially. Alcohol also inhibits the release of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. This further contributes to the calming and sedative effects.

Sleep architecture disruption. While alcohol can initially shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, it reduces our REM sleep, a critical phase for memory consolidation and emotional processing. Alcohol can disrupt the normal progression through sleep cycles, leading to fragmented sleep with more awakenings during the night.

How Alcohol Disrupts the Sleep Cycle

Alcohol disrupts the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, which is important for a restful sleep. As the alcohol wears off, your body can rebound from the deep sleep stage to lighter sleep stages, causing you to wake up earlier. 

Alcohol also interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. This disruption can shift the circadian rhythm, confusing the body’s natural sense of day and night. As our internal clock becomes disrupted, the signals that tell us when to wake up and when to sleep are affected, leading to difficulty initiating and maintaining sleep, and often resulting in early morning awakenings.

While one or two nights with diminished REM sleep is not as concerning, continual disturbance is harmful. Nights of alcohol consumption and suppressed REM sleep can add up — leading to something called REM rebound. During this phase, the brain attempts to make up for the lost REM sleep, leading to more extended, more frequent REM stages. It might sound intriguing to be able to dream more, but it can actually lead to sleep disruptions, nightmares, or waking up with a sense of grogginess. 

Other Physiological Causes

1. Dehydration

  • Diuretic effect. Alcohol inhibits the release of vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone that helps the body reabsorb water. With less vasopressin, the kidneys send more water directly to the bladder, resulting in increased urine production.

  • Increased thirst and bathroom trips. The body’s response to losing fluids can lead to waking up thirsty or needing to urinate during the night. It might cause you to wake up feeling thirsty or needing to go to the bathroom.This not only disrupts sleep but can also lead to a headache, dry mouth, and dizziness once you are awake. 

  • Chemical imbalance. The more we urinate, the more we’re also losing vital salts and minerals like potassium and sodium, which are important for our muscle function, energy, and even brain activity.

  • Other nasties. Dehydration also compounds other symptoms caused by a bad night’s rest, like causing headaches, dry skin, and fatigue. 

2. Blood Sugar Levels

  • Hypoglycemia. Drinking can affect your blood sugar levels. Alcohol can cause blood sugar levels to fall, especially if consumed on an empty stomach or in large quantities. The liver, which normally releases stored glucose to maintain blood sugar levels, is busy metabolizing alcohol and fails to regulate blood sugar effectively.

  • Energy deficiency. A drop in blood sugar may cause the body to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which signal the brain to wake up, leading to interrupted sleep.

3. Withdrawal Effect

  • Rebound stimulation. As the sedative effect of alcohol wears off, the central nervous system can go into a state of hyperarousal, a form of withdrawal. This may result in restlessness, sweating, and increased heart rate, causing you to awaken prematurely.

  • Anxiety and discomfort. The withdrawal symptoms can also include psychological effects like anxiety or agitation, making it harder for us to fall back asleep. Frustratingly, the more we try to fall back asleep without success, the more agitated we become, and the more awake we are. 

4. Rebound Effect

  • Withdrawal symptoms. As the sedative effects of alcohol wear off, the central nervous system can experience a rebound effect, leading to increased arousal, restlessness, and potentially early morning awakenings. 

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD). Persistent and heavy alcohol consumption can lead to the development of AUD, characterized by a lack of control over alcohol intake, continued use despite negative consequences, and physical and psychological dependence. People with AUD may experience withdrawal symptoms, including heightened arousal and insomnia, when trying to cut back or quit alcohol.

5. Sleep-Related Breathing Issues

  • Sleep disorders. If you already have an existing sleep disorder, like insomnia or sleep apnea, alcohol can worsen the symptoms, making those sporadic awakenings even more frequent.
  • Increased sleep apnea risk. Alcohol relaxes the muscles in the throat, increasing the risk of snoring and exacerbating sleep apnea symptoms. These disruptions can lead to more frequent awakenings during the night. They also lead to other health implications, including increased risks of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. 

6. Body Temperature

  • Initial increase. Alcohol causes peripheral vasodilation, which means it expands blood vessels near the skin's surface, leading to a temporary increase in body temperature.
  • Subsequent drop. But don’t let the warmth deceive you! Later in the night, as the blood alcohol level drops, the opposite effect occurs, leading to a decrease in body temperature, which can disrupt the body’s natural sleep regulation and cause you to wake up. You might find yourself tossing and turning on your bed, waking up either drenched in sweat or reaching for an extra blanket.
  • Night sweats. After drinking alcohol, night sweats are very common. They leave us waking up clammy and disrupt the quality of our sleep. It’s never pleasant to wake up to damp sheets and a disoriented head!

7. Tolerance and Dependence

  • Development of tolerance. Regular alcohol consumption can lead to the development of tolerance, requiring higher amounts to achieve the same sedative effects. This tolerance can contribute to a cycle of increased alcohol intake and disrupted sleep.
  • Physical and psychological dependence. Dependence on alcohol can manifest as both physical and psychological reliance on its sedative effects to initiate sleep. You may find it hard to fall asleep without the aid of alcohol once you’ve become dependent on it. 

8. Individual Variability

  • How will you be affected? Individual responses to alcohol and its effects on sleep can vary. Factors such as tolerance, genetics, and overall health each play a role in how alcohol influences your sleep patterns.

The combined effects of these factors can result in fragmented and poor-quality sleep, often causing us to wake up before we’re fully rested. It's important to be mindful of alcohol consumption, especially before bedtime, to promote better sleep health. 

Long-Term Effects

Regularly consuming alcohol before bedtime can have long-term consequences that go beyond waking up early in the morning. 

  • Disrupted sleep cycle. Over time, relying on that evening drink to induce sleep can lead to a problematic cycle. We drink for sleep, but the quality of that sleep diminishes, prompting us to repeat the cycle in the hope of improved results. In the long term, this can disrupt our natural sleep-wake cycle. Regular alcohol intake can result in a consistent decrease in REM sleep over time. This decline can adversely affect cognitive functions, memory, and mood in the long run.

  • Building tolerance. Our bodies adapt, and regular drinking may require increasing amounts to achieve the same sedative effect. This tolerance leads to higher alcohol consumption, affecting our sleep and health.

  • Aging and alcohol. As we age, our body's ability to metabolize alcohol changes. What had little impact on sleep in our 20s may significantly disrupt sleep in our 40s or 50s. 

How To Have Better Sleep 

  • Time your drinking. If you're accustomed to consuming alcohol close to bedtime, consider gradually increasing the time gap between your last drink and bedtime. This allows your body more time to metabolize the alcohol before sleep, minimizing its disruptive effects on sleep cycles. Aim to stop drinking several hours before bedtime to give your body time to metabolize the alcohol. Be mindful of the quantity and type of alcohol consumed. Opt for lower-alcohol beverages, and avoid binge drinking, as excessive amounts are more likely to cause sleep disturbances.
  • Stay hydrated. Combat the dehydrating effects of alcohol by alternating each drink with a glass of water. Hydrating between drinks helps maintain a better fluid balance and reduces the likelihood of waking up thirsty during the night. Before going to sleep, ensure you are adequately hydrated by drinking a glass of water. This helps counter the dehydrating effects of alcohol and promotes a more restful sleep. 
  • Build better sleep hygiene. Make sure your sleeping environment is conducive to rest and you maintain good sleep hygiene to get a good night’s rest. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to enhance overall sleep quality. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This helps regulate your body's internal clock and improves the efficiency of your sleep.
  • Exercise. Engage in regular daytime exercise to deepen your sleep and potentially cushion the effects of alcohol on your sleep cycle. While regular exercise is beneficial, intense workouts close to bedtime might have stimulating effects. Try to finish exercising at least a few hours before going to sleep. 
  • Eat nutritious food. Choose evening meals and snacks that support good sleep. Foods rich in tryptophan (e.g., turkey, dairy), magnesium (e.g., nuts, leafy greens), and carbohydrates can contribute to better sleep quality. 
  • Practice mindfulness. Incorporate mindfulness and relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or gentle stretching can help calm the mind and prepare the body for sleep. 
  • Track your sleep. Maintain a sleep journal to track your drinking habits and sleep patterns. This awareness can help you identify trends and make informed decisions about adjusting your alcohol consumption for better sleep. 

In Conclusion

Quality sleep is fundamental to our well-being. Waking up too early after drinking is a sign of alcohol disrupting our normal sleep cycle; it means your body needs to regain balance. Although the occasional drink might appear to facilitate falling asleep, it quietly disrupts things behind the scenes. For better rest and a more energized day, consider putting down your drinks the night before. Your body will thank you in the morning! 

Summary FAQs

1. Why do I wake up early after drinking alcohol?

Alcohol disrupts sleep architecture, impacting REM sleep, circadian rhythm, and neurotransmitter systems, leading to early awakenings.

2. Is waking up early after drinking a sign of a sleep problem?

Yes, it can be. Alcohol-induced sleep disruptions may indicate issues with sleep quality and overall sleep health.

3. Does alcohol help with falling asleep initially?

Yes, alcohol has a sedative effect initially by enhancing the activity of inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA. But it will disrupt the normal sleep cycle, making you wake up.

4. How does alcohol disrupt the sleep cycle?

Alcohol interferes with REM sleep, causes rebound effects, and disrupts the production of melatonin, impacting the circadian rhythm.

5. Does alcohol worsen existing sleep disorders?

Yes, alcohol exacerbates sleep disorders like insomnia and increases the risk of sleep apnea, leading to more frequent awakenings.

6. What are the long-term effects of regularly consuming alcohol before bedtime?

Long-term effects include disrupted sleep cycles, building tolerance, cognitive impairments, and increased impact on sleep with age.

7. How can I sleep better after drinking?

Time your drinking, stay hydrated, build better sleep hygiene, exercise regularly, eat nutritious food, practice mindfulness, and track your sleep patterns.

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