Impact of Alcohol and Exercise on Sleep Quality and Circadian Rhythms

Last updated: September 4th, 2023

How Alcohol Affects Sleep & Exercise

Most Americans drink alcohol, and people who exercise tend to drink more alcohol than people with low levels of physical activity. If you are an active person who drinks alcohol, you might be interested in the ways that alcohol, exercise, and sleep interact. Both alcohol and exercise can help people fall asleep. But exercise tends to help people sleep better, while alcohol disrupts sleep later in the night and leads to low-quality sleep.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep

Alcohol can affect your body in many ways. Because it depresses the central nervous system, slowing down brain activity, it can interfere with coordination, memory, and the ability to think clearly. Additionally, it can increase heart rate and blood pressure. These effects likely influence the complex relationship between alcohol and sleep. Studies have shown that consuming alcohol can help people fall asleep faster. This is particularly true for people who have trouble falling or staying asleep.

For these reasons, many turn to alcohol as a sleep aid. However, consuming alcohol before bedtime ultimately leads to lower quality sleep, as it makes a person more likely to wake up, snore, and experience other sleep disruptions once it wears off. Drinking alcohol at night also increases the likelihood of feeling sleepy during the daytime. Reactions to alcohol vary from person to person, but generally, the more alcohol you consume and the more quickly you drink it, the more intense its effects are. Regularly consuming alcohol has the potential to disrupt circadian rhythms—the patterns of sleeping and waking that are governed by a person’s biological clock. Moreover, alcohol consumption can intensify the symptoms of some sleep disorders and may contribute to the development of sleep disorders in people who don’t have them.

Alcohol and the Sleep Cycle

Alcohol also affects the human sleep cycle, which takes place in four stages. In the first three stages, a person progresses from very light sleep in stage 1 to restorative deep sleep in stage 3. Stage 4, also called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, is when dreaming occurs. People only spend about 20 percent of their total sleeping time in stage 4. Many studies indicate that alcohol consumption disrupts sleeping patterns in stages 3 and 4, the phases of sleep most important for feeling energized and refreshed. Alcohol has a calming effect and can reduce the REM sleep stage. This makes it harder to awaken in the morning and can cause the person to become very tired as the day progresses.

Effect of Alcohol & Exercise on Sleep

The combination of drinking alcohol and exercising can be detrimental to sleep quality, both in the short- and long-term. A recent study found that alcohol combined with physical activity led to shorter sleep durations and more nighttime awakenings. Additionally, in a single night, drinking alcohol and exercising can interrupt natural sleep rhythms, particularly in the later stages. If activities like these become part of an individual’s lifestyle, they can lead to long-term sleep disturbances. Exercise has positive effects on sleep, such as helping people fall asleep faster and improving sleep quality and duration. Alcohol, on the other hand, has adverse effects. If you are physically active and drink alcohol, it is best to avoid exercising after consuming alcohol.

Impact on Circadian Rhythms

Chronic alcohol consumption also affects circadian rhythms. It does this by suppressing the release of melatonin, the hormone that signals to the body it is night-time and triggers the sleep process. In this way, alcohol impedes the sleep-wake cycle. Alcohol also makes sleep shallower and lighter, as it has a sedative effect on the body. It increases deep sleep in the initial stages and decreases REM sleep. When you wake up after a night of drinking, your energy levels can be low. Moreover, alcohol consumption can disrupt the circadian rhythm of individuals whose biological clocks are already out of sync. The most important thing is to understand is when you drink and how much you drink. If you choose to drink alcohol at night, do so in moderation. This means one drink or less a day for women and two drinks or less a day for men. And don’t combine drinking with exercise.

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