How Alcohol Affects Sleep & Exercise

UPDATED

Written by Afy Okoye

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Breus

Our Editorial Process

Table of Contents

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 most dreaming occurs.

Typically, these stages repeat several times over the course of a night, with non-REM sleep dominating the first half of the night and REM sleep dominating the second half of the night. However, alcohol interferes with the natural progression of these sleep cycles.

A person who goes to sleep with a high blood alcohol content tends to initially experience increases in stage 3 sleep and decreases in REM sleep. In other words, they sleep deeply as long as alcohol remains in their system. However, after their body metabolizes the alcohol, there is a rebound effect marked by frequent wakings and increased stage 1 sleep.

Alcohol abuse and dependence can negatively impact sleep cycles in the long term, leading to less deep sleep and more sleep disruptions than normal. These effects may persist even after a person stops using alcohol.

Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by recurring breathing disruptions, often caused by a narrowing or collapse of the airway. People with sleep apnea tend to choke, gasp, or snore as their breathing starts and stops—and the resulting sleep disturbances typically lead to daytime sleepiness.

Experts recommend that people with sleep apnea avoid alcohol before bedtime. Drinking alcohol can increase breathing disruptions, intensify snoring, and lead to lower blood oxygen levels, resulting in even greater daytime sleepiness. Alcohol consumption may also contribute to weight gain, which can cause sleep apnea to become more severe.

For people who snore but do not have sleep apnea, drinking alcohol can facilitate the development of sleep apnea.

Alcohol and Insomnia

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Some people experience insomnia for short periods of time, particularly if they are experiencing stressful life events, while others experience long-term insomnia, sometimes without any attributable cause.

Because alcohol can increase sleepiness, some people with insomnia consume it to help them fall asleep. However, some research suggests that the body can quickly develop a tolerance to this way of getting to sleep.

Moreover, some studies indicate that people might attempt to overcome this tolerance by increasing the amount of alcohol they drink at bedtime. This could put them at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.

Insomnia appears to have a complex relationship with heavy drinking. On the one hand, experiencing insomnia may prompt heavy drinking. On the other hand, heavy drinking may contribute to insomnia symptoms.

How Alcohol Impacts Exercise

Consuming alcohol immediately before exercise has the potential to impair athletic performance, given that alcohol negatively affects muscle coordination, balance, and reaction times. The limited research on this topic suggests that it can also compromise endurance during aerobic exercise.

It may also be unsafe to combine alcohol and exercise. Under the influence of alcohol, you are much more susceptible to injury and accidents, and exercise is already an activity that carries inherent risk of injury.

You might feel less desire to exercise after a night of heavy drinking or while experiencing the symptoms of a hangover, which can include headache, nausea, weakness, and fatigue. It is advisable to avoid exercising with a hangover for a couple of reasons.

  • Dehydration: Alcohol causes the body to lose fluids, and the resulting dehydration contributes to some of the unpleasant side effects of a hangover. Make sure to rehydrate before exercising, as hydration is vital to engaging in and recovering from athletic activities, as well as preventing injuries.
  • Risk of injury and accident: During a hangover, your coordination, ability to make decisions, and concentration may remain compromised. This could result in an injury or accident during exercise.

For most people, occasional or moderate drinking—about one alcoholic beverage per day for women and two per day for men—is safe and should not affect your ability to exercise, so long as you don’t drink right before or during exercise. Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol after you exercise is also unlikely to affect your recovery from a workout or athletic event.

Regularly drinking too much alcohol, however, is likely to have a negative impact on fitness. People with alcohol use disorders (AUD) tend to perform more poorly than people without AUD on tests of balance, speed, strength, and endurance. And over the long term, AUD can have serious health consequences that compromise a person’s ability to exercise.

Patterns of Alcohol Consumption in People Who Exercise

Interestingly, people who regularly exercise are more likely to drink alcohol than people who are less physically active. One study has even suggested that people have a tendency to drink more alcohol on days that they exercise. Experts have put forward several theories to explain the relationship between exercise and alcohol consumption.

  • Brain activity: Exercise and alcohol consumption can activate the same areas of the brain, resulting in the release of chemicals that create pleasurable feelings. People may seek out both activities because they enjoy these effects.
  • Stress relief: Exercise and moderate alcohol consumption both appear to decrease anxiety. People may engage in both behaviors as a way to deal with stress.
  • The licensing effect: After achieving a goal or engaging in a “good” behavior, people sometimes reward themselves by indulging in an unhealthy or “bad” behavior—a phenomenon called “the licensing effect.” It is possible that people reward themselves for exercising by consuming more alcohol than they would otherwise.

One study of alcohol use and exercise found that among men who drank heavily, high levels of physical fitness decreased the likelihood of alcohol dependence. This was not the case for women in the study, and more research is needed to determine whether or not exercise might offer some protection against alcohol use disorders.

How Do Alcohol and Exercise Affect Sleep?

While alcohol can compromise sleep quality and aggravate sleep disorders, exercise has many known benefits for sleep. Regular exercise can help you fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and enjoy higher quality sleep. And if you have sleep apnea or insomnia, moderate-intensity activities like brisk walking or playing tennis might help you get better sleep.

However, heavy drinking can counteract some of these benefits, leading to fragmented, unrefreshing sleep even after exercise.

If you both exercise and drink alcohol, there are a number of steps you can take to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep.

  • Exercise in the late afternoon or early evening. Exercising four to six hours before bedtime appears to be the optimal timing for helping you fall asleep. However, if your schedule doesn’t allow for this, physical activity at any time of day benefits sleep. Just avoid vigorous exercise in the two hours before going to sleep.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol near bedtime. If you fall asleep with alcohol in your system, you may experience sleep disruptions once your body metabolizes it. Your blood alcohol content can remain elevated for more than two hours after you consume a single drink, so the more time you can put between drinking and bedtime, the better.
  • Avoid heavy drinking. Heavy drinking makes sleep disruptions more likely, given that your body can only process so much alcohol per hour. This typically involves consuming more than three drinks in a day for women and more than four drinks in a day for men.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. You are likely to sleep better if you go to bed and wake up at the same time every night, one of the foundational sleep hygiene practices. If you drink socially, be mindful of the ways that occasions like parties and sporting events can impact your sleep schedule.

While consuming alcohol in small quantities is safe for most people, experts generally agree that it’s a good idea to limit how much alcohol you drink. And there are some people who should avoid alcohol altogether, including pregnant people, individuals with liver or pancreatic disease, and people with alcohol use disorders.

If you think alcohol consumption might be negatively affecting your ability to sleep, or if you have concerns about alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorders, please talk to your health care provider or make use of the free national helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

About The Author

Afy Okoye

Staff Writer, Sleep Health


Afy is a writer and creative strategist in San Francisco with a master’s degree in international health policy from the London School of Economics. She has written for VeryWell Health, BlackDoctor.org, and Paste magazine and edited peer-reviewed journal manuscripts for Elsevier. Afy says her work with The Sleep Doctor is anything but “sleepy.” She enjoys the opportunity to learn new information and share knowledge that gives people the power to make better choices. Afy also likes to read non-fiction, do creative writing, and travel solo.

  • POSITION: Side Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper
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