Why Does Beer Make Me Sleepy? The Scientific Facts

It’s a common problem among beer lovers, you’re on a Saturday night out with friends downing a few of your favorite IPAs, and all of a sudden you are hit by a wave of tiredness.

No more ideas of going to the club later, you just want to go home and go to bed! Yet your friends drinking wine and other spirits have a couple more hours of partying in them.

Why is it that we beer drinkers feel more tired? Is there a “magic” ingredient in beer that makes us sleepy? If so, could beer be used as a cure for insomnia?

While alcohol is known to make people sleep, a question asked on many beer-lover forums is “why does beer make me sleepy?”

Let’s try to answer this question and see if there are any steps we can take to stop us from falling asleep in that next pint of IPA.

man with closed eyes rubbing his eyes
Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

How Alcohol Makes You Sleepy

Without a doubt the main component of beer which may put us to sleep or at least make us feel drowsy or sleepy is alcohol. After a few glasses of wine, beer, vodka, or almost any other alcoholic beverage, most people will slow down and start to feel sleepy.

Alcohol affects the way your brain works; in particular, the GABA-A receptors which are responsible for your brain’s rate of activity or inactivity.

Here comes the science part, I’ll try to keep it simple so you don’t fall asleep reading this article. (We have beer for that….and beer is far more enjoyable!)

What Are GABA and GABA-A Receptors?

illustrations of Neural network
Image by Ahmed Gad from Pixabay

GABA-A receptors are a type of protein found on nearly all (about 80%) of the neurons in the human nervous system. Neurons are best described as information messengers that use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information from one part of the brain to another and from the brain to the rest of the nervous system.

GABA-A receptors’ main job is to receive gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) the most common inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain which blocks the chemical messages between certain parts of the brain and the nervous system.

Increased levels of GABA are known to have a calming effect and are thought to play a major role in controlling nerve cell hyperactivity associated with anxiety, stress, and fear.

When GABA binds with the GABA-A receptors, they act as a key that allows chloride ions to enter, causing the neurons to fire more slowly which is a natural mechanism to promote feelings of relaxation.

The Effects of Alcohol on GABA-A Receptors

Alcohol molecules that are present in your bloodstream after drinking, bind to the GABA-A receptors and replicate their activity.

By binding to the receptors, the effect of the GABA is enhanced, thus making you feel more tired after drinking.

Why Beer Makes You More Sleepy than Other Alcoholic Drinks

Ok, if you’re still with us and not hitting the zzzz’s already, let’s take a look at what may be causing us beer drinkers to suffer more from tiredness after a heavy night out.

Most beers have much lower alcohol contents than other alcoholic beverages so why does it hit us so hard?

Most people can drink several glasses of wine quite happily and still be alert, yet those same people may drink a few pints of beer and be snoring on the way home.

As soon as my wife and I get home from a night on the town I just want to hit my bed (sometimes even the sofa depending on how many pints I’ve had!) while she can quite happily stay up watching re-runs of Sex and the City into the wee hours.

Is there any scientific reason for these anecdotal stories?

It turns out there is…It’s down to the hops!

Hops and Their Effect on Sleep

green hops in a transparent glass lies on a wooden surface
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

One of the key ingredients in beer, and why we love beer so much, is the hops or the flower of the hop plant Humulus Lupulus.

Malt sugars which are fermented in the brewing of beer to create the alcohol often leave the beer excessively sweet and the hops in beer help to balance that sweetness with their naturally bitter flavor.

However, alongside that bitter quality, hops have another almost magical quality as a soporific (a substance that induces drowsiness or sleep).

In times past, hops were used or prescribed in folk medicine to help people who suffered from anxiety, restlessness, nervousness, and even long-term insomnia.

Pillows that had been filled with hops were often given to people who had trouble dropping off in much the same way we now recommend drinking camomile tea, another naturally occurring soporific substance.

More recently, research into the relaxing effects of hops found that hops had a calming effect on mice. One study even showed the non-alcoholic beer benefits of hops in enhancing the sleep of nurses working a night shift.

Do You Get Good Quality of Sleep From Beer?

You may be thinking great, hops are natural and have been used in the past to promote sleep and relaxation. Unfortunately, it’s the combination of alcohol and hops which doesn’t promote healthy, high-quality sleep.

If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night after an alcohol-induced sleep you will know just how bad you can feel, your brain is wired almost like a heavy coffee drinker and you just can’t get back to sleep.

A review of 27 studies by the authoritative WebMD showed that alcohol did not improve sleep quality and reduces the amount of rapid eye movement sleep, the deep sleep which is most brain restorative. This lack of healthy REM sleep can cause daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and feelings of fatigue the next day.

In short, alcohol affects your sleep pattern and is one of the reasons you wake up still feeling tired, one of the most intense hangover symptoms you can suffer.

Too much alcohol over a period of time can actually have the opposite effect of sending you to sleep as it disrupts your circadian rhythm and causes short-term insomnia.

How To Avoid Feeling Sleepy From Drinking Beer

If you ask a health professional how to stop feeling sleepy after a night out on the beers, you will hear the answer: “moderation is key.” Although we can’t argue too much with that advice, it is quite boring!

When drinking beer, remember you are getting the double whammy of sleepy effects from both alcohol and the hops, so always look for beers that have a lower alcohol content, and don’t forget to check the hopiness.

Try avoiding hoppy beer like an IPA or at least try to enjoy it in that dreaded word “moderation”. Maybe look for a new style of beer to enjoy with fewer hops, who knows, you may even like it!

Another consideration when choosing your beer is the level of carbonation. Some beers have aggressive levels of carbonation that can influence the body to absorb more alcohol! The internal pressure in the stomach forces more alcohol into the bloodstream through the stomach lining.

Make sure you don’t drink on an empty stomach as the effect of the alcohol and hops will hit the body much quicker. Staying active and moving around can prevent you from feeling too sleepy. Lie back and close your eyes and it’s game over.

Hydration levels can also play a part in how sleepy you feel after drinking beer and of course the bad hangover that often follows. If you want to reduce the impact of those hops and alcohol on your body, alternating between a bottle of water and a glass of beer can help lower your blood alcohol content.

And finally, believe it or not, many people vouch for consuming active yeast to avoid tiredness after drinking beer. Fleischmann’s yeast is recommended as it contains the same brewer’s yeast strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae that breaks down alcohol.

Be warned though, dry active yeast isn’t a pleasant taste so you might be best mixing it with yogurt before ingesting it!

Hops and Alcohol Will Make You Feel Sleepy – Final Thoughts

If you are still awake (I know it’s been a long journey through the science behind beer and sleepiness) we’ll just reiterate that it’s the hops that make you so sleepy from drinking beer.

Drinking excessive amounts of any alcoholic beverages will cause you to wake up the next morning or even a few hours later, feeling excessively tired. An alcohol-induced sleep is rarely quality sleep and shouldn’t be seen as a cure for insomnia.

Drinking in moderation is the best way to avoid feeling sleepy when drinking beer, but preventative measures like choosing your beer wisely, drinking more water, and ensuring good nutrition will fight the drowsiness effects of alcohol.

Personally, I love my hops and I am not quite ready to give up my IPAs yet. I’ll just have to drink a few less of them, and maybe accept that I’m going to feel sleepy. Either that or I am just getting older!

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