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When to stop drinking alcohol, water or caffeine before bed for better sleep

Don't let your favorite drinks mess up your sleep. Follow these tips.

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Drinking coffee too late in the day could be interfering with your sleep quality.

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As an avid coffee drinker, I've had to learn my limits the hard way on how late in the day I can drink coffee. I've had a seemingly harmless espresso at 4 p.m., only to find myself feeling exhausted at bedtime, and yet laying in bed staring at the ceiling wishing I could drift off to sleep. As much as I love my a.m. coffee, caffeine -- and other drinks like alcohol and water -- can actually have a sneaky effect on your sleep.

You might think you know your limits on how much caffeine and alcohol affect your sleep, but sometimes, it's not so obvious. It might seem like drinking alcohol helps you sleep better (because it can make you sleepy) but in reality, it could be affecting the quality of your sleep later. 

According to University of Michigan behavioral sleep expert Dr. Deirdre Conroy, alcohol, caffeine and sometimes even water can all impact sleep quality. The good news is that you don't have to totally get rid of coffee and alcohol, even if they're impacting your sleep. Keep reading to find out how these beverages can affect your sleep and learn how long before going to bed you should stop drinking them.

How caffeine interacts with sleep quality

You know that caffeine makes you feel more alert and less sleepy, but you may not know that the effects from drinking caffeine can linger for hours after you feel that initial jolt. "It still does have its properties acting in your system for many, many hours, even after you might not feel the stimulating effects of it," says Dr. Conroy. This means that even if you drink caffeine later in the day and can fall asleep that night, it could still be impacting your sleep stages at night without you realizing it.

The delayed or lingering effect from caffeine is because of the "half-life" from caffeine. According to functional medicine registered dietician, Brigid Titgemeier, caffeine's half life is five to seven hours, which is "how long it takes for the caffeine [level] to cut in half in your body. Caffeine consumption before bed has been shown to decrease stage three to four sleep and suppress EEG slow wave activity that can lead to more fatigue the next day." 

When to stop drinking caffeine before bed

"People have very different sensitivities to caffeine and people who consume caffeine more often might respond differently to those who don't drink at all," says Dr. Conroy. "But in general, our guideline is eight hours before going to bed, you should eliminate all caffeinated products."

"I generally recommend a caffeine cutoff around noon every day," says Titgemeier. "This caffeine cutoff does depend on each person, since your body's response to caffeine largely depends on your genetic mutations. A person's genetics can impact whether they metabolize caffeine quickly or slowly."

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Alcohol can affect your sleep later even if it makes you sleepy at first.

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How alcohol affects your sleep 

Alcohol can disrupt your sleep for several reasons, even if you think it doesn't affect you. First, it can trigger heartburn or acid reflux. "I recommend discontinuing alcohol at least two hours before bed," says Titgemeier. "This is primarily for those who have heartburn or acid reflux tendencies. The combination of [drinking] alcohol and laying down soon after can be a reflux trigger and can interfere with a person's ability to get a restful night sleep." 

Titgemeier also says that alcohol can mess up your REM sleep, which is an important and restorative sleep stage. "When it comes to ensuring quality sleep, any alcohol intake will interfere with the quality of sleep you get. But it appears that the more alcohol a person drinks, the more their REM sleep percent is decreased," she says. "For this reason, I recommend trying to abstain from drinking altogether several days per week in order to promote more restorative sleep."

When to stop drinking alcohol before bed

Dr. Conroy recommends avoiding it at least three hours before bed. "It's sedating at first, so it can help you fall asleep, but can interfere with staying asleep. And so to avoid that we generally use a three-hour guideline," she says.

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How water affects your sleep

Water is crucial for living a healthy life, and staying hydrated is vital. There's nothing wrong with drinking water before bed, unless you drink enough that it causes you to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Even if you can easily fall back asleep, waking up disrupts your sleep cycles and can make it harder to accumulate the restorative benefits of sleep. If you're someone who wakes up frequently throughout the night to use the bathroom, you could be hesitant to drink any water in the evening, even if you're thirsty. 

How soon before bed should you stop drinking water?

You don't need to avoid water altogether in the evenings, but Dr. Conroy says limiting what you drink before bed can help the problem. "Maybe no more than 12 ounces in the couple of hours before you go to bed is recommended," she says. You can also try drinking more water earlier throughout the day, instead of waiting until the evenings to catch up. Chugging water at night before you go to bed may seem healthy, but it's going to backfire if it messes with your precious sleep.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.