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Trying a Dry January? An Improvement in Sleep Might Be One of the First Things You Notice

Eve Hongo

January 2, 20246 minutes

The holiday season means perpetual cheer, good food, and for many, a few drinks at festive gatherings. So it’s no wonder that when the new year comes around, some people take a month-long breather from drinking and participate in a Dry January. A booze-free January gives you a chance to reassess your relationship with alcohol and start the new year off healthy and well-rested. One of the myriad health benefits of going on a drinking hiatus is seeing an improvement in your sleep cycle. Although alcohol has sedating effects, it can actually negatively impact sleep. 

In order to understand why alcohol can impact sleep, you first have to understand how sleep works. When you sleep, you fluctuate between two states: rapid-eye movement (REM) and non-rapid-eye movement (NREM) sleep. NREM sleep makes up around 75–80% of your sleep in any given night, with REM sleep making up the rest. 

Here’s how the cycle plays out:

  1. NREM Stage 1: A transitional stage. It’s a very light sleep that accounts for about 2–5% of the time you spend asleep.
  2. NREM Stage 2: A deeper sleep that makes up about half of your sleep time. It’s here that your brain waves slow, idling between brief explosions of electrical activity. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Experts think those bursts are your brain organizing memories and information from the time you spent awake.”
  3. NREM Stages 3 and 4: Also called “slow-wave sleep,” these stages account for about a quarter of your time asleep. Per the Cleveland Clinic, “Without enough stage 3 sleep, you feel tired and drained even if you slept for a long time.”
  4. REM sleep: This is when you dream. As you repeat this cycle throughout the night, the amount of time you spend in REM sleep gets progressively longer. 

Booze disrupts all this. An NIH study about the effects of alcohol on sleep concluded that while alcohol initially sedates you, after a few hours this effect wears off and the rest of your night’s sleep is disrupted. People who drink before bed tend to wake up in the middle of the night because it raises the level of epinephrine in the body, a stress hormone that activates the body, according to Harvard Medical School.

According to Jessee Dietch, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep psychologist, researcher at Oregon State University, and Hatch medical advisor, alcohol impacts the balance of REM and NREM sleep. It decreases REM sleep and increases NREM sleep during the first half of the night. As the night progresses and you metabolize the alcohol, your body tries to compensate for this through an REM rebound later in the night. This uneven sleep can cause periods of wakefulness in the middle of the night or lead to feeling unrested in the morning. 

When Anna, a 37-year-old Brooklynite, participated in Dry January last year, she initially struggled to fall asleep. “The first few days, it was a bit hard to fall asleep as my body adjusted,” she says. “But then, sleep was glorious. I slept more deeply and woke up refreshed in a way I had forgotten was possible.”

Danielle, a 23-year-old who lives in New Jersey, also noticed that her sleep quality improved when she tried a Dry January last year. “When I’m not drinking, I’m not waking up in the middle of the night,” she says. “I’m not having any weird dreams or night sweats. It’s nice to have eight hours without any interruptions.”

If you typically use alcohol to lull yourself to sleep, there are plenty of healthier options available to you. An NIH study on the best ways to combat insomnia recommends a few steps to achieving better sleep: adhering to the same sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends, getting out of bed if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, exercising, and shutting off your screens a half hour before bedtime. The study emphasized that having too much light exposure before bed is especially harmful to people who struggle with insomnia.

Creating cues for your mind and body that signal it’s time to go to bed can help you get a better night’s sleep. If during February through December, one of your cues involves often having a drink to wind down, Dry January is an opportunity to recalibrate and explore new ways to signal to your body that it’s time to fall asleep. Activities that help slow down your mind -- things like reading, light stretching, or engaging in a skincare routine -- can help create a ritual that lets your body know that it’s time to unwind. 

A tip from Hatch: The Hatch Restore has a variety of warm, calming light tones for nighttime. Set up a nightly cue with Hatch+ that uses light and sound to remind you to start your Unwind routine.  There is also a new category of Unwind audio, Pillow Talk, designed to make that ready-for-bed time just a bit more entertaining. 

Everybody is different, though. During Dry January last year, Danielle found that it was easiest to fall asleep when she did activities that stimulated her mind before bed, like Wordle, because it tired her out.

For Anna, the key to figuring out how to fall asleep during Dry January was patience. “I allowed myself more time in bed, knowing that it would probably take longer to fall asleep in the beginning of the month and that I might also need more sleep as my body repaired a bit,” she says. “I realized it was better to be restless from not drinking than to be lying awake beating myself up for drinking.”

Whatever your goals for the New Year, a Dry January can offer an opportunity to reflect and reset your relationship with relaxation and sleep.