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Wine and coffee: Why this combo is affecting your sleep

Jemma O'Hanlon

Can't sleep? Caffeine and alcohol may be to blame

A middle aged man leans his head on his hand as he studies his laptop screen
A middle aged man leans his head on his hand as he studies his laptop screen

Wine and coffee: probably two of your favourite drinks, right? But with many of us relying heavily on caffeine during the day and pouring a glass (or three) of wine to help us relax at night, our caffeine and alcohol consumption can quickly creep up by the end of the week – and that can have detrimental effects on both our physical and mental health.

“Relying on wine and coffee to get us through the day or night is not ideal by any means,” explains accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist Jemma O’Hanlon.

To find out why, let’s explore how coffee and wine affect you.

How does coffee affect your body?

We reach for coffee when we’re tired because it contains caffeine – a stimulant that boosts brain and nervous system activity. You can feel its effects – which include increased breathing and heart rate as well as increased mental alertness and physical energy – in just a few minutes.

Up to 400mg a day is an acceptable amount of caffeine – that’s somewhere between two and four small espresso-based coffees, such as a cappuccino, a day. Any more than that is too much.

“This can lead to anxiety, restlessness, headaches and impaired sleep,” Jemma says.

You might also notice a rise in body temperature, frequent urination, dehydration, dizziness, a faster heartbeat, nausea, irritability or trembling hands.

“Too much caffeine can also impact our cardiovascular system. We’re all different in terms of how sensitive we are to caffeine, and while some people can have a coffee at night and sleep like a baby, for others, having a drop past midday can keep them from getting a good night’s sleep,” says Jemma. “If you enjoy coffee, a couple of cups a day is a good guide and if you are sensitive to the effects of caffeine, have it earlier in the day.”

How does wine affect your body?

We all know that drinking too much alcohol is unhealthy. Yet it’s Australia’s most widely used social drug.

“Excessive alcohol consumption can seriously impact our wellbeing and increase our risk of many health complications,” warns Jemma. “Some of these include mental health challenges, an increased risk of diabetes, increased blood pressure, fertility issues, an increased risk of some cancers and cirrhosis of the liver.”

Unlike caffeine, alcohol is a nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down brain activity.

“It is also very high in kilojoules, so your weight can easily creep up,” says Jemma. “Although alcohol is never completely safe, the best advice I can provide is that if you wish to enjoy a drink, that you do so mindfully, sip it slowly and enjoy it. Have no more than two standard drinks a day and have plenty of alcohol-free days as well.”

A senior woman smiles as she holds a glass of wine in her hand

So why are coffee and alcohol together a bad combo?

Combining caffeine and alcohol has its own set of potential dangers.

Caffeine can mask alcohol’s depressant effects, leading the drinker to feel more alert and drinking more as a result, leading to intoxication.

And the commonly held belief that you can use coffee to ‘sober up’ is a myth – caffeine won’t reduce your blood alcohol concentration.

“Alcohol and caffeine can be a nasty combination, and bring on anxiety, depressive thoughts, and significantly impact our sleep,” warns Jemma.

Wine and coffee together at night is bad news for your sleep, and can impact your overall health

What if you have both at night?

Although alcohol can relax us, it has also been shown to disrupt sleep: people who drink a lot of alcohol before bed often take longer to fall asleep and have a poorer quality of sleep as the liver metabolises the alcohol during the night.

And having wine and coffee together at night is bad news for your sleep – which has ramifications for your overall health.

“Sleep is our body’s time to recharge the batteries and interruptions in our sleeping patterns can disrupt many other systems in our body,” says Jemma.
Breaking the wine and coffee cycle

As with so many things in life, moderation is key.

“Wherever possible aim for a morning cuppa if you drink coffee and if you enjoy a nightly alcoholic beverage, keep it to just one or two,” Jemma says.

Ready to reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake?

If you feel your coffee or wine intake is excessive, it might be worth looking at changing your habits. Jemma suggests writing down the impact alcohol is having on you and how you are feeling. Then write down how you want to feel and why this is important to you.

Related: The best ways to break a bad habit

“It’s so easy to crack open a bottle of wine after a long day and we get an instant reward sensation in our brain from doing so, but we know that the aftermath may not be so pretty. Writing your goals down and why they are important to you is a really important exercise.”

Let your family, partner or housemates in on your goals so they can be supportive and keep you accountable, too, and think about other healthier options that could replace caffeine and alcohol.

“Sparkling water with fresh lemon or lime is a lovely refreshing drink to have instead, or why not try a delicious kombucha?” Jemma suggests. “You don’t have to go without, just swap in another delicious alcohol-free beverage.”

Looking for other ways to cut back on your alcohol intake? Check out our article Is it time to rethink the amount of alcohol we drink? for more expert tips and advice.

And while coffee might put a bounce in your step (or allow you to function pre-10am), giving it a miss could be the key to more energy and better health. Take a look at our piece on the benefits of quitting coffee to find out why.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Jemma O'Hanlon

Jemma O’Hanlon is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist who inspires Aussies to transform fresh produce into easy, delicious meals. She believes that if we embrace food with gratitude, enjoy our meals mindfully and maintain an active lifestyle, we can be healthier and happier. When she’s not in the kitchen Jemma loves to run and enjoys chilling at the beach.