“A lot of people think that alcohol helps them sleep, and in fact, it does help us fall asleep faster,” Nishi Bhopal, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in sleep medicine, explains to mbg. While booze will affect everyone differently, Bhopal says it typically reduces our sleep latency—the time it takes for us to fall asleep. (Sometimes dramatically, which is why it may feel like you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow after a night out.)
This is because while alcohol has stimulant effects, it also has sedative qualities. Researchers still have questions about how exactly alcohol interacts with our brains and central nervous systems, but Bhopal explains that it seems to affect two key neurotransmitters: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate.
GABA is an inhibitory amino acid neurotransmitter, meaning it helps us relax and calm down.* Its counterpart, glutamate, does the opposite. It’s an excitatory neurotransmitter that’s active during the day. In a healthy system, GABA and glutamate are constantly balancing each other out.
And at first, alcohol activates GABA, leaving us with that chill, calm sensation that can make falling asleep feel easier.