Advice From the Trenches

Hard Habit to Break: Is there harm in a bedtime glass of wine?

Dear C and Dr. B;

I am not a problem drinker – my one glass of wine before bed was something my doctor knew about and saw no harm in. I never drank during the day and two glasses was my limit at parties. 

Then for some reason back in August, after I had an awful bout of the stomach flu, I didn’t drink for a few days because I was recovering. I expected I’d go back to my usual habits, but for some reason, I just didn’t want to drink anymore. The days went by. I thought I’d see big changes in my life after I’d been sober a month, but nothing much changed except I was a bit more awake sooner in the mornings and felt a bit stronger. 

As I enter my fourth month of unintentional sobriety, I’ve been wondering as the holidays are upon us: Is it a good idea to perhaps have one toast to nod in the new year? It does seem like a social glass of wine, even if it’s on Zoom, is an appropriate way of sharing and relaxing. Or should I leave well enough alone? I admit – when I did have that glass every night, even if I was already so tired I wanted to drop, I’d still want the wine before bed. I felt a bit like it controlled me in a way. Now it doesn’t. What if I was right back to every night again and couldn’t stop?

Dr B says: There are different types of addictions. By your description, you didn’t drink enough to have had a physiological addiction to the alcohol itself but you did have a psychological addiction. You created a state-dependent Pavlovian pairing between the relaxation that alcohol induced and the first stage of sleep, which is a slowing and relaxation that the body normally does on its own. When these things get paired, after a few times you can no longer induce the first stage of sleep on your own without the anticipated drink to do it for you. This is not an alcohol disorder, but a sleep disorder. Now that you once again can sleep on your own, I wouldn’t screw it up by using alcohol to celebrate. Try some other ritual, perhaps an outdoor sparkler?

By the way, psychological addictions can occur with any type of pairing. This is often the way many products and placebos work. However, since alcohol is not a placebo, if it used on a regular basis for sleep you will rapidly not be able to sleep without it. Other depressants, such as marijuana or benzos, will have the same effect. 

C says: I do understand your quandary – although you could celebrate by waving a sparkler around, it just isn’t the same as sharing a nice bottle of wine with friends and sinking into that lovely floating warmth without effort. Sigh. If only you could do it just that once and then wait until the next celebration to imbibe again. But we know better, don’t we?

Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if you started drinking again – after all, you weren’t exactly a problem drinker. And research shows that for many people there can be health benefits in the moderate consumption of alcohol. But let’s be very clear about this: You are not making a decision to have one celebration, you are making the decision to go back to an old habit. It is a very rare phenomenon for the door to Freedom From Alcohol to open as effortlessly as it did for you. For most people, stopping is an ongoing and difficult struggle.  

This is a decision that only you can make, but consider this when you make it: Your body was trying to tell you something back in August. What does it say now? That’s who you should be asking, not us.

You can visit Dr. B’s blog at