Why Alcohol and a Good Night’s Sleep Don’t Mix
The practice of drinking a “nightcap” is commonly touted as a way to help lull you into a state of drowsiness and then float off to sleep.
But the truth is that drinking alcohol before bed negatively impacts sleep quality. First, it decreases the amount of time spent in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. REM sleep represents the time in which we dream, process things we learned during the day and store long-term memories. REM sleep is vital if you want to wake up feeling refreshed and recharged; without it, you’re more likely to be plagued by poor concentration and drowsiness the following day.
The fact that alcohol may allow you to fall asleep quicker is misleading, because the quality of sleep will be much poorer. You may toss and turn more often or sleep less deeply as a result of the alcohol.
For people with sleep apnea, alcohol should also be avoided. Alcohol can increase the number of breathing pauses that occur at night, and any disruption of oxygen flow to the brain is potentially harmful.
In short, alcohol as a sleep aid does you no favors. Use a different method to fall asleep, and you will enjoy a more restful sleep throughout the night.
Insomnia Is Yet Another Reason to Quit Alcohol Altogether
The results of an expansive literature review, covering data from nearly 50 years, were recently published on the topic of alcohol use disorder and sleep disorders. Researchers found that insomnia can have an adverse effect on alcohol use disorder and that alcohol use disorder can have an adverse effect on insomnia. This “two-way street” association underscores the fact that alcohol is the last thing an insomniac should reach for in order to get relief, as alcohol itself can heighten the prevalence of sleep disturbances. The researchers found that alcohol use disorder was associated not only with insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep, but also with a shorter duration of sleep, obstructive sleep apnea, abnormal circadian rhythms and sleep-related movement disorders. If you don’t want to run the risk of worsening your sleep experiences in the long run and are currently struggling with (or are at risk for) an alcohol use disorder, you have one more excellent reason to begin rehab.
Falling Asleep in a Healthy Way
If you haven’t already done so, it may be worth speaking to your doctor about prescription sleep aids if you experience insomnia with aggravating frequency.
To avoid setting yourself up for failure, be sure to practice a good nighttime routine to help nurture a sleepy state before you totter off to bed.
For example, you may already be aware that looking at your phone or tablet in bed is a no-no, as the glow of the screen can interrupt your natural circadian rhythms. You wouldn’t help yourself to a cup of coffee or a slice of cake before heading to bed due to the energizing effects of caffeine and sugar, so it’s time to add another item to the list of bedtime don’ts: absolutely no alcohol!
If you tend to check work emails right before bed, it may help to impose a cut-off hour for yourself, at which point all devices get shut off. Thinking about work may increase your stress levels or make you feel energized. Having a million work-related thoughts swirling in your head before bed isn’t conducive to sleep. Write down any last thoughts related to tomorrow’s to-do list or planning meetings, and then get ready to pamper yourself.
The key to a good nighttime routine is to customize it to your own preferences. What brings you peace? Maybe you enjoy sipping a soothing tea (chamomile is just one example of an herbal tea that helps induce sleepiness), reading a good book or tackling a word puzzle. Maybe you prefer to soak in a warm bath and light a few aromatherapy candles. Perhaps your style is to meditate or practice yoga to calm and center yourself. Using blackout curtains, comfortable ear plugs, soothing eyes masks, an assortment of pillows and a white noise machine may also prove useful if you find that you have a tendency to wake up in reaction to light or sound.
If you don’t know what works for you, now is the time to experiment. When you find success, make a habit of it. Practicing a healthy alcohol-free lifestyle will be a further boon to your sleeping regimen.
By Cathy Habas