Skip the Nightcap
April 26, 2017 · Posted in Alcohol and Drugs, Parenting · Permalink

by Agnes Green

At the end of a day, worn out by the challenges of parenthood and the looming prospect of difficulty falling asleep, many of us reach for a nightcap. Alcohol indeed helps us fall asleep faster. What’s the harm?

Well, it’s complicated. Alcohol poses as a promoter of sleep—and it does deliver on some promises—but it is a sneaky, undermining, dream-stealing sort of ally of sleep: more like a frenemy. Not something on which you should rely on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a glass of wine or two with dinner at the end of the day. But we’re talking about a nightcap: by definition, an alcoholic beverage or more that people reach for right before bedtime with the explicit or implicit goal of falling asleep. In fact, some go so far as to insist that a proper, “honorable” nightcap must be brown, meaning whiskey or bourbon or cognac. What else do these drinks have in common in addition to color? Oh, that’s right: They’re high in alcohol.

There’s good reason why we are tempted to self-medicate with alcohol in order to fall asleep. A glass of whiskey or two right before before bed can indeed have a relaxing effect and help with falling asleep. Here, in fact, lies alcohol’s insidious power: At the outset of the night, things go as hoped-for. “The sleep alcohol induces is associated with intense slow-wave brain activity, which is considered to be the deepest, most restorative kind of sleep,” says Timothy Roehrs, director of sleep disorders research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

And, indeed, studies show that alcohol does help us fall asleep faster. “Three or more drinks will cause the average person to fall asleep sooner than usual,” said Shawn R. Currie, a professor at the University of Calgary who coauthored a study of alcoholics and sleep.

So far so good.

However, about halfway though slumber alcohol as the sleep aid undermines the very thing it induced. “Falling asleep faster is the only real benefit of alcohol for sleep,” Currie says. “The more prevalent, disruptive effects include more frequent awakenings, worse sleep quality; reduction of deep sleep, and earlier-than-usual waking times, leading people to feel they did not get enough sleep.”

In his recent book, The Mystery of Sleep: Why a Good Night’s Rest is Vital to a Better, Healthier Life (Yale, 2017), Yale professor and world authority on sleep medicine Meir Kryger, M.D., explains how it is that alcohol, having put us to bed, can ends up disrupting sleep: “[W]hen the blood alcohol level drops, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which wakes the person up, speeds up the heart, and might cause sweating and headaches.” Kryger goes so far as to recommend not going to sleep until the alcohol has disappeared from the body. It takes the body an hour to clear an ounce of alcohol, which is the equivalent of two 12-ounce servings of beer, two 5-ounce glasses of wine, or two 1.5-ounce servings of distilled spirits.

Indeed, the most dispiriting finding of the study of alcoholics and sleep coauthored is two-fold: 1. Alcoholics have sleep troubles, even many months into recovery. 2. Ironically, many of them became alcoholics in the first place partly because they had been turning to drinking in order to fight their preexisting insomnia.

Even if we were to set the threat of alcoholism aside, alcohol ultimately fails as a sleep aid. After a few drinks you open up your bed to the prospect of nighttime awakenings (fragmented sleep), decreased time spent in the beneficial REM sleep, sweating, vivid dreams (typical of abrupt transitions between sleep stages). Don’t confuse vivid dreams for the restful dreaming phase that we all need: The London Sleep Centre and University of Toronto researchers found that by undermining REM sleep early in the night, alcohol deprives us of dreams. This means shallow, dreamless sleep and, often, daytime tiredness.

There’s also a connection between obstructive sleep apnea and alcohol consumption. Imbibing can lead to it, even if only for a night. Alcohol relaxes the throat muscles to the point where both apnea and snoring occur: Even people who usually don’t snore do so if they have been drinking the night before.

Sleep is paramount to health, sanity, emotional balance, the maintenance of youthfulness, healthy parenting, and longevity, and we need to do all we can to get rest at night. But reaching for alcohol is fraught with troubles.

What to do instead of whiskey? Try these tips:

  1. Avoid alcohol two hours before bed.

  2. If your children keep you up, strategize with your partner (if you have one), family members and friends, and babysitter (if you can afford one) to figure out ways to take care of your children when you need sleep.

  3. Engage in physical activity during the day. Exercise promotes sleep by decreasing arousal, anxiety, and depression. Strength training in the evening is fine; keep aerobic activity farther away from bedtime.

  4. Avoid caffeine in the afternoons and evenings.

  5. Consider developing a mindfulness meditation practice.

  6. Do not watch TV or use the computer an hour or two before bedtime. At the very least, eliminate the rousing blue light by using nighttime settings or apps.

  7. Sleep on a comfortable, aptly-sized mattress. The medical journal The Lancet recommends medium-firm mattresses for most people.

  8. Fall asleep in a dark, quiet, and cool room. Cooler temperatures promote falling asleep.

  9. Sometimes, the insomnia you are suffering is secondary—meaning, it is caused by illnesses and ailments or medications you are taking. Ask your doctor whether those things might be keeping you awake and develop a plan to address any root causes of secondary insomnia.

  10. Develop a sleep-promoting routine, relying on things that make you feel ready for bed—a relaxing bath, a lavender candle, reading, refraining from checking the news or social media after a certain hour, listening to a sleep meditation hypnosis app, etc.

Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two masters degrees in the social sciences, from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps most soundly after a kettlebell workout, on a medium-firm mattress, in Portland, Oregon.

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