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Plenty of people take a “nightcap”—a “bedtime snack” in the form of an alcoholic drink—to “help them sleep better.”
Plenty of people are misinformed.
Virtually every scientific study has come to the same conclusion: while alcohol definitely makes you drowsy, it’s no magical sleeping pill. Particularly not if what you’re aiming for is the medically recommended full night’s sleep of seven to nine hours.
WHAT ALCOHOL REALLY DOES TO YOUR SLEEP PATTERNS
- The first effect of alcohol is often a psychological sense of stimulation, caused by lowering of inhibitions. As with vigorous physical or mental exercise, experiencing this close to bedtime creates an extra obstacle for the brain in settling down to sleep.
- Whatever sleep improvement comes from alcohol is unlikely to last a full night. Typically, it generates a “half and half” effect where the easier sleep of the first few hours is offset by disrupted sleep for the rest of the night.
- You dream less after falling asleep on a drink, and shortened dream time has repercussions in the forms of daytime grogginess, memory problems, mood swings, even the development of chronic depression. And an ultimate increase in insomniac tendencies.
- People who regularly drink nightcaps are more likely to walk and/or talk in their sleep, which uses additional muscle energy when the muscles should be resting.
- Since alcohol consumption slows breathing, you are more likely to experience sleep apnea (breathing disruptions accompanied by snoring and frequent brief wakings), which means restless and therefore inadequate sleep.
- Alcohol increases urine production, adding your bladder to the physical elements conspiring to get you up in the middle of the night.
- Making a habit of drinking before bed disrupts the body’s natural rhythms, encouraging night waking even when no alcohol has been consumed.
And don’t forget the “hangover” effect of taking overly large nightcaps. Headaches, nausea, dizziness and an overload of “grumpy and gloomy” body chemicals do not generate a “well-rested” feeling.
NIGHTCAPS AND ALCOHOLISM
Even if you are (or believe you are) sleeping better as a result of regular nightcaps, you have a problem if you depend on alcohol as your primary tool for “normal” functioning at bedtime or any other time.
- You may have an alcohol use disorder, commonly known as alcoholism, if you get frantic when your nightcap hour arrives and you find no wine left in the cellar.
- You may have an alcohol use disorder if your reaction to that discovery is to race out at 11:30 p.m. to buy more wine, and to pounce on a cheap substitute when the only places open are convenience stores that don’t stock your brand.
- You may have an alcohol use disorder if you then start the nightcap in the car on your way home to bed.
- You almost certainly have an alcohol use disorder if you can’t get your nightcap at all, and the next morning you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, headaches, nausea and unexplained perspiration. And if you feel seriously ill or start to hallucinate, you’re in real trouble and should call 911 for a doctor immediately.
Whether or not things have ever gotten that bad, anybody who’s reached the point of not being able to imagine bedtime without alcohol should get medical advice on whether to seek help from an alcohol detox specialist.
WHAT REALLY HELPS YOU SLEEP BETTER
If you’re already in recovery from alcoholism, and worrying that insomnia will come with the abstinence package, be assured there are better ways than a nightcap (or any drug) to fall asleep quickly and sleep well. First, eliminate anything that may disrupt your ability to settle down if taken in the last hour or two before bedtime:
- News programs or other stimulating input
- Use of computers, televisions or anything else with a glowing screen (some e-readers are billed as screening out the sleep-disrupting elements of that electronic glow, but you’re still probably better off opting for a hard-copy book)
- Vigorous exercise
- Caffeinated drinks
- Excessive food or liquid of any kind
Then, to ensure your body and mind the best sleep atmosphere:
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible. If you have streetlights shining in the window, get light-blocking curtains or an eye mask.
- Set your thermostat below 70 degrees.
- Eliminate as much background noise as you can (earplugs or a white noise machine may help).
- Make sure your bed is comfortable and that you use it primarily for sleep (not for reading, working or watching television).
- Initiate a winding-down routine to replace that nightcap. Do relaxing yoga or a meditation, put on some soothing music, take a hot bath, breathe in a relaxing aroma. And if you really miss that liquid-going-down-your-throat feeling, have a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea.
- Give yourself time to adjust. Your body and brain may struggle with the changes for a while, but if you’re patient and don’t encourage insomnia by focusing on it, you’ll soon be sleeping better than you ever did in your drinking days.