Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital
Want a Good Night's Sleep? Skip the Alcohol!
Many people think that having a few drinks before bed is good for sleeping. However, there is more to the story than most people know.
While it is true that a “nightcap” can help healthy people fall asleep when they go to bed, it actually interferes with the quality of sleep and can contribute to other problems.
A good night’s sleep leaves us feeling alert and restored. Our bodies and brain work better after a good night of sleep. But what makes for a good night of sleep?
During sleep, we usually pass through five phases or stages. One of the most important stages is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Most of our dreams occur during REM and brain scientists think that REM is needed to help restore us after a busy day. When deprived of REM, we feel tired, irritable, anxious, and may have difficulties with concentration and memory.
Alcohol reduces or prevents REM sleep. While we may fall asleep faster after a night of drinking, it prevents REM and leaves people feeling tired, irritable, anxious, and having difficulties with concentration/learning. Further, the brain tries to make up for the lost REM the next night leading to a fitful night of sleep, filled with vivid dreams. It increases the risk for other sleep disorders such as sleep walking, nightmares and night terrors. It can also worsen sleep problems associated with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
Another way alcohol affects sleep is called Metabolic Rebound Effect. After the liver breaks down and eliminates alcohol from the bloodstream, the body becomes alert as the metabolism “revs back up.” This causes people to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep.
If you have sleep apnea, alcohol can make it worse. Too much alcohol slows your breathing and makes it shallow. This causes carbon dioxide to build up in the body and drops the level of oxygen delivered to vital organs. It also relaxes the muscles in the neck and throat, causing more snoring and obstruction of breathing patterns.
Finally, people can become dependent on alcohol if they use it frequently as a sleep aid. They feel unable to fall asleep naturally and can suffer from insomnia.
So, when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, it is better to “nix the nightcap.” There are treatments and education programs that can help you sleep better without relying on alcohol or other drugs. If you are concerned that alcohol may be interfering with your sleep, talk to your doctor.
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