Snooze or Lose: Why That Nightcap Might Be Wrecking Your Sleep

Millions of people resort to drinking an alcoholic beverage before bed to help them drift off to sleep more quickly, but research from the University of Melbourne in Australia suggests that doing so actually disrupts sleep later on in the night. While the sedative effect of alcohol initially seems beneficial, it effectively dissipates throughout the night, leading to wakefulness before the alarm clock rings and a decline in mental clarity the following day.

People often focus on the sedative properties of alcohol that enables them to fall asleep more quickly, rather than the sleep disruption that occurs later in the night, says Christian L. Nicholas, one of the researchers in the study. To better understand how alcohol affects sleep, the scientists measured the brainwaves of people while they slept after consuming alcohol.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep

During the first hours of sleep, alcohol increases the delta frequency electroencephalogram (EEG) activity of slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is beneficial because it is associated with falling asleep. However, by early morning, the alcohol in the body increases the frontal alpha power. These are the types of brainwaves that represent restless, disturbed sleep—tossing and turning and frequently awakening.

Ultimately, relying on alcohol to aid in falling asleep can lead to several negative side effects that may impact overall health and well-being.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation

Regularly using alcohol in an attempt to combat insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation. The quality of sleep an individual gets after consuming alcohol is dramatically altered and disrupted, causing several potential issues:

  1. Poor decision-making: Research conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research shows that not getting enough rest impairs your ability to think and make decisions, which could negatively affect both personal and professional life.

  2. Altered mood and increased irritability: Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that sleep deprivation affects an individual’s mood, and this has been supported by various studies, including one published in the journal SLEEP, that determined people who were sleep-deprived experienced heightened negative emotions and more difficulty regulating their mood.

  3. Weak immune system: According to the National Sleep Foundation, sustained sleep deprivation can weaken the immune system, making it more challenging for the body to fight off viruses and infections.

  4. Weight gain: A study published by the National Institutes of Health cites a correlation between sleep deprivation, increased appetite, and calorie consumption. This can lead to weight gain and other weight-related issues, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

  5. Cognitive decline: Consistently not getting enough rest can lead to cognitive decline and a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to research published in the journal Annals of Neurology.

Alternatives to Alcohol for a Better Night’s Sleep

Rather than turning to alcohol or other potentially harmful sleep aids, there are several healthier alternatives that could be followed:

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help regulate the body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. This practice keeps the circadian rhythm functioning, which can help improve sleep quality.

  • Create a bedtime routine: Engaging in a calming, relaxing activity before going to sleep can help signal to the body that it is time for rest. This may include reading a book, a warm bath, meditation, or gentle yoga.

  • Limit caffeine and nicotine intake: Both caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Reducing or eliminating these substances can lead to a more peaceful night’s rest.

  • Make your sleep environment comfortable: Ensuring your sleeping area is cool, dark, and quiet can create an environment conducive to restful sleep. Investing in a comfortable mattress and pillows can significantly impact sleep quality.

  • Manage stress: Many individuals struggle to sleep due to racing thoughts. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation can help manage stress levels and promote a more restful sleep.

So, before reaching for that nightcap, consider trying one of these healthier alternatives that may lead to a better, more restorative night’s sleep.