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September 07, 2017

Here's how alcohol affects the quality of your sleep

Adult Health Sleep

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Woman sleeping in bed Kinga Cichewicz/

Let’s face it – we live in a 24/7 world where everyone is always on-the-go with little time for rest and relaxation. With busy work schedules and chores piling up at home, it can be difficult to unplug, wind down and fall asleep at night. A nightcap may seem like a quick and simple solution that will help you fall asleep faster, but the traditional wisdom behind it is misguided. 

Yes, alcohol is a depressant, which means it causes drowsiness. But the sleep you do get after drinking will be low quality, resulting in a tough morning and less productive next day. Here’s why:

1. It’s hard to stay asleep

If you drink alcohol before bedtime, your body will undergo more disturbances, which interrupt restful sleep and increase the chances of waking up in the middle of night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this is due to the fact that “alcohol may affect the normal production of chemicals in the body that trigger sleepiness when you’ve been awake for a long time, and subside once you’ve had enough sleep.”

Adenosine is a chemical in the brain that triggers sleep. When you consume alcohol, this chemical is increased (which explains why you fall asleep quickly when you’ve been drinking). The problem? The chemical quickly diminishes, causing you to wake up before you’ve had the restorative sleep your body needs. Those groggy, automatic 6 a.m. wake-up calls (that you didn’t actually call for) make a lot of more sense now, right?

2. The sleep you do get is poor

Drinking alcohol before sleeping doesn’t only increase your chances of waking up in the middle of the night – it also negatively affects the quality of sleep you do manage to get. The brain fluctuates between five different stages of sleep throughout any given night, with REM (rapid eye movement) considered the most restorative. During this stage, your “brain and body are energized and dreaming occurs,” according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Unfortunately, alcohol blocks REM-stage sleep, which explains the unfocused, fatigued feeling you experience the next morning and throughout the day.

3. Combatting brainwaves

Researchers at the University of Melbourne conducted a study in which the sleeping brainwave patterns of 18 to 21-year-old individuals were monitored throughout several nights. The group alternated between drinking a regular nightcap and consuming a placebo (an inactive substance or treatment). On the nights they consumed alcohol, a strong pattern was noticed: delta activity, a positive occurrence in restful sleep, was observed, but alpha activity was present as well.

Alpha activity occurs when the brain is merely at rest – not fully asleep. When combined, delta and alpha activity cause a disruption in your sleep because the alpha activity counteracts the restorative efforts sleep has on the brain.

So, the next time you go to pour a night cap, think twice — you may not be getting the restful and productive night’s sleep that you’re aiming for. The best way to fall asleep fast is to begin developing healthy sleeping habits today.

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