The Effects of Alcohol on Sleep

“Would you like a night cap?”

We’ve all seen it in the movies, someone being invited for a “night cap” Many people come home from a long day to enjoy a glass of wine or a cold beer.  There is a huge misconception about alcohol and its effects on sleep.  Many people feel and believe that having a few drinks each night helps them sleep or fall asleep easier.  Is alcohol a sedative?  Does it help induce sleep?  How does alcohol affect sleep overall?

 Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that causes brain activity to slow down. Alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, but the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess, has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration. Alcohol may help with sleep onset but people who drink before bed often experience disruptions later in their sleep cycle as the liver processes the alcohol in their systems. It can also make you have more vivid dreams and nightmares which can add stress and more awakenings in the night even if you don’t remember them. This can lead to excessive sleepiness during the day. 

So can I have any drinks in the evening without it being too risky?  You can manage the negative effects of alcohol on sleep by giving your body enough time to metabolize alcohol before falling asleep. To reduce the risk of sleep disruptions, you should stop drinking alcohol at least four hours before bed.  Drinking water along with alcohol helps flush the alcohol out and also having it with a meal can help metabolize the alcohol faster. 

Alcohol affects the body’s ability to have restful, healthy sleep.  It can also make existing obstructive sleep apnea and snoring worse.  Higher levels of alcohol consumption can even increase a person’s risk for sleep apnea because alcohol’s sedative effect extends to your entire body, including your muscles, which may allow your airway to close more easily while you are asleep. This can greatly increase the risk of sleep apnea especially if you drink within the last couple of hours before bedtime. Sleep apnea can put you at risk for many other health concerns as you age.  After consecutive days of consuming alcohol before bed, it begins to affect the circadian rhythm and levels of melatonin that the brain produces.  This affects the core temperature of the body and in turn overall quality of sleep is negatively affected. If someone who takes regular medications such as antidepressants or sleeping pills, also adds alcohol to the mix, it can increase the risk levels associated with alcohol, lack or loss of good REM sleep and sleep apnea.

The moral of the story is to be aware.  Go ahead and have a drink but be responsible about it.  If you have pre-existing health issues, take medications or have concerns about your sleep, it may be a consideration to limit or even exclude alcohol intake.  Always consult a doctor if you are unsure about the levels of alcohol that are safe for you.  There are many things to consider when it comes to your sleep health and your overall health and well-being.  Alcohol, like everything, does cause change in the body and should be managed in a thoughtful way.  Moderation and timing makes a big difference.  That night cap may be a nice way to end an evening, just be thoughtful of how it may affect your days going forward and how often you are having them.  If you feel the need to drink in order to sleep, it’s time to talk to your doctor about underlying issues and possible alternatives.  Life is much more enjoyable when you are well rested!