Many people end their evenings with a nightcap to relax and help sleep come easier. In fact, physicians once recommended a nightcap as a sleep aid! Although alcohol may help people unwind and put the stressors of the day at bay, it can actually have detrimental effects.Many people with insomnia self-medicate with alcohol because it is sedating and induces sleep at the beginning of the night. However, it is a poor choice overall because the body quickly metabolizes alcohol and its effects wear off within a few hours. Despite being able to fall asleep with alcohol at the beginning of the night, consuming it before bed can actually lead to more awakenings, lighter sleep and disrupted sleep stages.Most importantly, regularly relying on alcohol as a sleep aid can lead to tolerance (the need to drink more and more alcohol over time to achieve the same initial level of sedation).
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A recent meta-analysis to appear in the April 2013 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research noted that alcohol significantly reduces REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep) and overall total sleep time. REM sleep happens about 90 minutes after we fall asleep and it is when we tend to do most of our dreaming. It has also been shown to be key in emotional and cognitive processing. Since alcohol suppresses REM sleep, you’ll likely feel unrefreshed and sluggish in the morning and may have more difficulties with memory, attention and concentration during the day. Alcohol has also been shown to reduce the total amount of sleep one gets throughout the night because it leads to more awakenings throughout the night as the alcohol is metabolized by the body.
Alcohol before bed also impacts those with obstructive sleep apnea. Millions of Americans suffer from this disorder, and many people have no idea they suffer from it. Sleep apnea consists of snoring, choking/gasping and pauses in breathing throughout the night. Even moderate amounts of alcohol consumed before bedtime can increase breathing pauses throughout the night, depriving your body of much-needed oxygen… possibly even worsening that hangover headache you might wake up with.
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If you have trouble sleeping and find you rely on alcohol to unwind, consider trying the following:
- Keep the same bed and wake times every day, seven days a week. As hard as this is to follow on the weekends, keeping a consistent schedule helps your body learn when it needs to fall asleep and when to wake up.
- Avoid any alcohol, heavy meals, liquids and tobacco within three hours of bed.
- Avoid caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime (ideally 10-12 hours).
- Exercise is great for sleep. The best time to exercise to help induce sleep is four to six hours before bedtime. Twenty minutes is all you need—nothing fancy. Just get moving!
- Get bright light in the morning and dim the lights an hour before bed. Create an indoor “sunset” before bed and a “sunrise” in the morning.
- Wind down one hour before bed. Turn off all screen time (computer, TV, laptops, iPhones) and do something quiet, calm and relaxing in dim light. Sleep isn’t an on/off switch—you need to wind your brain down before going to bed at night.
- At least one to two hours before bed, complete a to-do list of all you need to do tomorrow.
If you have tried the above suggestions but still suffer from trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or awakening unrefreshed, talk with your doctor or consider consulting with a sleep specialist. Many effective treatments (both medication and non-medication) exist to help improve sleep quantity and quality.
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