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Why That Nightcap Might Be Ruining Your Sleep


Woman sleeping in a bed with white sheets

As someone who has enjoyed a glass of wine before bed many times, I was surprised to learn that even one drink could actually harm my sleep quality. Many of us associate alcohol with relaxation and sleepiness, but the truth is that it can greatly disrupt our sleep patterns.



What Happens in Your Brain While You Rest

Alcohol is a sedative, which means it makes us feel sleepy. However, it also affects the brain’s production of adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleepiness. When we drink alcohol, our body initially produces more adenosine, which is why we feel tired. Mission accomplished, right?


However, as the alcohol metabolizes, it actually reduces the amount of adenosine in our brain, causing us to wake up more frequently throughout the night. This disruption of adenosine levels is what causes the notorious hangover the next day, along with the grogginess and tiredness we feel from a night of drinking.


Another way alcohol affects sleep is by increasing the production of a neurotransmitter called GABA. GABA inhibits brain activity, which is why we feel relaxed and calm after drinking. However, while GABA helps to induce sleep, it also reduces the quality by blocking important signals that help the brain to enter the deep sleep stages. As a result, people who drink alcohol may wake up feeling unrested and tired.



The Different Stages of Sleep

Alcohol disrupts all stages of sleep, but it has the most significant impact on the REM stage. REM, or rapid eye movement, is a crucial stage that is associated with memory consolidation, learning, and emotional regulation. In addition, REM has also been linked to physical health, as it helps to reduce inflammation, regulate hormone levels, and improve the body’s ability to fight infections.


When we drink, we generally fall into a very deep sleep for about 5 hours. While this sounds promising, what it really means is that during this time, we are not entering into the REM stage. As a result, we only get about 2 REM cycles during the night instead of the normal 6 or 7.


Alcohol withdrawal tends to peak after about 5 hours. Your body responds to this peak by releasing adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones to try to restore balance. This is why so many of us wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning and have trouble falling back asleep. This is also usually the point where I would swear to myself that I’m never drinking again, or not as much, or at least not the next day (cut to me pouring a glass of wine 12 hours later).



Consequences of Poor Sleep

Even if we feel like we’ve slept through the night after drinking, our sleep quality is likely to be poor. This can lead to exhaustion, poor concentration, and memory problems. It also makes us more short tempered and prone to overeat or choose less healthy foods. Additionally, alcohol can cause us to snore or experience sleep apnea, which can lower the quality of our rest even further.


For people with existing sleep disorders, alcohol can worsen their symptoms. For example, people with insomnia may find it even more difficult to fall asleep after drinking. People with sleep apnea may experience more severe episodes during the night. Additionally, alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of restless leg syndrome, a condition that causes unpleasant sensations in the legs and a strong urge to move them.


Long-term alcohol use can have serious consequences for our health. Chronic alcohol use can lead to disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. Additionally, it can cause changes in our circadian rhythm, which is our body’s internal clock that regulates sleep and wake cycles. This can make it difficult to fall asleep or wake up at regular times. It will also take quite some time to catch up on sleep; you won’t be able to make up for a month’s worth of poor quality sleep in just one night.



Alternatives to Alcohol for a Better Night 's Rest

If you’re looking for alternatives to alcohol for a better night’s rest, there are several options to consider. One option is to try a natural sleep aid like melatonin or valerian root. These supplements can promote relaxation and improve sleep quality.


Additionally, practicing relaxation techniques like meditation or yoga nidra can calm your mind and prepare your body for rest. Other alternatives include avoiding screens before bed, exercising during the day, and avoiding caffeine late in the day. Creating a dark, cool, and quiet environment in your bedroom can also help you get quality sleep.


By taking steps to improve our sleep quality, we can improve our overall health and well-being. If alcohol is impairing our sleep, it can have serious long-term consequences on our health. Seeking professional help is the best way to ensure we are getting the right treatment for our sleep issues.

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Marci Rossi

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