Long been misconstrued as a sleep inducer, the real adverse effects of alcohol are now bubbling to the surface. But drink up still, as there’s a slew of healthier beverages that can take you safely and easily to dreamland.
Here’s a pop quiz: What’s the one activity in a day that takes 8 hours of doing absolutely nothing?
The answer – Sleep.
While that riddle may seem a little trite, there’s absolutely nothing trivial about sleeping at all. Being dormant is a very important activity as it helps the body regenerate itself for another day. Albeit we imagine sleep to be a period of inactivity, internally, the mind and the body are simultaneously moving together to help us repair, restore, and strengthen our bodily systems. So it’s quite alarming that around 25% of Americans suffer from sleeplessness each year. And an even more disturbing statistic is that of the 20% of Americans, according to Medical News Today, who rely on alcohol as a sleep aid.
Why People Often Think Alcohol Before Bed Works
Alcohol, by chemical definition, is a Central Nervous System depressant, which means that it can diminish the brain’s functioning capacity depending on the amount of intake. Once taken in, alcohol flows through the bloodstream rapidly, and its sedative effects causes the drinker to feel “relaxed,” or at the far end of the spectrum, “lethargic.” That’s why a lot of people turn to alcohol as a stress reliever of choice, believing it to help them loosen up and feel more at ease.
On the contrary, alcohol’s far-reaching effect is a lot more harmful than people realize. Yes, admittedly, alcohol helps one fall asleep faster when taken in, but that sleep-inducing aftermath of alcohol doesn’t last all throughout the night. In fact, alcohol disrupts the sleep cycle during the most important part of the process, and if not resolved any sooner, can often lead to more damaging, fatal consequences.
But what about something milder, like red wine? Does wine help you sleep?
Before we answer that, let’s understand first what the sleep cycle is, to give us a broader, better picture of how detrimental alcohol can be, including red wine, when people keep turning to it as a sleep aid.
Deconstructing the Sleep Cycle
- When it’s time for a shut-eye, the body eases into relaxed mode, but the brain now begins its important work, shuttling between two cycles called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.
NREM also comprises 3 stages itself, with each stage lasting around 5 to 15 minutes. All three stages have to consecutively take place before REM sleep kicks in.
- In Stage 1, you’ve already shut your eyes, but waking you up is still quite easy.
- In Stage 2, you’ve settled into sleep a lot more. This is the process when your body temperature drops, alongside your heart rate slowing down.
- Finally, in Stage 3, you’re already in a deep sleep state. Waking you up would be a little trickier this time. If you did end up waking up, unsettledness would often kick in. Stage 3 of NREM is quite vital as this phase is what’s responsible for repairing your body, fortifying your immune system, and helping you to develop stronger muscles and bones.
- After NREM, it’s now time for REM sleep to take place. This cycle is named such because in this phase, your eyes move and dart around in different directions uncontrollably. REM sleep normally takes place about 90 minutes after you first close your eyes. During REM sleep, dreams start to occur, brought about by a flurry of mixed frequency brain wave activities within this phase.
The Puzzling Problem That Is Insomnia
Unfortunately, sleep is hard to come by for a vast majority of people. Insomnia, while not a critical medical disorder, can still cause a lot of problems for those who suffer from it. According to the Mayo Clinic’s overview of insomnia, the sleeping disorder can occur in two ways. There’s acute insomnia, which happens only for a short span of time, lasting for a few days or weeks consecutively. Majority of adults suffering insomnia experience this type, especially those who are burdened by stress and traumatic experiences. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is a long-term disorder that can last for a month or even longer. It is normally attributed with other medical conditions a person is experiencing or as a side effect of medication being taken.
Aside from stress and underlying medical conditions, insomnia can actually result from a host of other common causes. For example, jet lag, an unavoidable aftereffect of crossing beyond time zones while traveling, attributes in acute insomnia for a bulk of people. Frequently changing work shifts can also cause difficulty in sleeping, especially for those who have been used to a uniform sleeping schedule, only to be disrupted radically to accommodate for work.
Oftentimes, acute insomnia also derives from poor sleeping habits, which often disguises itself in normal, every day pastimes. This can range anywhere from watching TV or playing games on computers late into the night, taking constant naps throughout the day, or even engaging in stimulating activities much later in the evening like working out and eating too much. These activities may seem innocuous, but if turned into daily habits, can tend to disrupt a proper night’s rest.
Chronic insomnia, brought about by ongoing health problems, heavier emotional stress and trauma, or taking certain drugs and medication, is much more life-threatening, especially if not attended to immediately. However, like acute insomnia, chronic insomnia doesn’t just affect routines at night, but the bigger complications arise in the daytime when grogginess sets in and focusing on tasks at hand are made much more difficult, yielding in possible accidents, depression, or further aggravated medical issues.
That’s why it’s not exactly surprising that many insomniacs assume that alcohol and insomnia can work together, given the desperation some may feel where sleeplessness is concerned.
Medical Risks When Drinking Alcohol Before Bed
A glass of red wine paired with dinner may not sound harmful, as red wine, after all, has been known to possess resveratrol, a rich source of natural antioxidant found in the skin of grapes. It’s still a general misconception that red wine is the best alcohol for sleep. But when red wine is drunk night after night to be used as a sleep inducer, that’s when the real danger sets in. The same goes with any other distilled drink for that matter. When consuming alcohol before bed, true, it may induce sleep faster, but the
threat occurs several hours after consumption.
According to this Harvard Health Publishing post, alcohol is responsible for boosting epinephrine, a stress hormone in the body that gradually increases the heart rate, stimulating the body even well into the night. This stimulation and rapid heart rate increase can result to spontaneous waking up in between the lull, thereby disrupting the sleep pattern adversely.
Another risk of alcohol as a sleep aid is its ability to relax the muscles in the throat. When this happens, breathing problems occur as airways become tighter. As this develops further, the disorder known as “sleep apnea” can advance aggressively. Apart from the throat, alcohol before bed can also affect the kidneys heavily.
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it helps the kidney release more sodium into urine, urging you to run to the bathroom and pee more frequently throughout the night. The constant bathroom trips will surely result in a lesser time of straight-up sleeping.
There’s also that elephant in the room that most people who can’t sleep without alcohol tend to ignore – repeated drinking right before heading to bed leads to the development of alcohol tolerance. To put it bluntly, the more frequent the drinker takes in the alcohol each night, the lesser effect the alcohol has as a sleep aid. This could lead a drinker to increase the dosage of alcohol intake to help him or her sleep faster, but as this continues over time, alcoholism eventually becomes the bigger problem.
As Clinical Advisor reiterates in this article, “Alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Approximately 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes each year.”
If that’s not sobering enough (no pun intended), alcohol before bed can further worsen pre-existing medical conditions that were not as damaging beforehand, but now paired with alcohol, can cause deadlier effects.
Frequently Asked Questions
As mentioned above, sleep apnea is a sleep disorder wherein breathing stops and starts in a constant cycle all throughout the night. This is manifested more clearly in people who have exacerbated snoring problems. There’s a misunderstanding that snoring loudly is a sign of a deep, relaxed sleep. Far from it, snoring loudly and constantly is actually a detrimental sign that shows a sleeper is not breathing properly during the sleep cycle. Most people who suffer from sleep apnea complain of excess fatigue in the daytime, confused as to how they could be so tired when they were “sleeping like a baby” at night.
Alcohol before bed pronounces the risk of sleep apnea even more because it increases the body’s effort to help you breathe harder when the suppresant component of alcohol kicks in. This causes your breathing to become slower and more shallow while you’re asleep. Once this becomes a constant pattern in your sleep cycle, what was once just obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form of the disorder that occurs when the throat muscles relax, could turn into complex sleep apnea syndrome, the more aggressive form that could lead to further complications like high blood pressure, heart problems, metabolic syndrome, and liver problems.
And while less common, night terrors are also intensified when alcohol is being used as a sleep inducer. Night terrors, though not as medically risky, is an undesired occurrence during the sleep cycle. As a parasomnia, it brings out abnormal behaviours and emotions while asleep. This could range anywhere from screaming, feeling intense fear, and jerking suddenly in bed from a nightmare. Night terrors also go hand in hand with sleepwalking. Drinking alcohol as a sleep aid can trigger the occurrences of night terrors due to the chemical imbalance it brings about to the brain.
These sleep disorders may not seem as serious from the start, but clearly, the addition of alcohol intake right before shut-eye can greatly activate them. There’s nothing more exhausting than having to wake up several times in the middle of the night to steady oneself. Even worse than that is getting up in the morning and feeling even drowsier than the night before.
- Chamomile tea has been the go-to remedy for mothers during bouts of insomnia, as illustrated in the 1902 children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. In 2011, a preliminary study was conducted to research into the efficacy of chamomile extract as a cure for insomnia. While the study concluded that chamomile’s sleep-inducing benefits were modest, a more recent study in 2017 inferred that a higher dose of chamomile extract for elderly patients in nursing homes showed more significant sedative properties that aided in their sleep cycles.
- Warm milk has also been around throughout the ages as a natural sleep aid. Though seemingly sounding more of an urban legend than a medically proven solution, warm milk is known to consist of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps stimulate niacin (Vitamin B3) and serotonin in the body, assisting in better sleep cycles. Tryptophan is not naturally produced in our bodies. Other natural sources of tryptophan can include turkey, tofu, peanuts, and of course, milk. Every 100 g serving of whole milk amounts to 0.371g of tryptophan.
- While not as quite common as the aforementioned two, tart cherry juice is also a great option for a natural sleep aid. The tart variety, originating from cherry trees native to southwest Asia and Europe, is best enjoyed in juice form, as compared to the sweeter variety. Tart cherry juice is rich in melatonin, a hormone developed in the brain’s pineal gland that works both as a sleep reminder and as an alarm clock to the body. And like warm milk, tart cherry juice is also a good source of tryptophan. Other than acting as a sleep aid, tart cherry juice is also rich in nutrients and can assist the body in more ways than one – like reducing muscle soreness, reducing symptoms of arthritis, and strengthening the immune system.
So, let’s ask that again. Does alcohol help you sleep? The straight answer – Alcohol should never be considered a sleep aid for its disadvantages far outweigh the convenience it brings for one to sleep faster.
Alcoholism is already troublesome enough for many Americans and dependence on it to counter sleeplessness will definitely bring further damage in the long run. For to be able to get a good night’s rest, it’s not only the standard 8-hour quantity that’s important, it’s also vital to have the adequate quality of sleep. An apparently harmless nightcap could often lead to another one the next night, and the next, and so forth. And like with everything else, prevention is always better than the cure, so when trying to improve your sleep cycle, here are several tried and tested activities you can do in the daytime to get your body naturally sleepy at night:
- Exercise regularly, and avoid doing so a few hours before bed.
- Set consistent sleeping and waking times.
- Should you wish to drink coffee, do so much earlier in the morning so the caffeine wears off throughout the day.
- Keep your body active and preoccupied in your waking hours, so when it’s time to hit the sack, you’ve conditioned yourself to prepare for rest already.
But when the inevitable happens, and insomnia strikes, it’s best to always remember that there are more natural and safer options to choose from, which your body and your mind will thank you for.