Does alcohol help sleep?
It is common knowledge that having a few drinks in the evening can make it easier to fall asleep. In fact, having a late-night alcoholic ‘nightcap’ was common practice. Does alcohol really help us sleep as much as we think it does? We asked 6 experts in neuroscience, alcohol use and sleep, ‘Does alcohol help sleep?’, here is what they said…
Does alcohol help sleep?
Why do we need to sleep?
Sleeping is essential for humans to function and survive. Although there is still much to learn about what happens in the body and mind whilst we are sleeping, experts have identified that we pass through ‘sleep cycles’ that include different stages of sleep. One of these stages is called rapid eye movement (REM). REM occurs about 90 minutes after you drop off, and you can see someone is in REM when their eyes are darting around and their breathing is a little quicker.
REM is a very important sleep stage. Dr Abhijit Nadkarni, a psychiatrist from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, says “REM sleep is the restorative phase of sleep during which we also dream.” Dr Claire Rostron, a neuroscientist from the Open University, adds that “REM sleep is important for cognitive processes such as memory consolidation so reducing the time in which this process occurs has a detrimental effect on memory. Consolidation of emotional memories may be particularly affected.”
Does alcohol help us sleep?
Professor Danielle Dick, an expert in alcohol use from Virginia Commonwealth University in the USA, says “It is a common myth that alcohol helps people sleep.” She says that “alcohol has sedative properties so it can help people fall asleep, but importantly, the quality of sleep is very adversely affected. Alcohol causes people to wake in the middle of the night and keeps people from entering into REM sleep, which is necessary to get a good night of sleep.”
All the sleep experts agreed. Dr Nadkarni adds that “Alcohol gives the false impression that it helps sleep, as it helps induce sleep i.e. after drinking healthy people fall asleep quicker and sleep more deeply for a while.” But that “any benefits due to rapid initiation of sleep are offset by the overall poor quality of sleep.”
The amount of alcohol consumed will influence how much your sleep is affected. Dr Christine Spadola, an expert in sleep research from Florida Atlantic University in the USA says “there is a dose - response relationship: consuming one glass of red wine close to bedtime is less harmful for sleep than consuming 5 margaritas.”
What is the evidence that alcohol affects sleep?
Sleep laboratory studies administer alcohol to volunteers just before sleep and then take various measurements and observations to record the quality of their sleep and how refreshed they feel the next day. These measurements could be of brain activity, heart rate and eye and limb movements whilst asleep, and then questionaries the next morning.
Having a nightcap before bed might help you drop off quicker, but you’ll feel less refreshed the next day.
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