You may or may not be familiar with the term ‘nightcap,’ a popular euphemism for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the night. The term originates from the word ‘night cappie,’ a hat worn to bed in the 1300’s that kept one's head warm. An alcoholic beverage was also used in those days to keep warm and fall asleep quicker, although we have since learned that alcohol consumption actually lowers one’s internal body temperature and reduces our quality of sleep.
Because alcohol is a depressant by nature it slows down our brain activity and our central nervous system. This leads us to feeling relaxed and sleepy. So although it may seem like that nightcap is helping us fall asleep faster and keeping us asleep longer, it is actually reducing the duration of our sleep and the number of REM cycles we experience. REM cycles are important because when we don’t get enough of them we can experience REM Sleep Deprivation which can cause:
- Difficulty concentrating during the day
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Forgetfulness or poor memory
Over time, chronic sleep deprivation is linked to health conditions like diabetes, depression, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
According to SleepFoundation.org even a small amount of alcohol before bed, less than 2 drinks for men and 1 for women, can decrease the quality of your sleep by 9.3%. But this pales in comparison to the 39.2% decrease in sleep quality when 2 or more drinks are consumed (for men) and more than 1 drink is consumed for women. “Drinking alcohol before bed can add to the suppression of REM sleep during the first two cycles. Since alcohol is a sedative, sleep onset is often shorter for drinkers and some fall into deep sleep rather quickly. As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, resulting in less of the latter and more of the former. This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.”
Even more worrisome are the longer term negative effects of sleep deprivation like insomnia and sleep apnea. For many, this becomes a vicious cycle that can lead to alcohol misuse. Since we know alcohol reduces our REM cycles and our quality of sleep– those who drink before bed more than likely experience insomnia symptoms and sleepiness throughout the day. This can lead to irritability and the use of stimulants like caffeine to function properly to offset the brain fog and fatigue. This in turn leads to the use of alcohol, a depressant, at the end of the night to self-medicate and find that relaxed and sleepy feeling– and we are back at square one.
If you find yourself using alcohol to relax after a stressful day or as a sleep-aid, here are some suggestions on how to use healthier coping mechanisms to fall asleep:
- Create a Bedtime Routine: First order of business is to set a bedtime. “Following a consistent sleep routine helps train your brain to naturally feel tired when it’s bedtime.” This will trigger your sleep-wake cycle, which tells your brain to start winding down and to get ready to sleep.
- Leave your Electronics Alone: We all love a good Netflix binge before bed, but while it may help you tune out it will actually help keep your brain on, instead of falling asleep. TV, computer screens and cell phones all emit blue light which tricks our brains into thinking it's daytime. As a result, the brain suppresses melatonin and works hard to stay awake.
- Practice Mindfulness: To reduce stress and tension in the body, it’s extremely helpful to practice mindfulness before bed. This could be stretching, a yin yoga practice or a wind down meditation. You can find helpful meditation sessions inside your Reframe app, in your TOOLKIT.