WASHINGTON, June 20, 2013 — Sleep should be a relaxing period when body and mind rest from a stressful day. The National Sleep Foundation defines sufficient sleep time as “sleep duration that is followed by a spontaneous awakening and leaves one feeling refreshed and alert for the day.” Some people think that a nightcap before bedtime can help them fall asleep. Some surveys show that up to 15 percent of people use alcohol to fall asleep. This old bedtime remedy, however, provides much less restful sleep than people may think.
The Normal Sleep Cycle
Knowing a bit about the normal sleep cycle can help explain how alcohol affects it. People sleep in cycles of about ninety minutes. Sleep is divided into five stages:
- Stage 1 – Eyes are closed and a person can be awakened easily.
- Stage 2 – The light sleeping stage. Breathing and heart rate are regular and body temperature drops. Muscles relax and may even twitch.
- Stage 3 and 4 – Deep sleep. The body rests, heals and regenerates during this phase.
- Stage 5 – Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. More brain activity and the eyes move, giving the stage its name. Dreams occur during REM sleep.
How Alcohol Disrupts Sleep
The body moves through all the stages throughout a night’s sleep. REM sleep stages are short at the beginning of the night and get longer as the night goes on. When someone drinks alcohol before sleep, the alcohol disrupts the sleep cycles as it is metabolized in the liver. The early hours of sleep, which have fewer REM cycles, gain more deep sleep and may even improve that deep sleep. Later on, after alcohol has been processed, the sleep cycles with more REM sleep are fragmented.
In addition, alcohol intake increases urination, which can disrupt sleep even more if a person wakes up to use the restroom. A drink may help a person drift off initially, but a nightcap will only cause waking later and interfere with the normal sleep pattern.
Sleeping Pills and Alcohol
One in four Americans will take a sleep aid or sleeping pill at least one time this year. However, few consider the dangers of mixing alcohol and sleeping pills. Drinking and taking a sleeping pill packs a double dose of sedatives, which slows the heart and slows breathing.
Some prescription sleep aids can produce even worse reactions. Some people taking sleep medicines, such as Ambien and Lunesta, have experienced side effects where they were active during sleep (walking, eating, driving) with no awareness of it. The potential for these side effects increases if a person drinks alcohol while taking the drug.
Most doctors recommend not drinking for at least six hours before taking a sleeping pill. Having a nightcap and a sleeping pill is a bad idea.
The bottom line is that people should avoid alcohol around bedtime; it interferes with sleep. When someone regularly needs something for sleep, either alcohol or sleeping pills, other causes of poor sleep should be investigated. No one will find a good night’s rest with alcohol and sleeping pills.
For people who cannot give up that nightcap, their problem may be more with alcohol and less with sleep issues. They may need to seek alcohol treatment and visit an alcohol detox center.
Written by Jennifer Taylor.
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