Thursday, August 20, 2009

Alcohol & Sleep: Nix the Nightcaps

A new survey by the Department of Health in England shows that many people fail to realize that alcohol can have a negative effect on sleep; 58 percent of surveyed drinkers were unaware that drinking can cause sleep problems.

One problem is that drinking alcohol may force you to go the bathroom more often during the night. The Department of Health
reports that alcohol stops the brain from releasing vasopressin; this chemical helps regulate the amount of water in your body.

Dehydration also can occur during the night as your body gets rid of too much water; this can cause sleep-disrupting headaches.

According to a 2005
review by the AASM, decades of studies also show that alcohol disrupts your natural sleep cycle. These disruptions tend to be dose dependent; they increase as the amount of alcohol you drink increases.

The review reports that alcohol initially may help you fall asleep. Then for a few hours there may be a short-term increase in deep, slow-wave sleep. But there also may be a decrease in rapid eye movement sleep – or REM sleep.

A 2002
study in the journal Sleep showed that these alcohol-induced changes in REM sleep can cause memory loss. The Department of Health suggests that this may help explain the “foggy” memory that many people have after a night of heavy drinking.

The AASM review also found that a withdrawal effect can occur later in the night. Your sleep may become lighter and more fragmented; the number and duration of awakenings may increase. Overall, it is likely that your sleep will be unrefreshing after drinking alcohol.

The review also reports that alcohol use can worsen
obstructive sleep apnea. Breathing pauses may occur more often and last longer.

Research clearly shows that alcohol can be disruptive to your sleep. Despite this evidence, many people continue to have a “nightcap” before going to bed.

A 2005
study in the journal Sleep found that about 11 percent of normal sleepers reported using alcohol to sleep. Results also show that the use of alcohol for sleep was an independent predictor of insomnia; about 29 percent of people with insomnia reported that in the past year they had used alcohol to help them fall sleep.

So what’s the bottom line? Nix the nightcap: Avoid drinking any alcohol before bedtime.

Effective treatments are available if you are struggling with insomnia. Contact an AASM-accredited sleep center for help.

Image by Craig Baker

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