The well loved tradition of a nightcap is embraced by many as a great tactic to get to sleep faster. However, alcohol has the potential to completely ruin your sleep. While the occasional drink or two could help you get to sleep faster, one too many could send you spiraling down into a really bad night and even ruin your sleep schedule. So is your nightcap helping you get to bed? Or is it secretly ruining your good nights rest? Keep reading to learn more about why alcohol and sleep don’t mix.
Why do we think alcohol helps us sleep?
If alcohol is so bad for our sleep, then why is the concept of a nightcap so popular? In order to answer that, you need to know where the term nightcap and the tradition of a drink before bed even came from.
The name of a nightcap originated from the literal sleeping hat widely used in the British Isles in the 1800s. Much later in 1930s Ovaltine started a campaign popularizing the use of the term “nightcap” as a drink that you have before bed in order to induce sleep. Adults then started using the concept for a small alcoholic beverages before bed, like a small glass of Brandy, Whiskey, or Wine.
The reasoning behind this concept is that in small doses, alcohol can have a light sedentary effect. Meaning that with a single drink 30 to 60 minutes before bed, can induce sleep and decrease sleep latency.
This is how a nightcap became popular. When you are not drinking alcohol on a regular basis and then you drink a small amount around the time you’re going to go to bed it will likely cause you to feel a little extra sleepy. This will likely send you off to dream land a bit sooner then you would normally.
However, when you begin to change the amount or frequency of your alcohol intake, the effects of your sleep will change drastically.
Amount & Frequency Matters
When you take in all of the data of how alcohol affects sleep, one common thread you will find is that the amount and frequency of an individuals alcohol intake will greatly influence how it alters their sleep quality.
If you occasionally have a single drink at nighttime, then it can in fact help to induce a deep and even healthy sleep pattern for that night. Leaving you to also wake up feeling more alert and ready to take on the day.
However, when you exceed that amount either in frequency, like drinking one drink a night every single night. Or if you drink more than one or two drinks before bed, then you can experience sleep latency. This is a disruption in REM cycles, and a multitude of other effects that will cause disrupted and lower quality of sleep overall.
Even if you are only drinking a single nightcap every single night, it can change the way it effects the body and your sleep. You see, when you consistently partake in an alcoholic drink, your body will adjust and become used to it. This means the positive side effects like a little sleepy feeling after your single drink, will dull. Then you may be tempted to adjust by having a second drink.
Unfortunately over time your body will adjust to that second drink as well. This is not a good cycle to go down. The best way to beat it is by lowering the frequency of your nightcaps. Take a break every once and a while and go to sleep without, this will make your occasional nightcap more effective.
When you increase the amount of alcohol you’re drinking either during the day or into the evening, it will effect your sleep drastically. Many of the following negative effects start after drinking as little as 3 drinks. However as you increase the amount you’re drinking, the symptoms increase right along with it.
As you continue reading you will learn all the many ways that binge drinking can ruin your sleep.
Alcohol Blocks REM Sleep
When you drink alcohol before bed you will likely fall asleep faster, which may trick you into thinking that you are getting better sleep in general. However, whether or not you will get better rest depends on the amount of alcohol consumed by the individual both on a regular basis and on that particular night.
When you limit your intake for the entire day to a single drink or possibly two at the very end of the day, it may increase your deep sleep wave patterns. However, when you exceed this limit, alcohol blocks your body from having a healthy amount of REM sleep. Which is vital for memory development and overall rest and recuperation.
The excess amount of alcohol in your system will also increase sleep latency as well as lead to a multitude of issues that will mix together in order to create a cocktail of bad sleep, if you will. Some of the other issues caused by exceeding the one to two drink limit are as follows.
Lower Core Body Temperature:
Your body wants to stay in the range of 97.7–99.5 °F in order to function properly. When you drink your blood vessels dilate, this combined with the diuretic effect of perspiration will give you the sensation of feeling hot. So you may even attempt to cool yourself down.
Meanwhile, the dilation of blood vessels moves blood away from your internal organs and allows it to circulate closer to the skin. This makes your blood cool faster. Which in turn then lowers your core body temperature. This is the point of the night when you will wake up in cold sweats, shivering while feverishly sweating. Definitely not the best way to get a restful nights sleep.
Interrupts Natural Circadian Sleep Cycle
Your Circadian Rhythm is created by a combination of external stimuli. From the sunrise, to the sunset, and all of our daily routines and habits effect your internal clock and how your body determines when to go to sleep and when to wake up.
When you add in a few drinks, even if it is just on the weekend, this can throw off your Circadian Rhythm and cause your sleep schedule to get thrown off past just the single night of drinking.
More Bathroom Trips
Alcohol is a diuretic. When you drink alcohol it blocks hormones that send signals to the body to keep circulating the liquids in your body. Instead your kidneys view alcohol as poison and to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that it is not just the alcohol that your body is getting rid of, its also all the rest of your liquids that you need.
For every shot of alcohol your body will increase urination production by 120 milliliters. Which is approximately 4 ounces of the fluids for every shot. After “breaking the seal” the alcohol will then hit your bladder, irritating it and cause the urge to urinate to increase as well.
This diuretic effect can also cause perspiration, diarrhea and throwing up. Not only will these consistent and urgent trips to the restroom keep you awake, but it will also severely dehydrate you. When you are dehydrated, you will experience dry mouth and nasal passages while you sleep. Severe dehydration can also cause painful headaches, leg cramps, and even night sweats.
Have you ever tried to fall asleep after being spun in a circle over and over, probably not. But if you have ever binge drank then you have likely experienced getting “the spins”. Trying to fall asleep with vertigo or the sensation of motion while sitting still, is incredibly difficult and disorienting.
It takes as little as having a .08 blood alcohol level to experience these effects. It is the alcohol level in the blood that effects the consistency of the fluid in your inner ears that gives you this sensation and also can affect your hand eye coordination.
This dizzying sensation can deter you from falling asleep, and it can also increase nausea. Overall trying to fall asleep and stay asleep with “the spins” is no fun and should absolutely be avoided.
Alcohol creates two major factors that can lead to breathing issues. The first factor is that when you drink alcohol and then go to sleep, you can temporarily go into an extremely deep sleep. (Not to be mistaken for productive rest like REM cycles)
The second factor is that alcohol is a muscle relaxant. In combination this can cause snoring for people who normally do not snore. It can also be much more dangerous for people who normally do snore or have sleep apnea.
Their symptoms will likely increase dramatically. If you suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea it is highly advised to avoid combining sleep and alcohol, as it can be very dangerous for your health. If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea and you go to sleep with alcohol in your system, your muscles will be more relaxed than usual, causing more obstructions. Then when you would normally wake up after a few moments without air, you instead may fail to wake up. In extreme cases, this could lead to death.
Depression, Insomnia, and Alcoholism
Depression, insomnia, and alcoholism. All of these issues can trigger one another, you can start depression which can lead to alcoholism and insomnia. Or alcoholism can cause insomnia and depression.
They all go hand in hand and can create a vicious cycle that can be incredibly difficult to break. Especially when addiction is involved. If you are struggling with any of these issues it is important to seek help and guidance. Your health and life are on the line and it isn’t a problem you need to tackle on your own. Reach out to friends, family, and professionals. If you want to contact someone immediately we have put the hotline phone numbers for three different services that may be able to help.
- Mental Health Disorders
The National Mental Health Association
- Alcohol/Drug Abuse and Addiction
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Giving Up Alcohol – Temporary Effects On Sleep
If you are abusing alcohol, their are a few temporary side effects caused by quitting alcohol. They should in no way discourage you from stopping. However, they are good to be aware of while you are going through the process. Hopefully it is also helpful to know what they are, as well as the fact that they are usually temporary too.
When your body has become accustomed to high and frequent amounts of alcohol, your sleep will likely suffer when you first take that alcohol away. Your hormone levels get thrown out of wack when you are drinking alcohol often. Once you get off of it, you are then relying on those hormones to tell your body when it is time to go to sleep. However, it will take a while for those hormones, like melatonin, to kick back in.
Your core body temperature will also remain higher than usual, which may make it difficult to fall and stay asleep for long periods of time. Your cortisol levels might also increase during this time, which is a hormone connected with the adrenal system. This will also make it difficult to sleep as well. While it will get better in time, it can take years until your sleep cycle gets back to normal.
Tips To Improve Your Sleep After Giving Up Alcohol
First off, if you have made the commitment to giving up alcohol – Congratulations! It may take some time to get your sleep back on track, but with a few tips we hope to help you get better rest as quickly as possible. Below are a few ideas that may improve your sleep naturally.
#1 – Implement a Sleep Schedule
Now that you don’t have alcohol being the trigger your mind is use to dictating when to sleep, it’s time to introduce new sleep inducing techniques. By creating an evening and morning routine your body and mind will be able to better recognize when you should be sleeping.
There are several easy ways to create a simple sleep schedule. By incorporating just a few, or even several evening and morning habits, you’ll find your body getting into a better bedtime rhythm quickly. And hopefully improving your sleep in the short and long term much faster.
Our guide on How To Fix Your Sleep Schedule is a great place to get plenty of ideas to help you in no time.
#2 – Create Security
Sometimes alcohol does a great job of hiding or exacerbating the root issues, such as depression and anxiety. An amazing and natural way to help with these core issues, especially while sleeping is using a weighted blanket. We absolutely love weighted blankets for a variety of reasons. This inexpensive, non harmful natural method of comfort could noticeably improve your sleep quicker than you’d think.
One of our favorite breathable and less heat retaining brands is Baloo Living Weighted Blankets. They not only use some of the finest and most natural materials, but also great craftsmanship. To create a great blanket that provides a soft hug that relaxes you right to sleep.
Learn more about the benefits of a weighted blanket as well as a few of our favorite brands in our guide The Benefits of Weighted Blankets.
#3 – Exercise
The profound effects of a healthy lifestyle, especially exercise, even spill over into your sleep. By getting a moderate amount of physical activity your body and mind go through a plethora of benefits.
If you are trying to create a cleaner lifestyle in general this is a sure fire way to start making changes. Even implementing simple changes to your activity level, like a brisk nightly walk, will help you. Not only will your mind feel more clear, but your body will have more reason and need to sleep.
Find out about all the ways exercise and sleep go hand in hand in our guide Exercise and Sleep.
#4 – The Right Food
Going hand in hand with implementing a healthier lifestyle through exercise also comes your diet. Not only is your diet important in fueling your body for the day, but night too. By making sure you body has the necessary nutrients and minerals your body will function better. Even during sleep too.
Not only does incorporating a healthy diet benefit sleep, but also understanding how certain foods can help you sleep or keep you awake could help you fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer. By incorporating or avoiding certain foods for your nightly snack may have you on the fast track to a better night sleep in no time.
Learn more about which foods you should add to your diet and which ones to avoid in our guide the Best & Worst Foods Before Bed.
#5 – Learn to Relax
Another great way to help you get more sleep during this transition is learning to relax. By allowing your body to heal physically you can also allow it to heal mentally and emotionally too. There are several very therapeutic techniques that help your body rest and relax.
From getting a massage or pedicure to meditation and yoga, you can find a great way to not only relax your body, but your mind too. Allowing you to learn how to better calm down and fall asleep even easier.
Learn more about the powerful benefits of Meditation for Sleep, Anxiety & Healing in our amazing guide.
Final Thoughts: Moderation Is Key
When used infrequently and in small doses a drink before bed can help you fall asleep faster and possible a little deeper as well. However, the more you drink, those benefits quickly dissipate and you will come face to face with many issues from alcohol that will make it harder to get to sleep and lower your quality of sleep overall.
So if you want a nightcap make sure you are a healthy adult and only partake in a small drink before bed every once and a while. This is the best way to get the maximum sleep benefits out of your drink.