“Whenever I can’t sleep,” she wrote, “I drink a couple glasses of wine and then I’m out. But people on these websites are always saying you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t, and I don’t believe them. I DON’T drink every night, I am NOT an alcoholic. It puts me out and I get a decent night’s sleep, so what’s the big f**king deal?”
I can so relate to the exasperation this woman feels. People with insomnia get a lot of advice thrown our way, and much of it is negative. Don’t watch TV in bed, don’t drink coffee, don’t stay in bed unless you’re asleep. Don’t, don’t, don’t. I get sick of being told to forgo so many things that normal sleepers can enjoy at no cost to their sleep.
But the nightcap comes with caveats for both good sleepers and people with insomnia. I’ll offer the official story and then my take.
Effects of Alcohol on Sleep
Alcohol is good at putting people to sleep: it may even deepen your sleep at the beginning of the night, experiments have shown. But the body eliminates the alcohol in four to five hours, creating problems in the second half of the night. To compensate for the altered sleep in the first half, the brain engages in a riot of REM sleep (when dreams occur), light sleep, and wakefulness. So while alcohol puts people out in the beginning, it interferes with sleep later on.
But the big problem with using alcohol to get to sleep has to do with tolerance, which develops quickly if you use it every night. Experiments on healthy sleepers have shown that whatever benefit alcohol affords–getting to sleep more quickly, for one–is lost within three days. The only way to keep getting the benefit is to increase the dose. Doing this, you set yourself on the path to dependency.
Insomniacs, too, habituate quickly. A pair of unpublished experiments conducted by sleep researcher Timothy Roehrs and colleagues in the Henry Ford Health System show that tolerance to alcohol taken at bedtime develops in insomniacs in less than a week. And a recent survey found that while hazardous drinking was not correlated with any particular measure of insomnia, it is strongly correlated with using alcohol to get to sleep.
Alcohol is a bad choice as a soporific for these reasons, and nobody can really dispute this. The experts advise avoiding alcohol in the three hours leading up to bedtime.
But two glasses of wine on an occasional basis? No modern-day physician would recommend it (although plenty did in the past), but I’m more of a libertarian when it comes to individuals taking charge of our health. Many of us have better judgment than we get credit for, I think. Yes, we should pay attention to the studies and use caution when drinking alcohol, especially right before bedtime. But we also ought to feel comfortable going with what works.
A lot do’s and don’ts get tossed out to poor sleepers, and it’s good to be able to filter out the noise.
Have you ever used alcohol to get to sleep? How did/does it make you feel?