Q & A: A Nightcap to Woo Sleep?

A woman wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac about using alcohol to get to sleep.

The nightcap comes with caveats for both good sleepers and people with insomnia. I’ll offer the official story and then my take.

A woman wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac about using alcohol to get to sleep.

“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 A pair of unpublished experiments conducted by sleep researcher Timothy Roehrs and colleagues in the Henry Ford Health System show that tolerance to alcohol taken at bedtime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.

Occasional Use

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?

Alcohol and Sleep Problems in Primary Care Patients

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

6 thoughts on “Q & A: A Nightcap to Woo Sleep?”

  1. If it helps you sleep, I say drink two glasses. Probably no more than two! In Europe, I’m sure most people drink at least that much wine every day.

    If the good-sleeping effect wears off and you have to drink three, four, then I say it’s probably time to find another remedy.

    Of course, I’m not insomniac, so I don’t know about the sleep effect. I do think some wine every evening is not a bad thing.

    And Lois, I have never seen anything in your writing about reading a boring book in bed. That always knocks me out right away.


  2. Let’s hear it for boring books! There is a place for them after all: wherever we park ourselves in the half hour leading up to sleep.

    I try to steer clear of the bed (for reasons I discuss at length in my book), but I do look forward every night to plopping down in my favorite comfy chair and reading myself to sleep. See the photo I posted with the Q & A of May 17: Getting Back to Sleep at 3.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. I have been looking for a rare blog because I am tired of accessing almost the same topic discussed in a website. This blog is actually hitting what I want to expect. I am very glad that you are now providing the information.


  4. Hi Louis,

    I’m glad the topics I’m writing about are of interest. I’m open to addressing anything and everything relating to sleep and insomnia. If there’s a particular topic you’d like to see discussed, feel free to suggest it. Or write to Ask The Savvy Insomniac, which you can access via my home page.


  5. Normally I wouldn’t tell people to drink alcohol, but I can say it does work. If you are worried about the hangover don’t. If you are really really hydrated with water before drinking then the hangover is minimal compared to how one feels on 3 to 4 hours sleep. I wouldn’t suggest you drink till you pass out every night though. You could easily become addicted to alcohol
    so do it in moderation only when really in need of a good night sleep.


  6. Hi Dana,

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience of how alcohol affects your sleep & how to avoid a hangover. Your comments have prompted me to explore the issue of alcohol and insomnia a little further myself. I’ll be posting a new blog about it this coming Monday.


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