Alcohol and Sleep

The nightcap – it’s as much a part of our culture as pajamas, going back further than anything I can remember. Watching any well researched entertainment about the 1960s, such as the fine TV show Mad Men, will show you that as recently as one generation ago, alcohol was a very common and frequent part of our daily lives. More recently, we have become significantly more moderate in our consumption for the most part, but a lot of that consumption still seems to take place at the end of the day, when the responsibilities of work and operating a motor vehicle have ended for the day and all that remains is to relax, unwind, and get to sleep.

I will be the first one to admit that, some days, a martini in my favorite chair is all that comes to mind when I get home from work. With our intake of alcohol becoming more reasoned and intelligent, a question naturally has come up: How does alcohol affect our sleep?

Like a number of factors, this one revealed itself to me unintentionally over the course of nearly 1000 nights during which I have collected data on my sleep quality. There’s good news and there’s bad news: The good news is that moderate alcohol consumption in general does not seem to have a measurable impact on sleep quality. The bad news is that alcohol intake close to bedtime does, and it’s not a good impact.

Many times I have heard scientists and doctors say that alcohol has the effect of an anesthetic or sleep aide. That is to say, it will assist you in losing consciousness, but what happens after that is not necessarily going to be quality, restorative sleep. When one wakes from anesthetic, after a surgery for example, the general feeling is usually slurred motor coordination, disorientation, and lethargy, not refreshment and high energy. This is a very important distinction – being unconscious is not the same as being asleep necessarily, and getting sleep does not necessarily equate to getting quality sleep.

The chart below is the best example I have of this to date. On a recent Friday night, I got a disturbing work related email minutes before bedtime. (my mistake for reading email that close to bed…) In an attempt to resume the calm, ready-to-sleep state I’d been jolted out of, I had one small but strong drink and then went to bed. While my sleep chart shows a score of 100% achieved over 9 hours, I felt bloody awful when I got up and barely made it to an appointment that morning.

So, what happened? Didn’t the alcohol make me fall asleep quickly and sleep all night? Shouldn’t I have felt great?

The answer (no) is right there in the chart to see. As you can clearly see, the peaks of each 90 minute cycle are so high I am nearly awake each time, which is a terrible pattern. Only the troughs at 4 and 5:30 am are deep enough to get good sleep, but they are brief and then I’m back to nearly conscious again. This is a chart I equate with an extremely effective torture used by militaries the world over – sleep deprivation. Far worse than keeping someone awake nonstop is to let them drift off to sleep for a few moments and then jolt them back awake. I’ve experienced it and it is beyond horrible. Any Navy SeAL knows this from their training where they are exposed to it. It’s not something you want to experience if you can avoid it, trust me. So while alcohol can remove the edge from one’s current state and get you off to sleep, you are in for a lousy night. The good news? Alcohol consumed several hours before bed time. (3 or more hours in my experience, but this can vary with body mass, strength of alcohol content, etc.) seems to be out of the system in time for bed and not affect sleep. So, if you want to have a drink after work, do so as early as possible. Stick to Happy Hour and skip the Nightcap for better sleep.





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