Although 20 percent of adults in the U.S. admit to using alcohol as a sleep aid, studies show that boozing before bed can interfere with the overall quality of sleep. Using alcohol to help with insomnia can pose other risks and drawbacks, such as hangovers, increased alcohol tolerance, and dependence. Read the whole article to understand the impact of alcohol on sleep and to discover some healthier ways of dealing with sleep problems.

How a Nightcap Helps You Nap

The concept of a nightcap is well-known throughout history and appears in numerous different cultures. In the West, drinking a few shots of whiskey, brandy, or a liqueur is not an uncommon way to prepare for bed. Often, a nightcap will be taken after dinner, which has already included other alcohol, such as wine or beer.

It is true that drinking alcohol can help you fall asleep more quickly. Ethanol, the chemical name for alcohol, depresses the central nervous system and slows down brain function. Ethanol also makes your body produce adenosine, the brain’s sleep chemical. This leads to drowsiness and can help you to fall asleep faster.

But researchers have revealed that alcohol may not be good for anything other than knocking you out for a quick nap. Studies show that drinking can cause disrupted sleep and early waking. Using alcohol too frequently can affect sleep patterns negatively over time, potentially even worsening insomnia.

Alcohol Alters Sleepiness Levels

Long-term research by the University of Missouri has shown that alcohol alters sleep homeostasis, the brain mechanism that regulates wakefulness and sleepiness. By artificially forcing your body to sleep with alcohol, you disrupt this natural balance.

Although alcohol can help to knock you out for the first part of the night, the second half of your night can be ruined as your body rebounds from the excess adenosine. As your body tries to restore homeostasis, this can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night or unnaturally early in the morning. And as much as you toss and turn, you may be unable to achieve any more shut-eye.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, a toxin, and it dehydrates the body. So, you won’t wake up feeling fresh and perky; you’ll likely wake feeling thirsty, needing to pee, and you may experience a hangover, depending on how much alcohol you drank the night before.

Other Issues With Alcohol as a Sleep Aid

Using alcohol too regularly can also increase your tolerance for alcohol, meaning that you will need to drink more of it to have the same soporific effect. For example, if you have a nightly shot of brandy as a nightcap, after some time, you will need two shots, then three, to help you sleep.

If you follow this pattern, you risk becoming alcohol-dependent and facing the effects of alcohol withdrawal when you stop drinking, a syndrome that, in itself, causes insomnia.

You don’t have to be a full-blown alcoholic to suffer from mild alcohol withdrawal. If you’ve ever had a hangover, you have experienced the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much and then stopping.

Healthier Drinks For Deep Sleep

Alcohol is not the wisest choice of sleep aid, but some non-alcoholic drinks can help you to fall asleep more quickly and get high-quality sleep. Amino acids such as L-theanine or L-tryptophan gently help, rather than force, the brain to produce relaxing neurochemicals.

You can get calm-inducing L-theanine by drinking decaffeinated green or black tea. L-tryptophan is naturally found in warm milk, an age-old sleep remedy. Eating some carbohydrates with your milk, such as crackers or cookies, helps the L-tryptophan convert into serotonin, a soothing neurochemical. Health food stores also sell these amino acids in supplement form.

If you prefer not to use food or take any supplements, you can try sleep meditations, Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep) practices, or bedtime stories for adults. If you can’t get a handle on your sleep problems on your own, speak to your doctor. Long-term sleep issues can indicate an underlying physical or mental health issue.

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Nirit Weiss-Blatt

Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The TECHLASH and Tech Crisis Communication. She is a former Research Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her expertise is in tech journalism. She is a contributor to Techdirt, and also has published in Newsweek ...

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