The nightcap has quite a following: Up to 15% of people use alcohol to seduce the sandman, large-scale surveys show. Alcohol’s sleep-inducing effects occur partly because it’s a muscle relaxant (relaxed muscles help you fall asleep more quickly), and partly because it’s a psychological (or emotional) relaxant, says clinical psychologist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., author of Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep, which helps knock you out faster, especially if you’re feeling stressed.
Once your body starts relaxing, it continues to relax as you fall asleep. But watch out! This is when the alcohol causes your body to veer from its normal, healthy course, Breus says. Alcohol’s powerful knock-out-fast effects pilfer part of the other sleep stages you need. It forces you to stay in the lighter stages of sleep and makes it hard for you to enter both deep and REM sleep, important stages for waking up refreshed and ready to handle the day. This happens later in the night, when your body has mostly metabolized the sugar in the alcohol. Your sleep becomes light and fragmented, and you’re prone to frequent awakenings (often to hit the bathroom).
You may also struggle with snoring, nightmares, insomnia and night sweats. (Because alcohol is a diuretic, as it flushes out of your system, it can affect your body’s ability to maintain a normal temperature.) And if you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, be extra careful when mixing sleep with alcohol. As a muscle relaxant, it causes the muscles at the back of your throat to relax even more than usual, worsening sleep apnea’s symptoms. In fact, research from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, shows that men, especially, have longer episodes of sleep-disordered breathing after drinking alcohol.
The Morning After
Half of the hangover that hits you the morning after a few extra glasses of wine is caused by sleep deprivation and the other half by dehydration. Will just one glass of booze have a negative effect? No, Breus says. It’s when you get to two, three or four glasses that the problems start. And whether you drink wine, beer or hard liquor (brandy, whiskey, etc.,) doesn’t make a difference–it’s the drink’s ethanol content (a generic name for alcohol)–that matters. Here’s how the drinks break down: A standard “drink” of ethanol equals 10 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol content); between 3 and 4 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content); or 1 ounce of hard liquor (40% alcohol content).
Plus, if you’re a regular imbiber-say a glass of wine with dinner daily-you’ll build up a tolerance to the effects of alcohol, which means you won’t be as sedated as if you go out drinking on Friday and Saturday nights alone. Basically, you’re better off drinking a small amount of alcohol each day than overdoing it on the weekend. Before too long, you’ll be accustomed to its effects and be drifting off into an all-night restful slumber.
5 Smart Sleep Tips
If you do drink here’s how to make sure it won’t hamper your shuteye:
1) Finish drinking at least 3 hours before bedtime.
2) Don’t overdo your imbibing-stick with one or two drinks per day.
3) Try not to stay up too much past your usual bedtime-this only increases alcohol’s sleep-depriving effects.
4) Know exactly what one drink means: 1 beer = 1 glass of wine = 1 shot of hard liquor.
5) Follow Breus’ one for one rule: Drink one glass of water for every glass of alcohol. This will slow down your drinking, and help prevent dehydration. And downing a few extra glasses of water the next morning to help get your fluid levels back to normal again.