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  • Writer's pictureSleep Well Blog

A nightcap before you go to sleep?

Updated: Jan 5

Some people swear by alcohol as a way for them to relax and fall asleep. They may enjoy an aperitif, a dinnertime glass of wine, a digestif...perhaps a nightcap. Others may enjoy a beer or cocktails at a "5 à 7" or during "happy hour". For many sports fans, a game without beer is akin to going to the movies and not having popcorn.

Yet, how about alcohol and sleep? Do they go together?

Alcohol is something that I have enjoyed at certain times in my life. I love the taste of wine, beer, and spirits. I love porto, ice wine, and ice ciders. The thought of mulled wine evokes memories of Christmas, acquired relatively recently after having lived somewhere where mulled wine was definitely part of the holiday culture. However, I have not had a drink very often over the past few years for health reasons... principally, I never quite feel well when I do drink (even if I don't drink a lot), and I never feel great the next day. I can say so because I can compare those times when I used to drink pretty regularly versus now, when I am not a regular drinker by a long shot. For instance, when I have drunk less than even a bottle of beer or just a glass of wine (3 or 4 times, max, over the course of this summer), I have felt heavy and sluggish the next day.

Here's why:

Alcohol is a sedative. Essentially, it sedates that part of your brain that keeps your less rational impulses in check (the prefrontal cortex)! As alcohol's effects progress, other parts of your brain will become affected. That's when you begin to get that heavy, drowsy feeling that alcohol induces. Although alcohol may knock you out of consciousness faster than if you were not to have a drink at night, alcohol does not lead to a good night's rest. Rather, the sleep that you will experience will be fragmented, which many people may not realise because they are probably unaware that they are waking up throughout the night. Unfortunately, since sleep is fragmented, it isn't the kind of sleep that is restorative and that you need for good health. Alcohol also leads to a loss in REM sleep because of the aldehydes that are produced when it is being metabolised.

Should you have that wine with dinner or that nightcap?

Matthew Walker, PhD, a sleep researcher, wrote an easy-to-follow explanation of the relationship between alcohol and sleep in his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. He has gone as far as to state that he recommends abstaining from alcohol because of its effects on sleep and, thereby, its effects on health, wellness, and learning (basically, if you are trying to learn something and you drink alcohol, doing so will actually inhibit your learning, even if you are having that drink three nights after you have tried to commit what you are learning to memory. Yikes!).

If a person does drink, alcohol should be completely metabolised before going to bed, which would mean alcohol with breakfast or brunch! This is not exactly the time when most people would pour a libation - you know what I mean.

In this department, I may actually have an advantage in comparison to others by virtue of my "extreme night owl-ness". Since I wake up later and go to bed later, the times for my "drink at brunch" would coincide with more socially acceptable times for drinking (i.e., the afternoon). This is the rare advantage that an extreme night owl might have in terms of living in a 9-to-5 world, considering that extreme night owls are usually treated as second-class citizens -- actually, no, they simply aren't recognised. I digress, however!

SO, back to the subject at hand, skip the nightly drinks and the nightcap if you want to optimise your sleep health. If you do decide to drink, then do avoid drinking at least 3 to 4 hours before bed.

Drinking at night is not ideal. However, it is something that is very much a part of our culture. The important thing, though, is that now you are equipped with more knowledge about alcohol and sleep, meaning that you can now make an informed decision and weigh the risks for yourself.


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