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Many people claim that having a nightcap (alcoholic drink) before bed makes them sleepy and helps them to drift off more easily. In fact, scientists have shown that a little booze helps us to fall asleep faster and increases slow-wave, or deep sleep during the first half of the night. Slow-wave or deep sleep (also referred to as delta sleep) is an important phase of our sleep cycle as this is when the human growth hormone is produced to help our bodies restore and repair our muscles. Our immune system is also boosted during this phase.

However, despite alcohol helping you fall asleep faster and experiencing deep sleep, studies have shown that it reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is also an important part of our sleep cycle as it helps us to improve our memory and learning abilities. Without enough REM sleep, we’re likely to wake up feeling groggy. REM sleep usually occurs around 90 minutes after initially drifting off and lasts for around ten minutes. It is thought that we have four to six phases of REM sleep a night and this is where we dream – each phase becomes longer, and the final one lasts for around an hour.

What about alcohol to relax before bed?

There is some truth to the idea that alcohol helps you to unwind before going to bed as alcohol is classed a sedative. However, using it as a relaxation method continuously before going to bed will likely increase your tolerance towards alcohol. You’ll start to feel that you need more nightcaps to get the same desired effect of drowsiness and relaxation before going to bed. This of course could potentially lead to excessive alcohol consumption.

Although having an alcoholic drink before bed can help us to unwind and relax, once the alcohol wears off, any feelings of stress and anxiety will return and often worse than they were before. An article published on Healthline explains that the sense of relaxation we feel after drinking alcohol is from it directly entering our bloodstream. As the level of alcohol drops, depressive or restless feelings can rise again.

A recent podcast for the Dreams Sleep Matters Club with Dr. Pixie Mckenna discussed the impact of alcohol on sleep. Guest speaker Claire McGarten had given up alcohol for two years and found that it had many health benefits, predominately on the quality of her sleep.

Claire used to drink a bottle of wine a night and fall asleep easily around 11pm. However, she would always wake at about 3am or 4am in the morning, feeling sweaty and anxious. She would then go back to sleep and get up for work at 6.30am feeling tired throughout the day. Dr. Sara McNeillis explained that while alcohol does get you to sleep quite quickly, it does wake you up in the middle of the night because the effects wear off fast. The disruptions you have with your sleep are slow to recover. The sleep you get after drinking alcohol is not good quality or natural and the disruption builds up like a sleep debt. “We’ve not seen any studies that suggest that you can have one glass and sleep well. It is quite a profound substance that even one drink can affect your sleep.”

As soon as Claire gave up drinking, her sleep improvement was one of the first things she noticed, along with a whole host of other health benefits. She recalled: “I hadn’t really thought I was in bad health, but people started to say to me ‘oh you look nice today’ or ‘your skin looks really nice’, and I realised that gradually over time my eyes looked a bit brighter and my skin was clearing up. I just felt healthier as well. When I was drinking, I had a lot of back pain and when I gave up and started exercising, it just completely went away. Also, my anxiety, which I think went hand-in-hand with drinking. I would be more confident once I’d had a few drinks.”

In conclusion, a nightcap before bed is likely to help you fall asleep quicker, but you’ll be risking the quality of your sleep and could end up feeling more tired the next day.

Click here to access more information and top tips on managing your alcohol intake.