Do you have a “nightcap” to help yourself relax before bedtime? This might not be such a good idea, according to sleep researchers. Experts have long known that consuming beer, wine or spirits shortly before going to bed can cause us to wake up after only a few hours and then feel tired during the day. A recent study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine helps explain why.

Mahesh Thakkar, Ph.D., and his team report that alcohol is a powerful sleep inducer, and almost one in five Americans drinks alcohol to help fall asleep. But, says Prof. Thakkar, alcohol interferes with the body’s natural mechanism, called sleep homeostasis, that regulates sleepiness and wakefulness. Sleep homeostasis makes us want to sleep if we haven’t slept in a while, and wakes us up if we’ve slept too long.

The researchers found that drinking alcohol interferes with the sleep homeostatic mechanism, overruling the body’s natural signals that tell us it’s time for slumber—instead putting pressure on us to go to sleep right away. When this happens, the sleep period is shifted. In addition, as the alcohol wears off, we may wake up. Said study co-author Dr. Pradeep Sahota, “Based on our results, it’s clear that alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid. Alcohol disrupts sleep and the quality of sleep is diminished.” He added, “Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your need to go the bathroom and causes you to wake up earlier in the morning.

Poor quality sleep worsens many health conditions. It raises the risk of depression and falls. Researchers have even found that inadequate sleep causes us to gain weight! If you’re having trouble falling asleep, don’t reach for a glass of wine. Instead, read a book or listen to soothing music before bedtime. Improve your sleep environment by adding lightproof curtains and a white noise machine or fan to drown out noises. Don’t keep your smartphone near the bed. And adding exercise during the day—but not right before sleep—also helps. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor.

Dr. Thakkar said, “Sleep is an immense area of study. Approximately one-third of our life is spent sleeping. Coupled with statistics that show 20 percent of people drink alcohol to sleep, it’s vital that we understand how the two interact. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, don’t use alcohol. Talk to your doctor or a sleep medicine physician to determine what factors are keeping you from sleeping. These factors can then be addressed with individualized treatments.”

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners, reporting on a study from the University of Missouri Health System.

The information in this article is not intended to take the place of your health care provider’s advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing sleep problems or if you need help limiting your alcohol consumption.

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