Alcohol has a detrimental impact on sleep architecture, it turns out. It may help you fall asleep, which is often why people have drinks right before bed. But once your body metabolizes the alcohol in the bloodstream, which takes most of the first half of the sleep cycle, a "rebound" effect occurs in which the body shifts away from deeper sleep toward earlier stages, which is in direct opposition to the kind of sleep one should normally have in the second half of the night. In essence, your body goes into withdrawal. This is true for anyone who drinks any kind of alcohol right before sleep and is not specifically a problem falling within the realm of alcoholism.
The deeper sleep cycles, stage 3 and REM stage sleep, are critical for healing. Deep non-REM sleep helps the body to repair itself physiologically at the cellular level by introducing human growth hormone (HGH) during its first cycle; however, this cycle might very well be skipped if you are still metabolizing alcohol. In REM sleep, the brain recalibrates and compartmentalizes thoughts, memories, learned ideas and experiences from the previous day. Without adequate amounts of this stage of sleep, cognitive dysfunction can develop over time which can include fatigue, memory issues, learning disabilities and an inability to process information and multitask neurologically at your normal rate. Severe issues can lead to dementia.
In addition, research has shown the relationship between alcohol intake and diminished sleep quality to be bi-directional: disturbed nighttime sleep caused by nightcaps enjoyed prior to bed increases your chances of craving future alcohol use, and alcohol itself has the potential to influence the quality of sleep you get from one night to the next.
On top of all this, if you have a sleep-breathing disorder such as sleep apnea, you can be sure to expect it to worsen over time if you are having a regular nightcap. The muscles in the upper airway lose their patency (firmness) during episodes of sleep apnea; the muscle-relaxing qualities of alcohol will only exaggerate this problem and lead to longer, more serious episodes of obstructed breathing which, over time, can become life-threatening.
SLEEP HYGIENE TIP OF THE WEEK: No one here is saying you have to quit drinking, nor is it being suggested that you abstain completely from alcohol before bed from here on out. Special occasions in our lives mean that, from time to time, we will enjoy an alcoholic drink in the evening. Our tip is to avoid drinking right before bed as a matter of habit, or as a form of sedative use; you cannot expect to be at your 100 percent cognitive best following a late night out with drinks during special occasions. In addition, you can expect a slow degeneration of cognitive dysfunction over time if you do, in fact, make it a habit.
The main takeaway? Using alcohol every night as a bedtime sedative is going to have multiple negative impacts on your health. Try to avoid it whenever possible. If you are having trouble falling asleep at night, please talk to your doctor to determine root causes for this common condition. Insomnia is treatable and definitely worth overcoming for anyone who wants to live a rich, healthy, long life. Just don't treat it with a nightcap, okay?