Alcohol’s a sedative and older people often use it to get to sleep. But is that a good idea?
As we know, a few drinks in the evening can make us nod off faster than normal. To understand what happens next, we need to know a bit about the various stages of sleep.
The first is light sleep — we drift off and everything slows down.
The second stage is deeper than the first. Our heart rate and breathing slow, our temperature decreases, and our eyes become still.
The third stage, the deepest, is known as slow-wave sleep. This is the time for growth and repair of our body’s tissues and lymphatic waste removal.
Finally, in the fourth stage, which occurs about 90 minutes after we initially fall asleep, eye movements restart and our breathing rate and heartbeat increase.
This is called ‘rapid-eye movement’ (REM) sleep, and it’s when we do most of our dreaming. REM sleep stimulates the parts of the brain that are important for learning and memory retention.
We move through all four stages, then start over again, cycling through them several times a night.
In the first half of the night we spend more time in the initial three stages, with brief REM patches of no more than 10 minutes.
In the second half of the night the reverse happens, and REM sleep dominates.
If we’ve drunk alcohol before bed, we’ll probably sleep deeply and dreamlessly, and REM sleep will be suppressed in the first half.
But things often change as the alcohol is metabolized, and in the second half of the night our brain can become more stimulated and our sleep disturbed.
If this results in drowsiness the next day, some people fall into a pattern of using caffeine to get them going, then alcohol in the evening to bring them down.
And if we build a up a tolerance to alcohol, we’re likely to need more of it to give us the sedative effect.
There are a few other issues to be mindful of in using alcohol this way.
One is that it depresses our central nervous system, so it’s important not to mix alcohol with other sedatives, including supplements such as melatonin.
Second, it’s also a diuretic, which means it can make us visit the toilet more often to pee.
And third, it relaxes our muscles, including those in our throat. That’s why people snore more after they drink. But it can be dangerous if they have sleep apnea.
It’s also important to remember that women’s bodies don’t break down alcohol as well as men’s, and as we get older, this capacity diminishes even further. So older women are quite vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.
If you’re in the habit of drinking before bed, sleep specialists suggest trying a break from it for at least two weeks to see how your body responds.
Some people apparently discover that they sleep better. At the very least a break highlights the difference alcohol makes and helps us make a more informed decision about what we’re doing.
The recommended gap between drinking and sleep is three to four hours.
But something else to bear in mind is the impact of nightly drinking.
Canada recently issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption. Based on health research (e.g. the risk of some cancers, heart disease and stroke) those guidelines consider low risk drinking to be two or fewer standard glasses a week.
You read that correctly. Two a week.
Moderate risk is three to six glasses, which is less than one a night. More is considered high risk.
For those of us for whom alcohol has long been a part of daily life, that’s sobering, so to speak.
We all need to weigh up our options, but it’s worth noting that while a drink or two before bed might seem innocent enough, increasingly, that may not be the case.
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