Having a nightcap before bedtime is not unusual and neither is relaxing with a glass of wine while watching TV. While a drink before bed may help someone get to sleep a little faster, it turns out that alcohol before hitting the sack is bad for getting a good night’s sleep.
Alcohol does act as a sedative, helping the drinker relax. But new research involving college students shows that imbibing booze before bed leads to poor quality slumber.
A research team at the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychology Science Sleep Laboratory developed a study to look at how people’s brains react to alcohol consumed prior to sleep. The researchers recruited 24 adults from ages 18 to 21 to stay at the sleep laboratory for a couple of nights so they could be studied all night long. One night, the group was given a screwdriver nightcap (vodka and orange juice). On another night, they drank a placebo version (orange juice through a straw that was dipped in some vodka to mimic the taste of the real thing).
The study participants were encouraged to retire at their routine time both nights. However, prior to bedtime, electrodes were attached to their heads to gauge patterns of their brainwaves on an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they slept. The results showed that pre-sleep drinking causes an initial increase in restful brain activity, but it also causes an increase in alpha power activity, which reflects disturbed sleep, according to the researchers.
When the group consumed the orange juice with the vodka in it, the EEG’s showed an increase in slow wave sleep patterns as well as delta activity. Those markers are linked to a night of restorative deep sleep that allows the brain’s neurons (and the person) to recharge the mental batteries.
While they sounds like they are getting a deep, relaxing sleep, the alcohol had other effects. According to the results, which will be published in the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, the subjects showed heightened alpha brain wave patterns, which do not normally occur during a restful night. Alpha activity normally occurs if the brain is awake but resting. Having both alpha and delta activity together can result in disrupted sleep because the alpha patterns negate the restorative efforts for the brain neurons.
People tend to focus on the sedative properties of alcohol, noted Christian L. Nicholas, who is the National Health & Medical Research Council Peter Doherty Research Fellow at the sleep lab. He added that this results “in shorter times to fall asleep, particularly in adults, rather than the sleep disruption that occurs later in the night.”
Nicholas acknowledged that the exact function of non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) slumber, and in particular slow wave sleep patterns, is a continuing topic of debate, they are believed to reflect sleep need and quality. As a result, he pointed out that “any disruption to this may affect the underlying restorative properties of sleep and be detrimental to daytime functioning.
Prior studies have linked slumber patterns with both alpha and delta brain activity to drowsiness during the daytime, waking up not very rested, and things like irritability and headaches related to poor sleep. Whether these outcomes happen to people who drink before bed was not evaluated in the study, according to Julia Chan., who was the co-author. However, she said, seeing the alpha activity alongside the delta activity when the subjects slept suggests that the alcohol causes some kind of influence that competes with the restorative nature of delta sleep.
The bottom line, according to the researchers, is that alcohol does not make a good sleep aid. A drink before bed is bad, because it impacts how much quality of the sleep one gets.
By Dyanne Weiss