Nightcaps may be classy, and they sure seem to help you fall asleep faster. While there's no doubt that sleep after a long night of heavy drinking isn't of good quality, surely just one drink before bed is fine, right? Wrong! New research from the University of Melbourne, forthcoming in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, suggests that alcohol ruins your sleep even worse than previously believed. So nightcaps are actually close to the worst way to end your day.
Although it's clear that alcohol can make you fall asleep quicker, more careful tracking of the entire night's worth of sleep is necessary to figure out what alcohol's overall effects on sleep really are. So the researchers recruited college-aged volunteers to drink either alcohol or a placebo beverage, then spend several nights sleeping while being constantly neurologically monitored in a lab. At first it may have seemed like the alcohol drinkers were enjoying deeper sleep, due to a greater amount of "delta" (i.e. deep and restorative) sleep.
But, as it turns out, drinkers also spent more time in "alpha" sleep phases — a more aroused state, physiologically. In this way, the nighttime drinkers' sleep patterns looked significantly like the sleep of people who suffer from chronic pain and fatigue. The extra deep sleep caused by evening alcohol consumption is basically cancelled out. Those who drink before bed sleep longer, too — so having a nightcap or two ultimately results in you spending more time sleeping, but waking up feeling even less refreshed than you otherwise would have. No bueno.
As if the fact that alcohol ruins your sleep wasn't bad enough, alcohol also wrecks your immune system, accelerates aging, and damages your memory, amongst other ill effects. Moreover, contrary to what you may have heard previously, alcohol isn't really good for your heart, either.
So what is alcohol good for, then (other than emptying your wallet)? There is some scientific evidence that moderate intoxication boosts creativity in drinkers. And drinking on a date is an extremely common practice, for added social lubrication. But sleep is so important for your mood (and your productivity, and your health) that most nights you're much better off to abstain altogether.
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