Q: I know getting enough sleep is important for good health. Does a “nightcap” help or hurt?
A: Some people think that alcohol is a sleep aid, but that’s not true. Alcohol can reduce how long it takes to fall asleep, but research shows that alcohol actually leads to lower quality, less rejuvenating sleep overall. The first few hours of sleep may be good quality, but then alcohol seems to produce more disrupted sleep, reducing the amount of deep, restorative sleep. Some evidence suggests alcohol can also reduce the amount of time spent in the REM stage, where dreams occur; this stage is considered important for learning and other aspects of mental health. Alcohol can also worsen problems with breathing in people with sleep apnea. Scientists studying alcohol’s effects on sleep generally say that having an occasional alcoholic drink before bed is unlikely to be a problem (as long as it doesn’t interact with bedtime medications or pose other medical risks). However, as a nightly habit, this is an unhealthy way to prepare for sleep.
Making time to take a walk or get other moderate physical activity often seems to lead to better sleep, as long as it’s at a time other than a couple of hours just before bedtime. If you routinely have trouble falling asleep, talk to your healthcare provider about healthier ways to deal with this problem. You can find more tips for better sleep from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.