Why Drinking Isn't Actually Helping You Sleep

Plus, my best tips for upping your sleep hygiene game and getting great sleep without a nightcap.

I took prescription sleep aids for more years than I’d like to admit. I had tremendous anxiety when it came to the thought of not being able to get to sleep. I was easily frustrated by my mind that would not seem to quiet itself enough for me to rest. Long story short: I know what it’s like to struggle with sleep. I know how tempting an “easy solution” can feel when you think you’re a “bad sleeper”.

It’s easy to get caught up in a story that enjoying a glass of wine in the evening helps us sleep better. This myth has been coming up for a lot of women I’ve talked to recently, so I wanted to take a moment to share some additional insight...from one ex-”bad sleeper” to another.

As I mentioned, I’ve dealt personally with insomnia. I’ve had trouble both getting to sleep and staying asleep in my past. I looked for a quick fix, which I found in a prescription sleep aid for several years. My take: I now prefer to avoid medication, but believe that it’s often absolutely necessary to get us over a hump. The real problem rested in the fact that I had terrible sleep hygiene and wasn’t dealing with some underlying emotional issues that caused me to sleep poorly. A sleep aid was a quick fix. And, I would say the same of wine or any other type of “nightcap”. 

More and more, the women I work with have been telling me that they turn to a glass of wine in the evening to calm them down and prepare them for sleep. I’ve heard that wine (or another cocktail) is the thing that helps them slow down so that they can sleep. If you’ve been using this method to wind down at night, it can be intimidating and honestly quite awful to consider getting to sleep without a little assistance.

If you’ve ever tried to sleep without your nightcap, you’ve probably found it rather challenging, and this is normal.

But here’s the thing: many people don’t sleep perfectly all the time. And, if you’ve been screwing with your body’s self-regulatory system, it’s likely that it will take a while to get it back on track...especially if you’ve been using alcohol as your sleep aid.

If you have fallen victim to the myth that you need alcohol to sleep, here are some scientific reasons (in non-scientific terms...I’m not a doctor, btw) that alcohol isn’t actually helping you sleep:

  • Anytime we look for a “quick fix”, we are telling our very intelligent and very capable self-regulatory system that it has failed; that it is not capable. The more we tell our body it is not capable and “help” it along, the more it learns to be “lazy”. 

  • The type of relaxation offered by alcohol is false; when we offer our bodies a sense of false relaxation, it is often difficult to wean ourselves off of our “quick fix” method. It is for this reason that it can seem really hard to fall asleep without the aid of your “quick fix” (let me promise, it does get better).

  • Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t serious conditions that require medical support of some kind (if even to get you over a hump). Doctors who may suggest that alcohol is an okay way to lull yourself to sleep are ignoring the massive amounts of research that alcohol is completely terrible for your body.

  • Alcohol disrupts your sleep. Sure, you might be able to “sleep” for eight hours, but when you sleep under the influence of alcohol, you’re not getting into the levels of REM sleep that you really need. So, you’re really only receiving the benefits of part of the sleep you are getting.

  • Because we aren’t getting full benefits of our sleep, we often wake up feeling groggy or unrested and carry this with us through our day.

  • Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes us to force water from our bodies. This actually disrupts our sleep because it causes us to need to get up and pee multiple times through the night.

  • Alcohol also causes dehydration; you’ll find yourself sweating (more than normal) through the night.

  • Dehydration is also the cause of muscle spasms and leg cramps that cause us to toss & turn through the night.

Ultimately, boozy sleep is crappy sleep. We are doing ourselves a disservice if we try to use this as our means to get or stay asleep. The sleep we get when we are using alcohol as a sleep aid is not high-quality sleep. Often, our sleep is disrupted due to needing to pee, or muscle spasms, or waking up with a sense of anxiety or guilt in the middle of the night.  

If you’re up for the challenge of getting some really awesome sleep, here are my tips to better prepare yourself for a restful slumber, without alcohol:

  • Change your mindset. When I struggle with sleep, I find myself getting anxious. I’ll count the clock and tell myself I have to go back to sleep if I want to survive the next day. I’ll remind myself that I need sleep to make it through the day. But here’s the thing: you CAN survive a day with little sleep. Even if you have a big meeting or event or a long day, you can make it. Also, remember that being sedentary is a form of rest; even if you’re not receiving the benefits of sleep.

  • Create a plan. Some people will tell you that if you can’t sleep, get up and do something. I find this to be an okay approach when I’m close to my wakeup time. However, there are times when I wake up just a few hours after I’ve gone to sleep. In these times, I recommend downloading a meditation app and tuning into a meditation (or, better yet: a sleep story designed to lull you to sleep)...be sure to keep a pair of headphones by your bed if you’re not the only one in the bed!

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Often, we’ve used alcohol for a quick fix because (truth bomb alert) we’re too lazy to practice good sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene includes

    • Slowly allow yourself to power down before bed. This means stopping exposure to blue light from screens and artificial lighting. You could do this by purchase blue-light blocking glasses, but the easiest way is to say no to screens (tv/computer/phone) about an hour before bed. Hard. I know.

    • Incorporate other relaxing routines. I know this one can be hard, especially if you’re a parent. But, so many of you who use wine as a sleep-aid also tell me that you wait to pour yourself a glass until the kids are in bed...if you can take the time to sip a glass of wine, you can also create a relaxing routine (truth bomb #2). Here are some activities I find helpful:

      • Consider tracking your sleep. I wear a FitBit to bed, I know it’s not 100% accurate, but I’m impressed with how it logs my sleep/wake times and summarizes how often I’m in deep sleep or restless throughout the night. I find it to be super interesting data.

      • Pouring a glass of sleepy tea. I like this blend from Moodbeli.

      • Take a bath or warm shower. Bathing before bedtime gives us the psychological effect of washing off the worries of the day. A bath or shower can help us to re-set our system and prepare for sleep. Bonus points: while you shower, you could even visualize the stresses of your day washing off of your body. I’ve found this to be a positive exercise in the past.

      • Incorporate mind-calming activities. Instead of scrolling on your phone or watching TV until you feel tired, try meditation, journaling or reading (from a real book, preferably fiction so your brain doesn’t have to think too much). I know, I know, you might feel like you don’t “like” some of these activities, but I encourage you to give them a shot for several days in a row. If you struggle with journaling, I encourage you to try a guided journal of some sort (consider a gratitude journal or I like this one called Practice You which incorporates meditation and self-reflection).

      • Consider natural remedies. I find that a little dose of CBD can often help me if I’m feeling anxious about sleep. Its effects are subtle but natural and safe. I’m no CBD expert, but I trust Restart CBD which offers isolate (meaning there’s no THC in their blend). The owners are friends of mine, so I trust the quality of this particular blend. 

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Sleep can be a tricky thing. Re-calibrating your body to get good sleep naturally can be a process of trial and error and will require you to have patience. If you’re working to change your relationship with alcohol, I’m sure you’ve heard about all of the amazing benefits being booze-free can bring. Let me promise you, your sleep will get better, but it takes time and effort. You may have a few restless nights, but as your body learns to regain control, you’ll find that you sleep easier, more deeply and wake feeling refreshed.