Avoiding the Nightcap: Alcohol and Insomnia Problems
The nightcap is a tradition that goes back ages and continues to be romanticized today. In fact, up to 15% of people still use nightcaps to help induce a good night’s sleep. To clarify, a nightcap is not stylish hat you wear as you sleep. A nightcap is a small amount of alcohol ingested immediately before bed. Many people drink nightcaps because they assume this small dose of booze will help them sleep.Many people wonder: is a nightcap good for you, or is a nightcap bad for you? And some of those people drink nightcaps simply because they enjoy them. But the truth is a little more problematic.
Research Indicates Nightcaps Interfere With Sleep
Research suggests that nightcaps may actually interfere with your body’s ability to sleep soundly through the night. This finding is especially ironic because most people who drink nightcaps do so because they believe the alcohol will help them sleep.
It’s not surprising, then, that a problematic cycle begins to form. You take a nightcap to sleep better, but end up even more tired. So on the second night, you take a stronger nightcap, but sleep even worse. The insomnia and alcohol feed on each other, leaving you more tired, less able to sleep and more dependent on the nightcap to close your eyes.
This type of vicious cycle is not uncommon. Insomnia, in fact, often plays a direct role in the development of dependence or in episodes of relapse. However, alcohol – which includes the “nightcap” – seems to be a much more visible aspect of this problem. Part of this problem is that alcohol is socially acceptable, especially in comparison to other substances prone to abuse, like opiates.
A recent article in Esquire, a popular men’s magazine, perfectly captures this romanticized notion of the nightcap, arguing that the nightly tradition should be preserved because it makes people feel good. Certainly, the reputation of Esquire is not built on issuing sound medical advice, but the article emulates the collective, social endorsement of the nightcap. It’s traditional, and it’s romantic, so it must be okay, right?
Unfortunately, the science behind nightcaps does not support such a casual approach, and alcohol and insomnia problems have a dangerous relationship.
But Does a Nightcap Help You Fall Asleep?
Falling asleep can be an arduous exercise. Your thoughts are racing. Your legs keep twitching. You can’t seem to get comfortable. So you need a way to turn your brain off, to unwind after a stressful day. Enter the nightcap: a glass of wine beside the bed, a shot of whiskey before you hit the hay, a cup of brandy with a book in your hand. These are all moody, romantic images.
That romance is precisely what makes those images dangerous. Many people think that a nightcap is a good way to help yourself fall asleep at the end of the day. And, in a way, it makes sense intuitively. Alcohol is a depressant, and depressants put you to sleep. So it seems reasonable that a bit more alcohol than you’re used to will easily knock you out for the night.
But current research suggests that alcohol-induced sleep is troubled at best. Alcohol-assisted sleep can result in nightmares, headaches, and frequent fragmentation in the sleep cycle. In other words, you tend to wake up more often. Interrupting your sleep cycle means that your sleep never reaches the depth and quality that it should.
Passing Out is not Falling Asleep
This lack of quality gets even worse because the alcohol essentially steals that very first segment of your sleep cycle: your dream sleep. You see, being passed out is not the same as being asleep. And, according to research published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, nightcaps negatively affect your sleep even more if you are male, as men experience longer episodes of what is called sleep-disoriented breathing.
Basically, during sleep-disoriented breathing, your throat muscles relax, causing you to snore louder. Also, if you already suffer from sleep apnea, it can rarely result in death.
Then there’s the morning after. Many people can relate to a hangover, and you’ll likely experience similar symptoms if you’ve used alcohol to help you get to sleep. Disorientation, dehydration and fatigue can occur. Essentially, you may have been unconscious, but your body has received little of the benefits of sleeping.
So does a nightcap help you sleep? Simply put, no, it doesn’t.
The Benefits of Sleep
It’s important to point out that sleeping is, after all, incredibly beneficial to your body. Many people assume that sleeping is just something we do. It’s automatic, and you do it because you’re tired, but there’s no special benefit to sleep. The truth is exactly the opposite. Certain rejuvenating functions take place in your body during sleep that happen at no other time.
Among the benefits of sleep are the following:
- Sleep helps your immune system. It fights off viruses and bacteria alike, not to mention ailments such as diabetes, heart attacks, and obesity. Lack of sleep puts you at increased risk for a wide variety of health issues.
- Getting a good night’s rest can lead to less chronic pain. Lack of sleep has been known to create a lower pain threshold in the body. This means more sleep equals a higher pain threshold and a greater degree of comfort.
- If you get a good night’s sleep, you will think clearer. Studies have found that people suffering from sleep deprivation are not quite as good at making sound decisions. Losing sleep doesn’t mean you’re going to start making horrible life choices, but it does mean you could leave your keys in the fridge without knowing it.
- Getting more sleep can improve your memory. If you’ve noticed that you’re having trouble remembering names or finding the right word, you might want to consider getting more sleep.
Of course, it’s easy to preach the power of sleep to those who have no trouble falling under the spell of the sandman every night. But for a huge portion of the country, falling asleep isn’t quite that easy. In fact, according to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, 63% of women and 54% of men reported experiencing insomnia or insomnia-like symptoms at least a couple nights a week. Since we’re talking about nightcaps, it’s natural to wonder: can alcohol help insomnia?
Acute Insomnia vs. Chronic Insomnia
Of course, there are variations in age and so on, but the important thing is to recognize that insomnia is incredibly common. Part of this can be chalked up to lifestyle. Americans work a lot, rest a little, and live relatively stressful lives, all of which can work to hinder the natural sleep cycle. That means a good chunk of insomnia falls under the category of acute insomnia, meaning it’s only experienced for a short time and then goes away.
However, for those who suffer from chronic insomnia – meaning that the symptoms do not go away after a short time – a full night’s sleep can be frustratingly elusive. Can alcohol help insomnia? No. Let’s talk about why.
What Causes Insomnia?
Insomnia is a frustrating condition, and it can be difficult to determine its cause. Scientists aren’t quite sure why we sleep, so figuring out why we don’t sleep is equally problematic. There are a wide variety of issues that can cause insomnia. Sometimes, insomnia is simply caused by your body creating distractions.
This would include the following:
- Chronic pain
- Pain stemming from the lower back
- Pain caused by arthritis
- Trouble breathing caused by asthma, allergies, or nasal infections
- Reflux and other gastrointestinal issues
There are more causes, of course. But the point is that this type of insomnia can usually be treated by alleviating the physical symptoms involved.
A more persistent type of insomnia is caused by deeper emotional and mental symptoms. For example, insomnia and depression can often travel hand-in-hand, creating its own type of vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape.
It’s this type of insomnia – the type caused by mental illness or mental stress – that can be particularly troubling for those also battling substance abuse and addiction. Many abuse and addiction problems begin as a form of self-medication, and insomnia can be a condition that is particularly tempting to self-medicate.
This means that when we look at nightcaps, we see a relationship between alcohol and insomnia. But does alcohol cause insomnia?
Insomnia and Relapses: Alcohol Makes Insomnia Worse
The tendency to self-medicate insomniac episodes can mean that people who suffer from insomnia are particularly vulnerable to relapses of addiction once they have passed through a treatment program. People at the highest risk are perhaps those suffering from alcoholism, so perhaps we should not be surprised by the link between alcohol and insomnia.
According to one study, somewhere between 36% and 72% of alcoholics suffer from insomnia for weeks to months after they have achieved sobriety.
This is why many people in recovery seek something to relieve the insomnia symptoms. These bouts can generally last anywhere between a couple of weeks to a numbers of months. The severity of symptoms associated with the insomnia can vary as well, with some studies suggesting that those suffering from alcoholism feel symptoms more severely than non-alcoholic patients.
So, Does Alcohol Cause Insomnia?
Well, not surprisingly, insomnia can be an enormous relapse trigger, especially because – from the perspective of the alcohol-dependent individual – the insomnia and sobriety both began at the same time. Sometimes that correlation can feel like cause. Quitting alcohol and insomnia can be difficult for anyone to overcome.
Of course, in some ways, it is a cause, and there is a link between alcohol and insomnia. To many people, sleep can feel more valuable than sobriety. Avoiding this mindset is key if sobriety is to be maintained. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to minimize the chances of an insomniac episode.
How to Combat Insomnia Without Sacrificing Your Sobriety
For those recovering from alcohol dependency, sobriety can be a constant challenge. This challenge becomes even more acute when you’re also experiencing a bout of insomnia. According to one study, sleep disturbances were one of the primary variables in relapse. In fact, 62% of participants in the study who relapsed cited difficulty in falling asleep as a reason. Quitting alcohol and insomnia treatment often go hand-in-hand.
Thankfully, there are some ways to help mitigate or combat your insomnia:
- Talk to you doctor. You may need to take an antidepressant or anticonvulsant. In other words, there are medications available that can help. Of course, tell your doctor about the alcohol withdrawal symptoms, so your doctor knows the proper dosage to prescribe.
- Try cognitive behavior therapy. Some evidence suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy can help with insomnia. It might work for you. Talk to your counselor or seek a qualified therapist with experience in CBT techniques.
- Consider restricting your sleep. This sounds counter-intuitive, but limiting your sleep can help regularize your sleep schedule. This means you should avoid napping and avoid “catch-up” sleep, as these two activities will further destabilize your sleep cycle.
- Avoid stimulants. If you’re exceptionally tired because of a poor night’s sleep, you might be tempted to brew an extra cup (or three) of coffee. This would be a mistake, and, just as with napping, will destabilize your sleep cycle. This will make it harder to sleep at night.
- Make your bedroom a sleep-only zone. Your body is very perceptive, and outside stimulus has a lot to do with your mood, your behavior and your habits. If your body gets used to being awake in your bedroom (thanks to watching television, working or various other activities), it will be harder to achieve sleep.
Good Sleep is Important to Your Sobriety
Sleep helps your body regulate and recharge, and this is especially true when you’re recovery from substance dependence. If you’re experiencing insomnia, it can be incredibly tempting to reach for that nightcap.
But as we’ve learned, nightcaps are an incredibly ineffective sleep aid because alcohol makes insomnia worse. Nightcaps are full of romance and imagery, but they rob you of good sleep and lead to a fitful, restless night. A small dose of booze at the end of the night can leave you reeling from headaches, nightmares, troubled breathing and more.
What’s worse is that nightcaps can derail your recovery and lead you down the troubling road of relapse.
There are alternative ways to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. If you require a sleep aid, have a well-qualified doctor prescribe one, and talk to a CBT-qualified therapist or counselor to address behavioral issues. Cut back on stimulants such as caffeine, and ensure your bed becomes a sanctuary of sleep.
Contact 12 Keys
Being well-rested and addressing your insomnia in a healthy way can help maintain your recovery and keep you on the road to sobriety. If you’re having trouble sleeping and you’re relying on alcohol – which includes a nightcap – to fall asleep every night, contact 12 Keys. We’re here to help with your sobriety and your slumber.