Getting better sleep may be as simple as skipping your nightcap.
Alcohol might help people fall asleep initially. However, it might also cause people to wake up in the middle of the night or early in the morning, a new study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine found. And alcohol could make it harder to go back to sleep.
Alcohol can affect the brain's sleep-wake system, which is what results in the early-morning wake-up call. The authors of this study said people with insomnia or other sleep problems should avoid alcohol and talk to a doctor about other sleep strategies.
"The prevailing thought was that alcohol promotes sleep by changing a person's circadian rhythm -- the body's built-in 24-hour clock," said lead study author Mahesh M. Thakkar, Ph.D., director of research at the MU School of Medicine's Department of Neurology, in a press release. "However, we discovered that alcohol actually promotes sleep by affecting a person's sleep homeostasis -- the brain's built-in mechanism that regulates your sleepiness and wakefulness."
Around 20 percent of US adults use alcohol to get to sleep, according to this study. Humans have a built-in balancing system that regulates the need for sleep. If patients go short on sleep, their bodies will secrete a chemical called adenosine that increases their need for sleep.
If patients go to sleep early, however, the balancing system can get off-kilter and cause them to wake up early.
Alcohol alters this balancing system. It can make patients go to sleep and sleep well during the first part of the night. Because it affects the brain's balancing system, however, patients may also wake up earlier. Patients who are addicted to alcohol and stop drinking can develop full-fledged insomnia.
Past research has shown that a single pre-bedtime dose of alcohol makes patients fall asleep more quickly but shortens the sleep period.
Thakkar added, "Sleep is an immense area of study. Approximately one-third of our life is spent sleeping. Coupled with statistics that show 20 percent of people drink alcohol to sleep, it's vital that we understand how the two interact. If you are experiencing difficulty sleeping, don't use alcohol. Talk to your doctor or a sleep medicine physician to determine what factors are keeping you from sleeping. These factors can then be addressed with individualized treatments."
This study was published online Dec. 10 in the journal Alcohol.
Grants from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.