Pharmacologically speaking, alcohol is considered to be a sedative-hypnotic a.k.a. a sleeping “pill”.
Although the precise way alcohol exerts it’s multitude of effects is still unknown. It has been used for centuries as a night cap and definitely flips the “off” switch in the brain.
But there is sleep and there is sleep, and an alcohol induced slumber may be keeping the eyes closed but it is not quite as restorative as the real thing.
Alcohol affects sleep architecture
Someone who is sleeping simply looks like they are out for the count for 8 odd hours, but physiologically speaking they’re passing through different phases of sleep, with the body attending to lots of routine maintenance.
The part of the nervous system which is in charge during the night watch, is the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest-and-digest” system. This contrasts with the day time scenario, in which the sympathetic or “flight-and-fright” response dominates.
The parasympathetic dials down your heart rate, while the sympathetic nervous system dials it up.
So when you’re all relaxed and peaceful, your heart rate should clock in at a lower level than when you’re wired and on the go.
Heart rate under the influence
Japanese researchers decided to check in on the state of alertness of the heart following a night cap.
In their study they enrolled 10 healthy male university students. They were strapped up to a Holter electrocardiogram which can keep tabs on your heart rate over a 24 hour period.
They were then sent to bed with a night cap of 100 ml of liquid, 100 minutes before they turned in.
The contents of the night cap varied from no alcohol, to a “low” dose (0.5 g/kg) and a high dose (1 g/kg).
They were monitored throughout the night.
Alcohol induced sleep
The alcohol shortened the time to sleep latency, meaning it helped them fall asleep.
But once asleep, the actual sleep was not so good.
On paper the brain waves didn’t look too bad for the first half of the night, but the heart never took a breather.
In fact, the higher the dose of alcohol, the harder the heart pumped during the night. The parasympathetic nervous system never took charge.
Sleep is critical to health
But it is not just about how long you spend in the bed, but the quality of the sleep when in bed.
But using alcohol as a crutch to help you sleep, might not be a health move either. Too much will cause your sleep quality to take a dive leading to poor staff management and metabolic upsets.
So keep the night cap petite
A tot of whiskey amounts to around 1 g of alcohol, so in a person weighing in at around 70 kg, that is a dose of approx 0.015 g/kg. Well below the levels in this study.
But a binge drinking session, can easily see the alcohol consumption push up to levels in this study. Heavy drinkers suffer from insomnia and higher blood pressure, both of which could be due to the suppression of the parasympathetic system.
You don’t need to be a goody-2-shoes but make sure if you use alcohol to unwind at the end of the day, remember less is more.Alcohol Has a Dose-Related Effect on Parasympathetic Nerve Activity During Sleep (2011) Hideaki Kondo, Namiko Matsubuchi, Takaubu Takemura, Hironobu Kanayama, Yoshihiko Kaneko, Takashi Kanbayashi, Tetsuo, Yasuo Hishikawa
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