A sleep aid that millions of people use to help themselves fall asleep has a dark side: It actually disrupts sleep.
According to a study at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, using alcohol to ensure sleep actually disrupts what is called sleep “homeostasis,” the process that the body uses to make sure it gets proper sleep. You may fall asleep faster, but you’ll wake up too early and toss and turn in bed.
The scientists point out that alcohol is reputed to be a potent somnogen, a substance that induces sleep. About 20 percent of Americans use it before bed. But when the researchers examined its effects, it found that it distorts the body’s internal sleep-controlling mechanisms.
“The prevailing thought was that alcohol promotes sleep by changing a person’s circadian rhythm — the body’s built-in 24-hour clock,” says researcher Mahesh Thakkar. “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.”
Sleep homeostasis keeps track of how much you are awake or asleep. If you need more sleep, your body makes adenosine, a substance that makes you feel sleepy. But if you go to bed very early, your sleep homeostasis is altered and you may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night. The Missouri study shows that drinking alcohol at bedtime makes you feel sleepy even if your body isn’t ready to sleep. As a result, your sleep period shifts and your sleep will eventually be disrupted at a troubling, early hour.
“Based on our results, it’s clear that alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid,” says researcher Pradeep Sahota. “Alcohol disrupts sleep and the quality of sleep is diminished. Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your need to go the bathroom and causes you to wake up earlier in the morning.”