Stressing Instead of Sleeping? Why Wine Won't Work

The family is coming to visit soon.  ALL of them.  Even crazy Aunt Nadine.

I've got to buy groceries.  The bathrooms have to be cleaned.  Little Joey needs a "Secret Santa" gift.  Oh no, the Kohls bill was due yesterday.

Ah, a nice glass of merlot will help take the edge off and let me get some sleep.

Wait!  Don't do it!  That glass of wine to relieve the holiday stress could actually make your sleep worse.

That's according to Dr. Daniel McNally, Director of Sleep Disorders at UConn Health.  He says when it comes to sleep, booze isn't your friend.  It's your worst enemy.

"The biggest issue is alcohol.  Alcohol is terrible for sleep," he said.  "What happens is that it makes you sleepy initially, but the second half of the night is worse.  The level drops in your bloodstream and you wake up more."

He said that initial sleepiness from the wine is what fools so many people.

"You wake up in the morning thinking what a terrible night. I'm going to have two glasses of wine because one helped last night," said Dr. McNally.

On Stress

According to Dr. McNally, people don't realize is how variable sleep is.  He said it's normal to wake up several times a night, but what really matters is how people deal with it.

"What separates good sleepers from bad sleepers in some sense is their reaction to it.  The good one can wake up, realize nothing's happening, and go back to sleep.  The guy who's worried about things wakes up and goes 'I'm not supposed to be awake'.  And suddenly they have unreasonable expectations of what sleep should be like."

He said there are some simple fixes you can do before you even hit the sack.

First of all, set a schedule and stick to it.

"You've got to realize that sleep is a habit.  You have to invest a little time in it," he said.  "Allow the time you need to sleep.  Realize that if you're running hectic schedules it will be tough to sleep."

Those hectic schedules are often fueled with coffee, which can throw off your natural sleep cycle.

On Gorging Your Gut

"The amount of tryptophan in turkey probably isn't enough to make you sleepy," said Dr. McNally. 

What IS enough is the football game.

"After a large meal on the holidays, it's one of the socially acceptable times to fall asleep," he said.  "There's the curl up and digest it reflex in each of us."

If you're going to slip off into a food coma for a while, sit up.

"Some people who eat a large meal then lay horizontal experience acid reflux," he said.  "Nobody likes that."

And the doctor said keep in mind a nap could actually make matters worse.

"The nap can take away from your ability to sleep.  It makes you feel better, it restores you partially, and it screws up your timing of sleep.  It's a tool.  Try to do it at the time your body is going to have it's maximal sleepiness, which is 12 hours after you normally go to bed."

He said you can still nap and not throw off your sleep pattern.  But if you're not careful, you could end up groggy.

"Limit it to something like a half an hour -- you won't mess up the next night as much.  There's also a grogginess sometimes after a nap," he said.  "When you first go to sleep, you have high voltage low frequency brain waves.  If you try to wake up after that, you have what's called sleep inertia.  By limiting the nap to 30 minutes, you can prevent that grogginess."

The Bottom Line

McNally gets it.  We can't always get a good night's rest.  But he said consistency is key.

"You've got to try and stick to a schedule as much as you can.  If you're working crazy hours, try and keep some of your sleep tethered to when you'd normally be in bed."

For most people, enough sleep means 7.5 - 8.5 hours a night.  Others can get by on less, others need more.  But sleep MUCH less, and you'll have to pay the piper at some point.

"You're going to have a sleep debt.  You can try to catch up on it or prepay it if you know you're going to have a long night ahead of you."

And when it is time for bed, keep two things in mind.  First, temperature.

"Your body temperature varies throughout the day," Dr. McNally said.  "It's highest late afternoon and early evening.  It falls before you go to bed, and that's part of what tells you it's time to go to sleep."

And lights out should really mean lights out.

"Light plays a big role in telling your body when it's time to sleep," he said.  Primitive man, that's all we had.  We're wired biologically to respond to light.  Your sleeping environment has to be dark."

Dark enough that you won't be able to see that bottle of wine - at least if you want to get a good night's rest.

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