Nightcap or Nightmare?

 "A lot of people, myself included, like to have a couple of glasses of wine to unwind in the evening," wrote one of our editors in an email last week. "My wife often tells me, however, that drinking in the evening can cause a person to have a fitful sleep.

"By virtue of being sick recently, I have largely cut out the wine and am having the best sleep I've had in years. A couple of nights ago, I had business associates in town and joined them in a bottle of wine... and, sure enough, that night I had a lousy sleep. Last night, no wine, great sleep."

So what's the relationship between alcohol and sleep, or better, sleep problems?

Unfortunately, "it is true that a drink or two can help us fall asleep initially, but invariably we pay for it later," says Charles McPhee, former director of the Sleep Apnea Patient Treatment Program at the Sleep Disorders Center of Santa Barbara, CA, and better known as the "Dream Doctor."

"After three hours of sleep," states McPhee, "the alcohol in our system begins to dehydrate us, which in turn causes frequent awakenings and lighter, less restful sleep. Also, if we are borderline candidates for having sleep apnea--a dangerous condition where we experience difficulty breathing and maintaining oxygen levels during sleep--alcohol will exacerbate the condition. Because alcohol is a muscle relaxant, non-snorers will snore after drinking, while snorers can become apneic and stop breathing regularly throughout the night."

Professional circles agree. "Even in small doses, alcohol can cause early sedation or sleepiness, awaking during the night and suppression of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep," affirms a report of the Alcohol Research Center at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. REM and delta sleep, which are both disrupted by alcoholic intake, are the deepest stages of sleep and essential to our well-being.

The reason, it seems, is not just dehydration, but the fact that alcohol inhibits the release of melatonin in the brain. In one study, test subjects were given small amounts of alcohol at 7:00 pm. By midnight, their melatonin levels had dropped 41%, compared to the nights when they didn't drink alcohol.

"Avoid an alcoholic nightcap within three hours of bedtime," recommended a September 2000 article in Prevention. Most researchers, however, think even that is too much. While some physicians suggest no alcohol four to six hours before going to bed, sleep clinics customarily advise their patients to stay away from alcohol altogether.

The problem is not just sleep deprivation and fatigue; failing to get enough sleep or sleeping at odd hours may be outright dangerous for our health.

Reports from the Harvard-run Nurses' Health Study indicate that too little or irregular sleep may raise the risk of colon and *** cancer, heart disease and diabetes. A lack of sleep also depletes the body of the muscle-building human growth hormone, as well as prolactin, a hormone that regulates immune system function. Thus, reduced hormone levels can lead to memory problems, weight gain, and an increased susceptibility to infections.

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that women who get five hours of sleep a night or less increased their heart disease risk by 30%; six hours or less accounted for an 18% higher risk.

A 1998 article in the San Francisco Examiner stated that "people who get inadequate sleep are using their brains on a metabolically depleted level. They may think they are okay but they are not, and continual undermining of the body's rejuvenating processes may hasten aging."

"We have in our society this idea that you can just get by without sleep or manipulate when you sleep without any consequences," Lawrence Epstein, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told the Washington Post in October 2005. "What we're finding is that's just not true."

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Posted 02-21-2006 9:32 PM by Doug Casey
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