As you tuck yourself into bed tonight, a glass of Merlot in hand, I ask you to pause for a minute—because by the end of this piece you might think twice before pouring the next round.
Drinks are a symbol of celebration, but they are also strongly associated in our mind with relaxation and even sleep. We have all experienced the feeling of somnolence that comes over us in a relaxed setting after the second drink. But science says this feeling is not the harbinger of deep, satisfying sleep.
For those new to the science of sleeping, Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep can be enlightening. Mere minutes into slumber, our brain waves generate two different cycles or stages for the night, named after their ocular features: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). These two stages flip-flop at approximately 90-minute intervals, leaning heavier on NREM the first half of the night and REM through the second.
Walker draws upon the analogy of a sculptor working on a block of clay to illustrate their purposes. NREM is like the first stage for any artist, to remove large chunks of the unnecessary matter. We first need our brain to empty our old neural connections, like emptying your computer trash, to make space for the new. Then REM takes over to enhance, or strengthen, these connections. Cycle over cycle, between REM and NREM, we awaken the next day feeling refreshed in both body and mind.
Curiously, the REM stage involves dreaming—everything from fantastical worlds, to failing high school exams and the utterly mundane. Theories of why we dream are fascinating. Contemporary scientists rebuke Freud's idea of hidden desires in favour of simulations, the experiencing of social situations which allow us to grow and improve the interactions of waking life. Dreams help us tackle real-world interactions. By living out those nightmares or anxieties in our sleep, we gain closure to move on or face the challenges again. Dreams are like overnight therapy; and it is free.
But our sleep-induced therapy session can be cut short by the use of sleeping pills, caffeine, smoking, and yes, even that lovely bottle of wine. Understanding alcohol's effects on the sleeping brain is a bit of a doozy. Most have been told that a drink before bed can help you sleep. And it can. Liquor is classified as a sedative, one that first begins to numb the prefrontal cortex, a region that controls our behaviours and impulses (for some, this triggers party mode). Couple of glasses later, this effect reaches the other regions, sedating us out of consciousness—a state more akin to anesthesia than sleep (and this triggers pass-out mode).
What Walker’s book explores is that with alcohol one might get to sleep faster but it could be of poor quality—increased awakenings through the night as well as suppressed REM cycles, preventing that restorative dreaming.
This is not to say that you quit booze cold turkey. Rather, cut back on those wine-in-bed nights, set aside your phone for a couple hours, and maybe pick up a book instead. Reign it in once in a while, get well rested, even if only so you can drink again another day.
Varud Gupta is the author of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan and Chhotu. @varudgupta