Why You Shouldn’t Use Alcohol and Supplements to Fall Asleep

How to actually wind down at night without wine or melatonin.

May 12, 2022

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Photo by: AndreyPopov/Getty

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Waking up to caffeine and winding down to wine? It’s a common pattern for many adults who find getting quality sleep to be a struggle. Not to mention, many of us have been grappling with anxiety, which may also disrupt sleep and lead to use of alcohol and supplements like melatonin to wind down after a stressful day. And while it may seem like these substances are harmless rest and sleep aids, they can be disruptive to our ability to settle in for a good night’s rest. Here’s what you need to know about using alcohol or supplements as sleep aids, and what to do instead for a better night’s sleep.

The Four Stages of Sleep

Overnight, you cycle through four phases of sleep over and over. These inlcude three NREM (non-rapid-eye-movement) stages and finally REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The first two NREM stages prepare your body and brain for the later, deeper, more restorative phases of NREM and REM sleep. Sleep disruptions in these later phases can limit the physical and mental restoration that helps you feel rested the next morning. Trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep can be impacted by several factors, including caffeine, alcohol and food consumption.

What Happens to Your Sleep When You Use Alcohol, Melatonin and Caffeine

Alcohol: One of the most common myths about alcohol is that it helps you sleep. The sedative effect of alcohol is easily confused for relaxation and sleepiness, but once the alcohol is metabolized and the sedative wears off, you will wake – causing sleep disturbances. This is why you might find yourself wide awake at 3 a.m. after a night of drinking.

Melatonin: Supplementing with melatonin may seem harmless, but melatonin is not a magic or “natural” sleeping pill — and for many it doesn’t seem to help sleep at all. The best evidence for melatonin use is for those experiencing jet lag, but its use can illicit interactions with prescription medications. For this reason, it is contraindicated with antidepressants, sedatives and blood thinners. If you think you need a melatonin supplement, talk with your doctor about your options.

Caffeine: We all know that person who can drink an espresso and nod off to sleep minutes later, but even their sleep it being cheated. While personal tolerance for caffeine varies, the stimulant effect is very disruptive to sleep — even if you can actually fall asleep with caffeine in your system. The stimulant effect prevents the body from entering those deeper, more restorative phases of sleep. Caffeine also takes more than five hours to reduce by half in your body, so those afternoon cups of coffee or caffeinated sodas may be keeping you up at bedtime.

How to Wind Down Without Alcohol or Supplements

There are several good reasons to pass on the wine and supplements to help you unwind. To truly help yourself settle in the night, aim to make these healthy habits part of your evening routine. Changing your bedtime routine may not be easy, so try implementing one or two of these habits first, then tackling the others.

Eat a balanced dinner + snacks

Eating meals and snacks with healthy carbs, lean protein and healthy fats in the evening will provide nutrients for overnight recovery and help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar which can disrupt sleep.

Get a dose of calcium

There’s some truth to drinking a cup of warm milk before bed. Taking in some calcium from low fat dairy or calcium fortified foods at bedtime can help produce more of your own melatonin.

Optimize your sleep space

Give your sleep space the attention it deserves; your room should be dark, cool and quiet. Choose a lightbulb with low wattage and soft light. Set your thermostat to 65 degrees F — research shows the optimal sleep temperature for humans is between 60 and 67 degrees F. And save upbeat music and podcasts for your waking hours.

Unplug

Blue light is probably one of the biggest sleep disruptors thanks to smartphones. Ditch the blue light from TV, phones, computers and other devices at least 30 minutes before bed to give your eyes a break and allow your thoughts to wind down.

Track your sleep

If you’re finding you’re still not feeling rested in the mornings, even with some of these changes, consider using a sleep tracker. A recent study found that some measures may be as reliable as a sleep study, and may help you and your doctor better assess your sleep patterns.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. She is the author of four cookbooks First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers, The Healthy Air Fryer Cookbook, The Healthy Instant Pot Cookbook and Healthy Quick and Easy Smoothies.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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