Common substances such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can have a major impact on our sleep. After thinking over the information I have shared so far on sleep I do not feel complete without doing a short post on these substances so that you are informed of how these substances can impact your sleep.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Remember our balloons from my first post on sleep? We know that we have to fill our cells (balloons) with adenosine during the day in order to build up deep sleep drive for better quality sleep at night, right? Caffeine is an adenosine blocker. This means that when we ingest caffeine it stops adenosine from building up in our cells. So this is the reason why we do not want to have caffeine too late in the day because it not only keeps us awake due to it’s stimulant effects but it also stops the build up of our deep sleep drive. My general rule is no caffeine past about 2pm.
Alcohol is a trap I see a lot of clients fall into. Nightcap if you will? Alcohol is a relaxant so people often think that it helps with sleep, which, it does. It helps you drift off to sleep but the problem is, it is a shallow sleep and once our bodies process the alcohol we often wake up and have disrupted sleep. Alcohol also has an impact on anxiety. If your insomnia is anxiety related alcohol can have a rebound anxiety effect, meaning that while it helps with the anxiety in the moment once your body processes the alcohol you may not only wake up but wake up feeling more anxious because the relaxant and inhibitory effects of the alcohol have also worn off. General rule, do not use alcohol to treat your insomnia.
Nicotine is a stimulant that impacts your heart, nervous system, and blood vessels. When you smoke it increases your heart rate, raises blood pressure, and increases brain wave activity. People who smoke tend to have both major types of insomnia. Difficulty falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep. The reason for this is due to nicotines stimulating effects. If you smoke too near to bedtime the effects of the nicotine keep you awake. During the night you may have difficulty staying asleep due to the withdrawal from the nicotine waking you up. Nicotine has a nasty tendency to perpetuate insomnia that is very difficult to remedy due to the highly addictive nature of the substance. Unfortunately it is difficult to truly treat the insomnia if it is related to nicotine use. With alcohol and caffeine we are able to adjust our use in order to improve sleep, however with nicotine the most effective option is to quit the substance all together in order to improve sleep. Due to the effects of the nicotine and the quick withdrawal associated with it, smokers tend to have fragmented, less restorative sleep.
Quick recap! Limit caffeine later in the day. Do not drink alcohol to treat your insomnia. And if you are a smoker with insomnia consider how nicotine is impacting your sleep and decide if more restorative sleep is a motivator to quit. I think it is!! Until next time… Dr. B
Perl, J. (1993). Sleep Right in Five Nights: A clear and effective guide for conquering insomnia. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Danforth, M. (2018). Treating Insomnia: Evidence-based strategies to help your clients sleep. Presentation, New Jersey.