Experts Corner

Does A Nightcap Help You Sleep?

May 20, 2021   By Pragmatic Thinking
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Do you ever reach for a drink after a long, stressful day, thinking it will help you sleep? We’ve brought in the team at Pragmatic Thinking to teach us about what nightcaps do to our sleep.

After a long week in the office or a day spent shuttling the kids around to sports events, you might find yourself wanting nothing more than to lie down and drift off into a deep sleep. 

But sometimes despite all of the running around during the day, you just don’t feel sleepy. So you lie on the couch, binging your favourite Netflix series, and the clock keeps on ticking. An hour passes and your usual ‘bedtime’ arrives, but you haven’t got even the slightest niggle of tiredness in your body. 

So, what’s your next step? For some of us we find ourselves thinking back to an idea that we haven’t yet tried but heck, it must be good enough if everyone knows about it. It’s called a nightcap, and it’s time we talk about how it really works.

What is a nightcap?

Having a nightcap to improve sleep sounds good in theory because we take a small amount of something (usually rum, whisky or wine) that’ll help us to loosen up, calm down, and hopefully make it easier to get to sleep.

The humble nightcap drink gets its name from an actual nighttime sleep attire (a cap, would you believe it) from the 1700s. Basically, people would wear a nightcap to bed to help them stay warm and have a better night’s sleep. Over time the expression has become something we refer to as a small alcoholic drink that warms us up and readies us for bed. 

Does a nightcap help you get better sleep?

Unfortunately, we’re going to have to lift the veil on the science of a nightcap for you… and it isn’t looking too good under there. 

The truth is, whenever you drink alcohol before bed, it is going to make you feel sleepy because alcohol has a sedating effect. Your body might feel a little looser and more relaxed after having a tipple.

While this sounds pretty good at first, the harsh reality is that alcohol in general has the largest disrupting effect on Rapid Eye Movement sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep, that we know of. 

What is REM sleep?

REM sleep is the cycle of sleep characterised by the rapid movement of the eyes, while the body remains immobile. You may have heard REM sleep referred to as ‘Dream Sleep’ because that’s the time when all your dreams happen. You may not remember them, but they’re an important process for your brain to go through nonetheless.

As well as being the period of sleep where we dream, REM sleep provides us with a variety of cognitive benefits. During REM sleep we organise information from the day, form new memories and integrate new skills.

How often have you had trouble learning something new then came back to it after a good night’s sleep and suddenly it just clicked? That’s because of REM sleep.

With all that said, it’s worth avoiding messing with this process too much, and that means avoiding having a nightcap.

How to get to sleep faster, naturally

Now you’re probably thinking, ‘Now what? How am I meant to get to sleep without a nightcap?’ Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. 

Put down your devices 1 hour before bed 

Chances are that you’ve heard about how blue light emitted from TVs and mobile devices stops your brain from releasing melatonin, which is a key component to ‘sleep pressure’, otherwise known as ‘feeling sleepy’. To give your brain a chance to get that sweet melatonin flowing, get disciplined around not looking at your screens a minimum of 1 hour before your bedtime.

Biohack your body with temperature

You’ve heard of ice baths and saunas, right? There are many benefits out there to biohacking our bodies with temperature. But thankfully, you don’t need an annual pass to the local day spa to get these benefits before you snooze.

Simply by having shower before bed, you can ‘trick’ your body into feeling sleepier. Here’s how; turn on your air conditioner in your bedroom and then go and have a hot/warm shower. It’s simple, but it’s all about the science. 

The warm shower water will send blood to your skin and extremities, and then when you step out, towel off, and enter your cold bedroom something incredible will happen inside of you. No, you won’t turn into a unicorn, but you will cause blood to rush from the outside of your body into your internal organs. This presses the ignition on your Parasympathetic Nervous System (responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ body functions) which will prime you for ultimate relaxation and rest.

Cosying up in bed will feel oh-so good after going through this evening ritual. 

Say no to nightcaps

So there you have it, all you need to know about having a nightcap. Here’s to high quality REM sleep and the magic of melatonin. 

About the Author

What if your experience of work was extraordinary? AtPragmatic Thinking we transform workplace cultures, reconnect teams and enable high performance. We do this by partnering with ambitious leaders (like you, right?) wanting to achieve real change through world-class projects and leadership training designed for the future of work.


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