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Terrible Night’s Sleep…Part 2

In the first part of this blog, I described how my wife and I had a terrible night’s sleep after having a glass of wine. Now, I will explore the science behind this experience.

Experimenting in human beings is unethical. Sleep is important. Disrupting sleep in human subjects has negative consequences to the participants because sleep is crucial to health. So, much of sleep science comes from studies done in mice and rats.

I found these series of experiments which explain the molecular mechanisms for sleep. Two powerful forces control sleep. One is wakefulness, which this article calls ‘Process C’. My guess is that “C” is for circadian rhythm. (Scientists are not fancy when it comes to names!) This process deals with the circadian rhythm. Light entering our eyes helps set our circadian rhythm. The other force is sleep hunger, which this article calls ‘Process S’. I guess “S” is for sleep hunger, but don’t quote me on this!

The longer that we stay awake, the more tired we feel. This is due to a molecule called adenosine. You may have heard about adenosine before. Adenosine triphosphate-ATP- is one of the energy compounds of the body. As the phosphate bonds are broken, energy is available to the cell. If you break the three bonds, then you are left with adenosine. If this is to hard to picture, this video depicts the adenosine breakdown from 2:05 to 2:45.

You may assume that the sleep-wakefulness process is unconscious. However, most people will have some awareness of how it feels. Consider the long morning lineups for coffee at drive-thrus. The caffeine in coffee can displace adenosine from its sleep hunger receptor. This makes people feel more awake…until the coffee wears off and you go back to the coffee shop for another!

Processes C and S are in states of flux. Sometimes, Process C is stronger than Process S and you are awake. Other times, Process S is stronger than Process C and you are asleep. Alcohol interferes with this balance. It has the power to shift Process S. This means that you fall asleep faster but wake up earlier than normal.

This is where the idea of a “night cap” comes in. The belief is, if you take a shot of alcohol before bed, you will sleep better. The first phase of sleep is deeper which is the non-REM sleep. Your body can repair itself during this phase. Unfortunately, during the second phase, you wake up in the middle of the night. This robs you of your REM sleep which is your dream sleep. REM sleep helps consolidate memory and learning.

The molecular mechanisms of these two Processes are complex and do not add anything to this blog! Basically, if you want better chances of sleep, do not drink any alcohol six hours before bed. This is different than ‘good sleep hygiene” that healthcare professionals advise their patients. The recommendation is to avoid alcohol. What I am saying is to eliminate alcohol for a better sleep.

I recognize this will be difficult or objectionable by some people who like to drink. I wonder how many prescriptions and over-the-counter medications I dispense when the problem underlying insomnia is alcohol? Medications do not give the same quality of sleep as lifestyle interventions.

Ribena, a purple colour drink, that looks like wine!

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