Is that tasty nightcap sabotaging your sleep?

Alcohol isn't a sleep aid any more than a hammer to the head -- but when I tell my patients not to drink before bed, I often get a look of doubt.

"Well, it works for me," is a pretty typical reaction.

On one level, it does work. You drink, you fall asleep... just as you'll "fall asleep" after being bonked with that hammer. But you won't get the right kind of sleep, and that's every bit as important as the sleep itself.

Now, two new studies show how alcohol may knock you out -- but it alters critical REM and essential slow-wave sleep.

The first, an analysis of 20 studies involving a combined 517 patients, confirms what my own patients see -- it shows how a drink will help you fall asleep, and multiple drinks will cause you to nod off even faster.

Drink enough, and you'll just plain pass out.

But the study also shows how just a little booze before bed -- even the old "nightcap" -- can change your sleep patterns.

After drinking, you'll fall into slow-wave sleep (also known as the deep sleep) more quickly. And while that may sound good, it's not -- because what happens is all that deep sleep early on leads to a more restless sleep later in the night.

That means more tossing and turning, and waking up more often (although you might not remember all those disturbances in the morning).

So you feel lousy the next day. And that's not the worst of it -- because slow-wave sleep is essential for muscle and bone rejuvenation as well as your immune system. As a result, drinking before bed regularly can lead to serious long-term damage.

That's just for starters.

Mixing a little alcohol into your evening can also cause your rejuvenating REM sleep to unravel. That's when you dream, when your brain stores memories and you consolidate the things you've learned during the day so you can use that information later.

In a second new study, college-aged volunteers given a drink had changes in the frontal section of their brains, which in turn led to less REM sleep when compared to volunteers given a placebo drink before bed.

You won't just get this effect from alcohol, by the way. Sleep meds can also cause changes to both REM and slow-wave sleep, which is why they can leave you feeling lousy and unrested even if you've been "asleep" for eight hours or more.

That's why I recommend natural approaches to sleep.

Over the short term, the "sleep hormone" melatonin and natural herbal remedies such as chamomile and passionflower can help you get the rest you need. But over the longer term, you may need more help -- specifically, a doctor who can figure out why you're having so much trouble sleeping in the first place.

In some cases, sleep problems can be related to lifestyle -- even something as simple as an undiagnosed caffeine sensitivity. In some folks, an afternoon cup of coffee or a soda with dinner can actually stop them from falling asleep hours later.

In other cases, it could be a nutritional problem or hormonal imbalance (especially if you're a little older).

An experienced holistic medical doctor can test for and treat all the possible causes of sleep disorders. And for complete natural sleep solutions in Southern California, make an appointment to see me at my clinic in the San Diego area.

Not in the area? I'm also available by phone. Call 855-DOC-MARK to schedule a consultation.