Using Alcohol to Get to Sleep is Not Great for Your Teaching (Or Your Sleep)

martini glass on messy desk with tiny apple instead of an olive

“The reason you’re waking up in the middle of the night is the second glass of wine.”

-Nora Ephron, in the essay What I Wish I’d Known from the book I Feel Bad About My Neck.

There are lots of jokes about how seemingly-wholesome activities, like teaching and parenting, can drive people to drink. Bring on the memes. Bring on the teacher movie cliches where the just-damaged-enough-to-be-unconventional teacher shows up to work hung over or stashes a bottle of tequila in a desk drawer.

Or, for that matter, bring on my own lighthearted list of reasons why Complaining About Work is a Lot Like Drinking. As a rule, I have nothing against drinking-teacher-humor. My first book was originally entitled Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul until a literary agent insisted I change it.

Drinking can be lots of fun and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it as a responsible adult.

But it also feels like I should share the two facts below, which took me embarrassingly long to learn in my own life.

Sleep affects your teaching. . .

When you haven’t slept, you automatically become a worse version of yourself—forgetful, impatient, and worse at making decisions. You have trouble thinking critically. You are more likely to overreact.

This is merely a summary of the huge amount of sleep-related research out there. I wish I’d learned about it earlier in my teaching career. My most regrettable classroom moments almost always happened after way too little sleep.

. . .And drinking affects your sleep.

Onscreen, wine is the drink of classy onscreen career women who slowly swish one glass as they unwind by cooking dinner from scratch without taking off their heels or the still-ironed shirt they wore to work. This is not how wine works for me. In my case, a glass of wine with dinner just makes me want a second glass of wine. Which makes me want a second dinner. With maybe a third glass of wine.

Does all that “unwinding” help me get to sleep? Sometimes. But it almost guarantees that I will wake up for a two-hour block in the middle of the night with my heart pounding as I alternate between staring at the clock and questioning my life choices.

There are quite a few scientific explanations for why alcohol messes with your sleep: Alcohol is a diuretic. Alcohol leaves you dehydrated. Alcohol messes with R.E.M and leads to fragmented sleep, especially in the second half of the night. Alcohol produces something called the glutamine rebound effect that can jolt you awake.

I’d love to say I read this science and figured things out. But it was reading the Nora Ephron quote at the top of this post that really made me notice the pattern: the second glass of wine was waking me up in the middle of the night.

Maybe it’s waking you up, too.

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