Insomnia and Alcohol

People will often have a drink in the evening to take the edge off, to unwind or to ease into sleep. Despite beliefs about insomnia and alcohol, alcohol consumption disrupts sleep. Drinking alcohol affects sleep by:

  • Preventing deep, restorative sleep
  • Increasing awakenings throughout the night
  • Increasing duration of time to fall asleep

Insomnia from alcohol is not always immediate; for some people having a drink before bed can initially promote sleep. However, studies on alcohol insomnia have shown that after as little as three days of drinking before bed these benefits diminish. Even for people who state they feel having a drink at night helps them to sleep, research shows their sleep quality is decreased by drinking.

Thirty-three percent of the general population is estimated to live with insomnia while as many as 72 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder may have insomnia. Researchers have found that people diagnosed with insomnia are much more likely to report using alcohol to help sleep than people who only experience occasional sleep disturbances.

Perhaps the question is not can alcohol cause insomnia but how does alcohol cause insomnia. Alcohol has been found to disrupt the neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, responsible for sleep regulation. Alcohol causes the muscles of the upper air passages to be more relaxed which is likely to increase snoring while decreasing sleep quality and total sleep time. For someone with another co-occurring disorder like sleep apnea, these effects are likely to be more severe.

People who binge drink but don’t have an alcohol use disorder and do not experience impairment because of their drinking have a higher rate of insomnia, especially when occurring after a binge. One study on binge drinking and insomnia found that people who binged two days a week had an 84 percent higher chance of having insomnia.
In addition to experiencing insomnia after drinking alcohol, stopping alcohol use after persistent heavy consumption can also cause insomnia. There are four major sleep-related changes that occur when a person stops alcohol use:

  • Increase in awakenings throughout the night
  • Reduced length of deep sleep
  • Reduced duration of restorative sleep

Alcohol withdrawal insomnia is so common that it is one of the diagnostic criteria for alcohol withdrawal. Insomnia from alcohol withdrawal generally begins within the first 6 to 12 hours after abstaining from alcohol. Insomnia from alcohol withdrawal is likely to persist through the initial period of abstinence. Insomnia after alcohol withdrawal may in some cases persist for months or years. Insomnia is one of the largest setback triggers for people in recovery from an alcohol use disorder.

For treatment of either disorder to be effective, both insomnia and substance abuse must be addressed together. Someone in recovery from alcohol use may experience setbacks because of sleep-related withdrawal symptoms.

Increased insomnia takes a toll on someone in recovery and without proper treatment returning to alcohol use may seem to be the only solution. Insomnia is treatable and if properly addressed can prevent someone in recovery from experiencing setbacks.

Here are some key points about Insomnia and Alcohol Use Disorder:

  • Alcohol doesn’t help sleep but disrupts sleep.
  • 72 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder may have insomnia.
  • Binge drinking may increase the chance of having insomnia.
  • Insomnia is a side effect of alcohol withdrawal.

With help from experienced professionals,  substance use and co-occurring insomnia can be treated effectively. If you believe your drinking may be problematic you may learn about the differences between casual and problematic drinking by taking a self-assessment. If co-occurring substance use and insomnia are causing problems in your life or the life of a loved one, reach out to a representative to begin the journey towards recovery.

Bayard, M., McIntyre, J., Hill, K., & Woodside, J. (2004, March 15). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/0315/p1443.html

CDC – Fact Sheets-Binge Drinking – Alcohol. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

Frequent binge drinking is linked to insomnia symptoms in older adults. (2018, July 03). Retrieved from https://aasm.org/frequent-binge-drinking-is-associated-with-insomnia-symptoms-in-older-adults/

Karam-hage, M. (2004). Treating Insomnia in Patients With Substance Use/Abuse Disorders. Psychiatric Times,21(2). Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sleep-disorders/treating-insomnia-patients-substance-useabuse-disorders

Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.oasas.ny.gov/admed/fyi/fyiindepth-insomnia.cfm

Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency – Why Is Sleep Important? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/node/4605

Stein, M. D., & Friedmann, P. D. (2005). Disturbed sleep and its relationship to alcohol use. Substance abuse26(1), 1-13.

Treating Sleep Problems of People in Recovery From Substance Use Disorders. (2014). SAMHSA IN BRIEF,8(2). Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/system/files/sma14-4859.pdf.

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