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Alcohol Abuse And Its Impact on Sleep

Dr. Alan Weiner MD

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Alan Weiner, MD

February 11, 2019

Drinking alcohol can lead to sleep disturbances, such as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. Alcohol abuse can further impact sleeping habits and worsen sleeping disorders over time.

Drinking alcohol in moderation or in excess can lead to several sleep disturbances that affect both the quality and duration of your sleep.

Although many people experience trouble sleeping at some point, people who abuse alcohol are more likely to experience insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Having a sleeping disorder can also put you at greater risk for developing substance abuse problems like alcoholism.

How Alcohol Impacts Sleep

Drinking alcohol can cause many physical side effects, including drowsiness. When consumed in heavy amounts, this effect can become even more pronounced and cause sleepiness.

Alcohol impacts the internal mechanism by which our bodies regulate both sleepiness and wakefulness — also known as sleep homeostasis.

Drinking can disrupt this process by boosting a chemical in the brain called adenosine that is linked to sleep. This added boost of adenosine can affect the brain’s ability to determine an appropriate balance for sleep and wakefulness. This, in turn, causes a disruption in sleeping patterns.

Alcohol-Related Sleep Disorders

When consumed in moderation or excessively, alcohol can generally impact the quality of sleep a person gets. Drinking alcohol can affect how long they are able to sleep as well.

While insomnia may be the most common sleeping disorder, chronic alcohol use can worsen a number of other sleeping disorders.

Sleeping problems that may be caused or impacted by alcohol use include:

  • obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
  • circadian-rhythm sleep disorders
  • sleepwalking
  • sleep paralysis

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Why Is Sleep Important?

Having a healthy, normal sleeping pattern can give you better mental clarity, energy level, and is associated with other factors linked to positive mental and physical health.

The sleep cycle includes two primary states of slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

While SWS accounts for about 75 percent of the sleep cycle and consists of deeper, more restful sleep, the REM state is when our dreaming takes place. Both Slow-wave sleep and REM are essential to getting full and proper rest.

Those who experience disruptions to their sleeping pattern by getting too little SWS or REM sleep may experience excessive fatigue during the daytime, poor concentration, and be at greater risk for depression or troubles with memory.

Some common causes of sleeping troubles include:

  • nutritional deficiencies (diet lacking in certain nutrients)
  • high caffeine intake, or drinking caffeine before bedtime
  • stress
  • the side effect of certain medications
  • mental health disorders (e.g. depression)
  • certain medical conditions
  • alcohol use

The relationship between sleep and alcohol use has been a common topic explored by researchers. Results showed the discovery of several sleep disturbances that may be caused or worsened by drinking.

Effects Of Using Alcohol For Sleeping

Drinking can initially have a sedating effect This leads some to believe that alcohol can help people who struggle with insomnia. In fact, research shows that up to 20 percent of Americans may use alcohol to help them sleep.

While alcohol may initially shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, it can cause disruption in the second half of your sleep cycle. The second half includes the REM state.

This can cause irregular sleeping throughout the night and make it more difficult for you to stay asleep or fall back asleep after waking.

Additional effects of using alcohol for sleep include:

  • More Difficulty Falling Asleep: Continually using alcohol for sleep will over time lead to a decrease in the initial sleep-inducing effect, making it more difficult for you to fall asleep.
  • Diuretic Effect: As a diuretic, alcohol can increase your need to go to the bathroom, which may cause you to wake up several times during the night and be unable to fall back asleep.
  • Increased Risk For Dependency: People who use alcohol to self-medicate for sleeping purposes additionally put themselves at risk for developing a dependency, or an addiction to alcohol.

Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol Abuse And Sleep

Chronic use of alcohol for sleep can cause you to build a tolerance to alcohol. It can have long-term effects on your REM and non-REM sleep states. Many people who have abused alcohol and have struggled with a sleeping disorder may continue to experience sleep disturbances in early sobriety and years after becoming sober.

The effects of alcohol abuse and chronic sleeping problems, such as fatigue and lower mood, may also make it more difficult to work, attend school, and socialize with friends and family.

Factors such as how long you’ve used alcohol, how much you drink and having co-occurring mental health or medical disorders may impact how long you may experience sleep disturbances.

Alcohol Withdrawal And Sleep Disruption

Alcohol withdrawal can cause many unpleasant physical effects. One of the symptoms most commonly experienced during this process is insomnia.

Among other effects on bodily functions, alcohol withdrawal can cause a reduction in both REM and non-REM (or SWS) sleep. This can impact the quality and duration of your sleep.

While many of the side effects experienced during withdrawal tend to go away within a few days or a couple of weeks, insomnia may persist some time after the other symptoms have gone away.

Experiencing some of the more uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, including insomnia, can be difficult to bear, and without help may trigger an alcohol relapse.

However, while some may resume their drinking in order to ease withdrawal symptoms, alcohol relapse will only cause sleeping troubles to return or worsen.

Experiencing Sleeping Troubles In Recovery

Someone in early recovery may notice improvement with their sleep after they’ve undergone alcohol withdrawal and received medical treatment for their alcohol addiction.

However, it is not uncommon for recovering alcoholics to continue to experience sleeping problems in sobriety. Some people may continue experiencing trouble sleeping years after getting sober.

Those who have chronic insomnia or otherwise continue to experience sleeping troubles in sobriety should speak with a doctor to determine an appropriate and personalized course of treatment.

Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Alcohol-Related Sleeping Problems

The first step for treating an alcohol addiction is to enter into an alcohol detox facility and seek an alcohol rehabilitation treatment program.

Individuals with mental health disorders that impact sleep, such as depression, may benefit from a dual diagnosis treatment program. Treating co-occurring disorders can be a complex process, so selecting a rehab facility that specializes in dual diagnosis is important in making sure all aspects of a patient’s needs are addressed.

Treatments for alcohol-related insomnia that have shown to be potentially effective in sobriety include medication-assisted treatment and behavioral therapy.

Seeking help for an alcohol addiction can help restore balance to your life, and provide the medical healing from conditions such as alcohol hepatitis and the psychological healing your body needs to resume healthy functions, including your sleep cycle.

To learn more about seeking help for you or a loved one’s alcohol addiction, contact one of our treatment specialists today.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol and Sleep

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol’s Effects on Sleep in Alcoholics

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