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Sleep and Recovery in Alcohol Addiction

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

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What Does Sleep Have to Do with Addiction?

It may be surprising to hear, but there is a strong relationship between a person’s sleeping habits and the strength of their addiction. Many people are driven to abuse drugs and alcohol because they have problems getting to sleep. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily help people get some rest, but in the long run substance abuse is likely to decrease sleep quality and worsen pre-existing sleep problems. Sleep is a major factor in early recovery as well. People who are recovering from years of active addiction often struggle to fall asleep at night. Getting a good night’s rest, however, is one of the best ways of healing a damaged brain. So what is the solution?

Drinking to Cure Insomnia

Insomnia afflicts 10% to 30% of the world population, with some estimates going as high as 60%. It should come as no surprise that it is common for people to seek out easy and quick solutions to help them get to sleep. For many people, drinking alcohol seems like an obvious method. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that shuts down activity throughout the brain and body. Alcohol’s sedative effects can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness. Having a few drinks can calm a person down or stop them from worrying. Having more than a few drinks can cause a person to simply pass out entirely. So drinking cures insomnia? Not quite.

In the long term, alcohol abuse decreases sleep quality and duration. While drinking alcohol can temporarily help a person get to sleep, these effects rarely last. Once a person develops a dependence on alcohol, they will often find that it is more difficult to get to sleep than ever before — unless they have alcohol. As tolerance builds, they will also require greater and greater quantities of alcohol for their “solution” to work at all. While initially it may take only a beer or two to get to sleep, after some time has passed it may take an entire bottle of liquor, if not more. While it may not be the quickest solution, addressing the underlying issues behind sleep problems is generally more effective in the long run.

Not only does alcohol become rapidly less effective as a solution for insomnia, it has a negative effect on sleep quality from the beginning. Alcohol’s effect on sleep is wide-ranging. When people drink alcohol to get to sleep, their sleep will be changed in a number of ways

  • Alcohol inhibits the REM stage of sleep, decreasing overall sleep quality
  • Alcohol causes sleep disruptions (you may not even remember waking up in the middle of the night, but alcohol makes it more likely to happen)
  • Alcohol abuse can cause sleep apnea, a state of abnormal breathing at night that leads to health problems and sometimes even death
  • Delayed sleep onset due to withdrawal symptoms

When a person has developed an alcohol use disorder, these problems can become more acute. Ultimately, alcohol addiction impacts far more aspects of a person’s life than their sleep. Individuals with alcohol use disorders suffer serious impacts in their relationships, work, finances, and health. They may recognize a need to quit alcohol due to the harms it causes, but once alcohol addiction has set in it is rarely possible to quit without outside help.

Sleep Problems in Recovery

Some people imagine that as soon as they quit drugs and alcohol, their lives will instantly become better. While this is true for some people to some extent, the reality is that most people are driven to substance abuse because drugs and alcohol provide relief for one or more underlying problems. In the case of someone suffering from a sleep disorder, quitting drugs and alcohol may appear at first to worsen sleep problems. Without the temporary remedy of alcohol, Xanax, or Ambien, it may seem impossible to get to sleep at all.

Individuals who are suffering from withdrawal symptoms are likely to face even more difficult challenges. Alcohol, Ambien, and other drugs that help people get to sleep are part of a class of drugs known as central nervous system depressants. When a person has developed a tolerance to these substances, their central nervous system compensates for the depressing effects by stimulating itself. That means that withdrawing from alcohol, opioids, and sleep medications causes the body and brain to enter a long period of heightened awareness. If you are withdrawing from alcohol or other sleep medications, you may lay awake at night in an uncomfortably keyed up state.

Ironically, even if you’re completely sober, suffering from sleep deprivation can actually cause symptoms of intoxication. Studies show that even moderate sleep deprivation causes cognitive and motor impairments that are worse than having a BAC of 0.05%. This means that it actually isn’t safe to drive while suffering from sleep deprivation. Perhaps more concerning is that the cognitive problems that sleep deprivation causes can make it difficult to stay sober. Not only do alcohol and drugs become more appealing as solutions, but impaired decision-making skills can drive people to relapse.

The Importance of Rest in Recovery

Research shows that lack of sleep is a critical risk factor for relapse. Getting a proper amount of rest may seem like an impossible task, especially during early recovery. It is important not to be too hard on yourself. Missing a night of sleep won’t cause anyone to relapse automatically. However, there are certain behaviors you can engage in that may make it easier to get to sleep. Encouraging healthy sleep patterns can help your body and mind heal faster and more effectively. These activities include:

  • Planning a relaxing bedtime ritual (reading, a warm bath, meditation)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, or nicotine right before going to sleep
  • Following a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eliminating light, especially from electronics
  • Listening to white noise or soothing music to get to sleep
  • Doing a relaxing activity when you wake up in the middle of the night, instead of trying to force yourself back to sleep

Keep in mind that the sleep problems of early recovery are rarely permanent. By staying sober, you also give yourself a chance to develop the tools you need to deal with your insomnia. It is difficult to develop these coping tools if you are drinking or abusing drugs. While it may take a little patience, chances are you’ll be feeling better more quickly than you think.

Recovery is Possible at Design for Recovery

If you are drinking or medicating yourself to get to sleep, or if you are struggling with sleep problems in sobriety, getting outside help is crucial. Design for Recovery is a sober living home for men located in West Los Angeles. Our structured sober living home is the ideal place for people to develop the tools and coping techniques they need to stay sober. A Design for Recovery, we recognize that recovery isn’t just a matter of quitting drugs and alcohol. It’s about learning to solve our problems in new, healthier ways. For residents who suffer from sleep disorders or other underlying mental health conditions, we ensure that they are connected to the resources they need. Residents also benefit from a strong peer support system, which studies on sober living homes show is critical for long term sobriety. Our goal is to help residents stay sober and build new, fulfilling lives for themselves.

If you are tired of being restless and discontent in your addiction, it’s never too late to reach out for help. Contact Design for Recovery today. We’re here for you.

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Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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