Alcohol and Insomnia Connection

Insomnia and alcohol are closely linked, though their relationship is complex. Insomnia isn't a direct cause of alcoholism, and alcoholism doesn't directly cause insomnia. However, they do affect each other. Drinking alcohol decreases your quality of sleep, and insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Learn more below.
Evidence Based
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What is Insomnia?

There is a link between alcohol and insomnia, referred to as alcohol insomnia. Consumption of alcohol interferes with a person’s ability to get quality sleep.

It is also common for someone who is alcohol dependent to experience long-term sleep problems. Insomnia and other sleep disorders are common symptoms of alcoholism.

Insomnia occurs when a person has sleep difficulties. It might include:

  • Falling asleep
  • Staying asleep
  • Returning to sleep after waking up
  • Awakening after not getting enough hours of sleep
  • Feeling sleepy, lethargic, or fatigued while awake
  • Nightmares

Risk factors that increase a person’s potential for developing insomnia include:

  • Age – older people develop insomnia more than younger people
  • Gender – women are more prone to insomnia than men
  • Health – Some physical and psychological medical conditions trigger insomnia
  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse – insomnia can be a side effect of certain drugs and alcohol

Types of Insomnia

The Academy of Sleep Medicine describes insomnia conditions in the following ways:

  • Primary insomnia – occurs without a separate underlying physical or psychological disorder
  • Secondary insomnia – occurs because of another issue, such as a medical condition, psychological disorder, or due to the use of a drug or medication
  • Chronic insomnia – occurs for at least three nights a week for a month or more
  • Acute insomnia – occurs for any duration less than three times a week
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Alcohol Insomnia Connection

Alcohol and insomnia have a “bidirectional” relationship. This means people with insomnia tend to have a higher risk of alcohol abuse and other substance disorders.

Insomnia doesn’t directly cause alcoholism, nor does alcoholism always cause insomnia. The relationship between the two disorders is complicated and closely linked. And in general, the use of alcohol – even healthy use – affects the quality of sleep.

Drinking alcohol does not allow you to get deep sleep. Many people often wake up a few times in the middle of the night without knowing.

Effects of Alcohol on Sleep

Drinking alcohol can lead to the following sleep problems:

  • Increases the time needed to fall asleep
  • Disrupts total sleep time
  • Decreases sleep quality
  • Increases a person’s likelihood to snore or experience sleep apnea
  • Causes daytime sleepiness the following day
  • Interferes with REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep)
  • Alcohol also directly affects the circadian rhythms, which is your "biological clock"
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Alcohol and Insomnia Statistics

People with alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) experience insomnia at higher rates than those who do not abuse alcohol. Alcohol withdrawal can cause insomnia.

20 percent of adults in the US use alcohol to help them fall asleep.

In 2011, it was estimated that over 252 days are lost across the U.S. Workforce every year due to the symptoms of Insomnia.

It is estimated that 30% to 35% of adults in the U.S. deal with some kind of insomnia.

Additionally, individuals dealing with co-occurring medical conditions have an even higher risk of developing insomnia and/or alcohol use disorder.

For instance, according to reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

  • Roughly 50 percent of individuals with severe mental disorders are affected by substance abuse
  • 37 percent of alcohol abusers and 53 percent of drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness
  • Of all people diagnosed as mentally ill, 29 percent abuse either alcohol or drugs.
  • Estimates show that at least 30 percent of individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder also have co-occurring substance use
  • Approximately half of all people with chronic lower back pain experience insomnia, though it’s unproven whether the pain leads to insomnia or insomnia came before the back pain
  • As many as 28 percent of people with chronic pain use alcohol to alleviate their symptoms
Graphic of person in bed having difficulty sleeping or insomnia.

Alcohol Withdrawal and Insomnia

Someone with alcohol use disorder has a high risk of developing insomnia as part of the withdrawal and recovery process.

In one study, 58 percent of men in observational treatment for alcohol use disorder experienced insomnia during their first six days of withdrawal.

There are a few reasons why alcohol withdrawal and insomnia are linked, including:

  • People with alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, experience sleep problems before or early on in their addiction.
  • People with alcoholism tend to drink alcohol to help them sleep. An alcoholic drink might even be part of their bedtime routine.
  • Alcoholism might co-occur with other medical conditions such as anxiety or depression, both of which have insomnia as a symptom.
  • When a person is using alcohol to cope with the effects of these disorders and he or she stops drinking, the symptoms of the co-occurring disorder tend to heighten.
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Treating Insomnia and Alcohol Addiction

Treatment for alcoholism can be more challenging when the person also has insomnia. The problem worsens when there is an additional co-occurring psychological or physical health condition.

In part, this is because a lack of sleep affects the quality of life and a person’s ability to perform optimally even under the best conditions. The inability to get enough rest during detox and recovery tends to exacerbate the already challenging circumstances.

The best option is to take an integrated and comprehensive approach to help a person cope with alcohol use disorder, insomnia, and any co-occurring condition. This means the person receives support and guidance from a multi-disciplinary team of treatment providers.

Alcoholism treatment programs begin with an assessment to evaluate a person’s physical and psychological health and identify all problem areas. Next, he or she undergoes medical detox that allows the patient to manage withdrawal symptoms as effectively as possible.

Medical care related to insomnia and any co-occurring conditions will continue throughout the treatment process. In addition to medications, this might also include different types of therapy that address a person’s use of alcohol, co-occurring issues such as depression or anxiety, and insomnia.

Coping skills aid in falling asleep, such as meditation and breathing techniques, because they improve your mental health. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help support a healthy sleeping schedule.

Graphic of two people with one on a couch showing talk therapy or psychotherapy.

Improving Sleep During Alcohol Withdrawal

Some lifestyle changes that can help manage alcohol insomnia include:

  • Altering an existing bedtime routine so it does not include alcohol consumption
  • Maintaining a consistent sleeping and waking time
  • Unwinding with relaxing activities (that don’t involve drinking alcohol) before bedtime
  • Avoiding stressful situations, especially within a few hours of bedtime
  • Utilizing safe, natural sleep aids such as magnesium or melatonin (under a doctor’s supervision)
  • Utilizing over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids (under a doctor’s supervision)
  • Exercising daily or several times a week at least four to six hours before bedtime
  • Creating a cool, comfortable sleeping environment
  • Avoiding naps
  • Refraining from using computers, cell phones, and e-readers
  • Creating other healthy sleep habits

Alcohol dependency is rarely the only issue a person in withdrawal is dealing with. This is why a comprehensive approach to treatment is often the key to a successful recovery.

Resources

Ornelas, Christopher, and MD. “Chronic Back and Neck Pain’s Close Connection to Insomnia.” SpineUniverse, https://www.spineuniverse.com/wellness/sleep/chronic-back-neck-pain-s-close-connection-insomnia

“Insomnia.” Www.Instituteforchronicpain.Org, https://www.instituteforchronicpain.org/understanding-chronic-pain/complications/insomnia

“Using Alcohol to Relieve Your Pain: What Are the Risks?” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 25 Apr. 2019,https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/using-alcohol-to-relieve-your-pain

Arnedt, J. Todd, et al. “TREATMENT OPTIONS FOR SLEEP DISTURBANCES DURING ALCOHOL RECOVERY.” Journal of Addictive Diseases, vol. 26, no. 4, 2007, pp. 41–54, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2936493/

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Updated on: August 6, 2020
Author
Addiction Group Staff
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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