Alcoholism and Insomnia: The Truth

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Alcohol has been used as an effective sleep aid for many years, but did you know your evening nightcap is doing you more harm than good? – Because I sure didn’t.

Alcoholism & My Zombie High-Wire Act

During my heavy addiction to drugs and alcohol, I found myself performing a very delicate balancing act every day in order to function properly. I was always susceptible to insomnia, especially during stressful times, and my love of cocaine only made it worse. So, to counteract the days’ worth of drugs I’d usually had, I started introducing a glass of whiskey or bourbon each night to help me fall asleep. While it worked for a short time, eventually that one glass became two glasses, then three. Suddenly,

I was drinking so much each night I was getting wasted and just passing out. Waking up hungover was not conducive to a productive day at my full-time job, so I’d snort a few lines of cocaine each morning with my coffee for an added pick-me-up. Except more cocaine meant less sleep, which meant more booze, which meant more cocaine, and around it goes. Soon I was barely sleeping, and barely waking up. I was just walking around like a drunk, coked up zombie.

Sleep Not Just for Beauty

Sleep is essential. We cannot function when we don’t sleep, and even though we are all prone to bouts of insomnia at some point in our lives, alcoholics and other substance abusers are considered more likely to suffer from insomnia than others. In fact, research published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows that insomnia occurs in up to 72% of alcoholic patients. Lack of restorative sleep can lead to a wealth of health problems like elevated blood pressure, irritability, depression, increased anxiety, a compromised immune system, weight gain, and decreased performance in our day to day lives.

More Pressure = Decreased Quality

Alcohol is a popular somnogen, which means it induces sleep. It was widely believed that alcohol promoted healthy sleep by changing the circadian rhythm (our body’s in-built alarm clock), but researchers from the University of Missouri, led by Mahesh Thakkar PhD, have found that consuming alcohol interferes with sleep homeostasis – the complex chemical process that occurs in our body to get us to sleep. When a somnogen like alcohol is introduced, our body feels pressured to go to sleep faster and sooner than usual. While this may sound like a good thing, it disrupts that natural sleep process, and can severely damage our sleep in the long run.

REM: Not Just a Band in the ’90s

There are two phases of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM. Both are essential in allowing our brains to rest and regenerate, readying ourselves for the following day. Each night, our bodies go through both phases in light and heavy sleep cycles. When we drink alcohol beforehand, we skip the initial stages of light sleep where dreams occur and memories are stored. Alcohol leads us straight into deep sleep. You’d think a night of deep sleep would cause you to wake up feeling more refreshed, right? That’s not the case. Instead of the 6–7 cycles of REM sleep adults are meant to go through each night, drinking causes us to only go through 1–2, which is why you feel so exhausted after a night on the booze.

Alcoholism My Merry-go-Round of a Downward Spiral

The cycle of insomnia and alcoholism is a vicious one. Each exacerbates the other, creating a downward spiral that can be very hard to reverse. Once we introduce alcohol to help us sleep, our bodies get used to it and we begin needing more and more to feel the same effect. Lack of good sleep makes us exhausted, which can cause cross-addiction to other substances like prescription medication to help us fall asleep, or illegal narcotics to help us wake up. And the bad news is, even when you decide to get sober, your battle with insomnia may not yet be won. Insomnia is a common side effect of withdrawal from alcohol.

But there are many ways to treat insomnia and alcohol addiction, which include Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), an effective type of therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns which can trigger destructive behavior.

The Other Side of the Rabbit Hole

Trying to overcome alcoholism can be even harder when you’re trying to overcome insomnia at the same time. Sobriety is exhausting on its own, and lying awake all night reliving years of thoughts and memories can weaken even the toughest of newly-sober people. But, no matter how far down the rabbit hole you are, you can climb back out sober, and well-rested. Trust me, I’ve done it.

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