How to Manage Sleep Problems Associated with Alcoholism

Posted by Darian Dozier on May 10, 2023 5:58:00 AM

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Alcoholics are those that abuse alcohol and drink it in excess. Among the other health problems they may face, such as liver disease, obesity, heart disease, and neurological disorders, sleep is another aspect of their lives that can be disrupted. Alcohol may help individuals fall asleep faster, but this is about the only benefit alcohol has towards sleep. 

Alcohol does not allow sleepers to enter the phase "deep sleep" which is important for restoration and next-day function. The more alcohol that one consumes, the more this sleep is interrupted. Abstinence from alcohol can further exacerbate sleep issues, increasing sleep latency, and leading to other health issues like insomnia. Continue reading to learn how to manage sleep problems associated with alcoholism. 

Normal Recovery Sleep Problems 

Anywhere from 25%-72% of people with alcohol use disorder have sleep trouble as well, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The most common symptoms include: 

  • Frequent awakenings 
  • Worse sleep quality 
  • Reduction of deep sleep 
  • Earlier-than-usual waking times 

Experiencing these symptoms can provide sleepers with the impression that they did not sleep enough. Studies have found that these sleep issues can last well after abstinence from drinking, recovering alcoholics have more difficulty with sleep onset than sleep maintenance, and that they have had sleep difficulties far before their alcohol dependence.

Research also shows that dysfunction with sleep can last well after alcohol withdrawal symptoms cease, lasting anywhere from two to six months following abstinence. Making matters worse, issues with sleep can further exacerbate challenges related to abstinence

Restless Sleep 

Just because one lies in the bed for eight hours with their eyes closed does not mean that they are actually sleeping well. If you ever woke up still feeling exhausted, chances are you experienced restless sleep. This happens when there is a lack of restorative, or deep sleep. 

Those in alcohol recovery take much longer to fall asleep, and experience sleep disruptions throughout the night. This leads them to feel as if their sleep was not restorative. Sleep is one of the last things that falls back into place when alcoholics are recovering. In fact, those who are tired, among a set of other basic needs, are at a higher risk for relapse. This could be due to the emotional and mental disturbances caused by fatigue, as well as feeling like there is not better solution for sleep than drinking alcohol. 


Researchers found that alcoholics with both short and long-term abstince have similarly disrupted sleep when they abstain from drinking. Problems with sleep onset are worse than sleep maintenance, falling into the category of insomnia. 

Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and/or sleep all the way until a normal wake time. There are different types of insomnia: 

  1. Onset - difficulty falling asleep 
  2. Maintenance - inability to sleep throughout the night 
  3. Acute - brief period of sleep disruption, caused by life stress or significant event
  4. Chronic - long lasting insomnia that takes place at least three times a week for three months or longer 
  5. Comorbid - happens due to another condition, like depression or anxiety, that also interrupts sleep

Insomnia is not a new diagnosis for a majority of those who are dependent on alcohol. Often times, they had insomnia before their dependency on alcohol, and alcohol may have helped reduce some of their insomnia symptoms. 

How to treat insomnia 

The first treatment for insomnia in those who are dependent on alcohol is recovery and sobriety. Although the results may be delayed, individuals will see improvement the longer they are sober. There are also specific treatments for insomnia that can aid in both alcohol recovery and the reset of sleep disturbances. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

The goal of CBT- is to change sleep habits as well as any untrue notions regarding sleep and insomnia that can worsen the symptoms. CBT-I consists of regular, weekly meetings with a therapist who will provide assessments, and help devise a treatment plan to improve sleep. This includes addressing problematic sleep behaviors, and tracking sleep using tools like a sleep diary. 

Sleep Restriction 

This type of behavioral therapy works to improve sleep efficiency, which is measured by taking the amount of time you are asleep divided by the amount of time you are in bed. This can limit the amount of time you spend in bed not sleeping, which negatively impacts your sleep quality. Your brain starts to associate your bed with a place where you just lie, instead of associating it with a place for sleep. Therefore, to combat this, you get out of bed as soon as you know that you are not going to sleep, and you only enter your bed when you are ready to go to sleep. This increases your sleep drive and makes sleeping more efficient. 


There are many medications used to treat insomnia, like benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine medications. For those in recovery, your physician will have to weigh the risks and benefits of prescribing a potentially addictive medication, such as benzodiazepines. There are also some relapse prevention medications that can also help prevent sleep. Before taking any sleep aid, it's important to talk with your medical professional who can ensure you are not taking anything that threatens your health or sobriety. 

Complementary Therapy 

There are many complementary therapies that have been used to treat insomnia in those who are recovering. Some popular options include: 

  • Relaxation and biofeedback therapy 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation 
  • Yoga 
  • Aromatherapy 
  • Mindfulness meditation

Sleep Hygiene 

Improving your sleep hygiene is another way to overcome sleep issues, and is perhaps, the most sustainable method. Therapies and medications can help manage symptoms while you work on establishing and progressing in your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene involves your sleep routine, sleep habits, and your environment. 

You want to make sure that before you go to bed, you establish a relaxing bedtime routine. This can include bathing/showering, reading, meditating, and spending quiet time with family. This allows your brain to begin to wind down. By doing the same sequence of activity every night, your brain will begin recognizing that it's time for bed, and can prepare your body for sleep. 

Also, it's important to keep a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. That means waking up and going to bed at the same time every day. It's hard to throw your sleep off for a couple of days on the weekend, and then expect your sleep to reset when it's time to go back to work. 

Avoiding naptime also can help with treating insomnia. Sleeps can disrupt your regular sleep schedule and make it harder to fall asleep. There are some strategies to napping that won't interfere with your sleep, but as you are working on decreasing the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep, then it may be your best option to avoid them until you have a healthy sleep routine again. 

Last, but certainly not least, it's important to make sure only good foods and drinks enter your body, especially late at night. This means avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine from coffee, teas and sodas. Also high carb foods, like candy and sweets, can lead to a middle-of-the-night sugar crash which can also disrupt sleep. Avoiding alcohol is also pertinent, not only for your sleep, but also for your sobriety. 

If you are in recovery and would like help managing your sleep schedule, then please click the orange button to take a free online sleep test and talk with one of our sleep health professionals.

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Topics: Insomnia, alcohol

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