Sleep Problems in Recovering Alcoholics

Sleep Disruption Can Continue Long After Quitting

Sad Woman
Alcohol Affects Sleep Paterns. ©

Many people with alcohol use disorders also have sleep problems. They may fall to sleep easily, but excessive alcohol use disrupts their sleep during the latter part of the night.

If you drink to excess, even occasionally, you have probably experienced sleep problems. What you may not know is if you quit drinking and remain sober you can have significant sleep problems long after you stop drinking.

Most heavy drinkers who quit drinking find it difficult to sleep during the early days of sobriety; it is one of the most common alcohol withdrawal symptoms and one that causes many to relapse.

Typical Recovery Sleep Problems

Research shows that sleep disruption can last long after alcohol withdrawal symptoms cease. Studies have found that:

  • Sleep problems can last for many months after quitting drinking.
  • Recovering alcoholics typically have more problems with sleep onset, than with sleep maintenance.
  • Many recovering alcoholics had sleep problems that predate their alcohol dependence.

Poor Sleep Quality, Less Deep Sleep

"Three or more drinks will cause the average person to fall asleep sooner than usual," said Shawn R. Currie, of the University of Calgary. "However, falling asleep faster is the only real benefit of alcohol for sleep. The more prevalent, disruptive effects include more frequent awakenings, worse sleep quality; reduction of deep sleep, and earlier-than-usual waking times, leading people to feel they did not get enough sleep."

"An alcoholic who is actively drinking experiences similar, but more severe, types of sleep disruptions," Currie said. "An alcoholic who quits drinking often experiences sleep problems in the two to six months of abstinence following withdrawal."

Sleep Not Restorative

"They take a long time to fall asleep, have problems sleeping through the night, and feel their sleep is not restorative," said Currie.

"Lab research supports claims of sleep disruption; overnight-sleep studies have documented reductions in deep sleep and abnormalities in REM sleep in persons with more than a year of sobriety."

"Sleep has a reputation among the recovering community of being one of the last things that fall back into place for an individual," said David Hodgins, professor of psychology at the University of Calgary. "It's also recognized as a potential precipitant of relapse. In the 12-step community, there's a little saying that describes the risk factors for relapse; it's called HALT. People who are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired are at an increased risk of relapse. Certainly, one way a person can be tired is through sleep disruptions."

Sleep Problems Can Last for Months

In the Calgary study, researchers examined 44 men and 19 women who were in recovery from alcoholism. Their sleep patterns were assessed through interviews, daily sleep diaries, questionnaires, and sleep monitoring. The were divided into two groups—those with short-term (less than 12 months) and long-term abstinence.

Researchers found that alcoholics with both short- and long-term abstinence had similarly disturbed sleep after they quit drinking.

Persistent Sleep Disruptions

"This study provides important, further validation of the significance of sleep problems in recovering alcoholics," said Currie. "Insomnia is a highly variable disorder; most insomniacs experience both good and bad nights of sleep in a typical week, so it is important to obtain several nights of data to get an accurate picture of how severe the problem is."

"Just as physicians like to obtain several readings of blood pressure before diagnosing hypertension, it is likewise important to obtain several nights of sleep information to diagnose a sleep disorder, said Currie. "The monitor that we used, in conjunction with participants' detailed sleep diaries, confirmed that alcoholics did indeed have persistent sleep disruptions that could not be attributed to a single bad night of sleep in a lab."

Problems With Sleep Onset

In general, problems with sleep onset were worse than with sleep maintenance in the Calgary study.

"Most insomniacs have a combination of problems getting to sleep and problems staying asleep," said Currie. "Our results indicate that most recovering alcoholics have both types of insomnia but the onset problem is generally worse."

Sleep Problems Predated Alcoholism

The researchers also found that more than half of the participants has sleep problems that predated the onset of their alcohol dependence.

"The rate of chronic insomnia in the general adult population is about 10 to 15 percent," said Currie. "In our study, more than 50 percent of the alcoholics reported having sleep problems for many years before their drinking reached dependence levels. Although we cannot infer any causal connection between insomnia and alcoholism from this data, it is hard to ignore such a high rate of pre-existing sleep problems in the sample."

Poor Sleep Hygiene a Factor

Poor sleep hygiene was observed among the 63 recovering alcoholics in Currie's study.

"Sleep hygiene refers to behaviors that constitute good sleep habits, such as keeping a regular rising time, avoiding napping, and refraining from stimulants like caffeine in the evening," said Currie.

"Many people believe that having a drink will help their sleep," noted Hodgins. "In fact, many physicians will informally suggest the use of alcohol as a sleep aid. However, these findings warn against developing the habit of having, for example, a glass of wine to help go to sleep. More importantly, these findings lead to the idea of targeted interventions with alcoholics."

Developing Good Sleep Habits

"Despite the very comprehensive and broad-based nature of most treatment programs, very, very few of them tackle sleep as an issue. But sleep is obviously a problem for some people and a relevant area of intervention. Trying to refrain from drinking can take a lot of vigilance, self-control, and self-worth; it would be even more difficult for someone if they were exhausted."

"It may be that sleep can be improved in recovering alcoholics through using an approach that emphasizes good sleep habits, relaxation, and stress management," he said.


Currie, S. R., et al. "Comprehensive Assessment of Insomnia in Recovering Alcoholics Using Daily Sleep Diaries and Ambulatory Monitoring. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27: 1262–1269. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000081622.03973.57

Currie, S.R., et al. "Randomized controlled trial of brief cognitive–behavioural interventions for insomnia in recovering alcoholics." Addiction 99: 1121–1132. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00835.x

Continue Reading