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One of the worst things that you can do during the initial period of alcohol recovery is not sleep. Insomnia, or even less than recommended sleep, is statistically correlated with greater relapse rates, and patients who report baseline insomnia before entering treatment are more likely to continue having sleep disturbance problems after treatment, and are far more likely to relapse back to alcohol abuse.

Sleep and recovery go hand in hand, and without appropriate sleep, the risks of relapse are high. This is problematic though, because a history of alcohol abuse can severely distort sleeping patterns, and there can be period of months or even years after abstinence during which your sleeping patterns are recovering from the legacy of alcohol abuse.

Lack of sleep increase the risks of relapse

On one level, it's easy to understand why insomnia and disturbed sleeping patterns could increase the risks of relapse. A lack of sleep makes us tired, irritable, cranky, fatigued, lethargic…all feelings and emotions that don’t lend themselves well to the introspection and recovery planning needed for long term sobriety. When we are tired and irritable, our defense mechanisms away from abuse are weakened, and in a moment of thoughtlessness and weakness, it's too easy to react without thinking.

On a deeper and subconscious level, sleep seems to have some influence over reward systems in the brain linked to drug seeking behavior. Sleep remains one of the most mysterious of the cerebral processes, but researchers have linked the newly found neurotransmitter orexin, which is linked to sleeping patterns, with changes in the reward centers of the brain. At the moment, scientists know that sleep plays a role in drug cravings and drug seeking behaviors, but they can’t yet explain exactly why it's all happening.

In any case, the message is pretty clear; sleep deprivation makes us emotionally predisposed to abuse, and it also influences subconscious processes which can induce drug seeking behaviors. The answer is to get a good night's sleep…which can be an elusive thing to the recovering alcoholic.

Sleeping problems during recovery

Recovery from alcohol abuse affects sleep in two main ways. Firstly, it can be hard to fall asleep, and secondly, when you do eventually fall asleep, that sleep is not as restful as normal.

Alcohol abuse causes a long term disturbance in sleep and wakefulness cycles, and alcohol induced sleep is largely free from necessary REM sleep. When alcohol abuse is stopped, the body responds with an REM rebound sleep period in which the body strives to make up for the period of REM deprivation with greatly increased amounts of REM sleep. REM, which is the part of sleep during which our remembered dreams occurs is generally pleasant, but when recovering alcoholics are subjected to many consecutive hours of REM, sleep becomes exhausting, and dreams can become nightmarish or unpleasant.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about this, and you simply must repay your debt of REM sleep, and it will ultimately normalize.

Light at the end of the tunnel

It's a bit of a catch 22, and although alcohol recovery interferes with good sleep, good sleep is needed to recover from alcohol abuse!

Do the best you can, make your sleeping a priority, and get the best sleep you can each and every night. Sleep disturbances lessen with time and with increasing sobriety, and the more time that passes the better you'll sleep and the easier your battle to stay sober will become.

At least it gives you something to look forward to, and not only will the future hold sobriety; it will also hold blissful and restful sleep!

Better sleeping tips

If suffering from insomnia, to induce sleep naturally try:

  • Getting sufficient and tiring exercise during the day, but avoid exercise for 2-3 hours before bed
  • Don't drink coffee for about 6 hours before bed
  • Don't nap during the day…this can make it hard to sleep at night.
  • Keep a regular sleeping routine, and try to sleep and wake at the same times each day
  • Keep your sleep environment clean and comfortable, and eliminate all extraneous noise and light when possible
  • Reserving the bed for sleeping only and never read or watch TV in bed
  • If you cannot sleep, the sensation of impending insomnia can induce stress which further causes insomnia. It is far better to get out of bed, and do something relaxing until you start to feel drowsy.
  • Learn breathing and imagery techniques to promote sleep. A sleep therapist may be helpful

If you are really having problems falling asleep, you should speak with your doctor about the possibility of non addictive sedatives, but you should not take anything without your doctor's advice, as some may be addictive, and some may worsen sleep disturbances over the long term.

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Page last updated May 07, 2012

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