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Alcohol and Insomnia: Definition, Statistics and Risks


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 6/27/2022

Alcohol is a substance that’s known for depressing the central nervous system (CNS). When alcohol depresses the nervous system, falling asleep is easier and happens faster. Because alcohol helps people fall asleep faster, there’s a misconception that alcohol can help with symptoms of insomnia. However, the opposite is true. 

Alcohol can help people fall asleep but the quality of sleep is reduced. After drinking alcohol, the liver and other organs need to remove alcohol from the blood to low blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Depending on how many alcoholic beverages were consumed, this can take several hours. When the body needs to remove alcohol from the blood during sleep the body has trouble entering each stage of sleep. 

People may sleep through the night but enter REM sleep less frequently, which is the sleep stage where damage to the body is repaired. When alcohol is abused over long periods the negative effects of bad sleep quality become more prevalent. In some cases, insomnia can also develop as a symptom of alcohol dependency. Due to alcohol having uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, it can be hard for people to sleep at night when not consuming alcohol.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a mental health condition that develops when people have trouble falling asleep. Typically, insomnia develops as a result of anxiety, depression, illness, medications, and bad sleep habits. People can also experience infrequent insomnia from stress and other factors, which resolves when the stressor is no longer prevalent. In the United States, about 3 million cases of insomnia are diagnosed each year. 

There are also cases of chronic insomnia. These cases occur when people struggle with insomnia for long periods. For cases of chronic insomnia, mental illnesses are typically the underlying issue. Additionally, some medical conditions like Attention deficit disorder (ADD) can cause insomnia. 

People who struggle with insomnia don’t get enough rest or have trouble entering different sleep stages. When insomnia is not treated it can lead to many negative health consequences. The risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other medical conditions increases when someone experiences extended bouts of insomnia.

Chronic insomnia is challenging to cure unless underlying issues that cause insomnia are resolved. That said, some medications can treat insomnia. These medications are typically prescribed by doctors but some over-the-counter (OTC) medications like melatonin can help. Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax can also help with insomnia disorders that are caused by anxiety.

What are the Causes of Insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by several factors like anxiety and stress. Mental health disorders like depression can also increase the risk of insomnia developing. Anxiety and depression disorders can also make symptoms of insomnia worse. Insomnia can also be caused by substance abuse disorders like alcoholism. Alcoholism has been linked to insomnia because drinking alcohol reduces overall sleep quality. 

People with Insomnia may also turn to alcohol or other drugs to relieve symptoms of insomnia. In these cases, insomnia becomes a co-occurring disorder that makes alcohol addiction worse. Insomnia can also happen infrequently. For example, it’s normal for individuals to experience insomnia a few times per year. Insomnia only becomes a diagnosed medical condition when it’s persistent.

Below are the most common causes of insomnia.

  • Stress
  • Irregular sleep patterns (frequently changing sleep cycle)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Pain
  • Illness
  • Medications and drugs 
  • Sleep disorders 
  • Lack of exercise 
  • Obesity 
  • Jet lag
  • Having a sleep partner

Insomnia can also be caused by symptoms of withdrawal. Alcohol is known for having withdrawal symptoms that increase the risk of insomnia.

How can Alcohol Affect People with Insomnia?

Alcohol can affect people with insomnia in a few ways. Primarily, alcohol abuse reduces sleep quality and disrupts the body’s ability to enter different sleep stages. When alcohol reduces sleep quality it can cause people to wake up in the middle of the night and make sleep less refreshing.

Alcohol can also affect people with insomnia because of its addictive qualities. Individuals with insomnia might turn to alcohol to treat symptoms of insomnia because it can help people fall asleep faster. When people use alcohol to treat insomnia every night it turns into an alcohol addiction, which can lead to other negative health consequences. Using alcohol to fall asleep can also make it more challenging to fall asleep when alcohol is not used.

Long-term alcoholics also struggle with insomnia. Alcohol addiction can lead to symptoms of withdrawal, which can make it harder to fall asleep when alcohol is not consumed. When alcohol has been abused for many decades, symptoms of withdrawal can begin within a few hours, which can harm sleep.

It’s also important to note that alcohol is a diuretic. When alcohol is consumed it causes the kidneys to release more water. More water released by the kidneys increases the rate of urination, which can cause people to wake up throughout the night to pee. Waking up multiple times per night to use the bathroom can contribute to insomnia and reduce sleep quality.

What are the Statistics on Alcohol and Insomnia?

The relationship between alcohol and insomnia is evident in the statistics. First and foremost, studies suggest that between 25 and 75 percent of alcoholics struggle with insomnia. While all of these cases of insomnia are not directly caused by alcohol abuse, there is a correlation between alcohol consumption and poor sleep quality.

Other studies show that alcohol is often used as a type of self-medication for insomnia. According to the data, at least 20% of adults in the United States use alcohol to help them sleep at night. A 2011 study also found that about 250 days are lost across the United States workforce because of insomnia.

A more alarming study found that many adults who don’t abuse alcohol also struggle with insomnia. The data shows that about 35% of adults have some type of insomnia-related disorder. While all of these cases are not caused by alcoholism, it’s clear that alcohol abuse makes insomnia worse and more prevalent.

What are the Risks of Alcohol with People with Insomnia?

People with insomnia who abuse alcohol have an increased risk of experiencing insomnia. When someone with insomnia uses alcohol to treat symptoms of insomnia there’s an increased risk of an alcohol addiction developing. Individuals who use alcohol to treat insomnia can also experience reduced sleep quality.

The risks of alcohol for people with insomnia are listed below.

  • Higher chance of an alcohol abuse disorder occurring 
  • Becoming dependent on alcohol to fall asleep 
  • Reduced sleep quality 
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced brain function
  • Less productivity at work 
  • Changes in mood 
  • Conditions like depression and anxiety can develop at higher rates

Based on these risks, people who struggle with insomnia should avoid or limit alcohol consumption.

What is the Relationship Between Alcohol and Insomnia?

There is a complicated relationship between alcohol and insomnia. Insomnia refers to a collection of sleep disorders that lead to waking up at night, trouble falling asleep, and reduced sleep quality. While insomnia can occur without alcohol consumption, research suggests that abusing substances like alcohol can increase the risk of insomnia developing.

Typically, insomnia has a specific cause. For most people, insomnia is caused by factors like stress. For others, insomnia can be a symptom of anxiety or depression. Insomnia can also be caused by substance abuse disorders like alcoholism. 

Alcoholism can impact insomnia because it reduces sleep quality. People may also use alcohol as a sleeping aid because it slows down the central nervous system, which makes sleeping easier. However, people who use alcohol to sleep don’t sleep as well.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can also lead to insomnia. Alcohol withdrawal is uncomfortable and can occur within a few hours of someone’s last drink. Falling asleep with symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be daunting without medications.

Do People with Insomnia Drink Excessively?

No, people with insomnia don’t drink excessively. While some people who have insomnia may drink excessively, this is not true for all people with insomnia. The amount of alcohol someone consumes depends on other factors that can be based on social life, genetics, and even stress.

That said, some people with insomnia turn to alcohol as a method of self-medicating. Because alcohol is a CNS depressant, it can help people fall asleep faster. While alcohol can provide short-term relief from insomnia, it reduces sleep quality when alcohol is abused for long periods.

Does Alcohol Make Insomnia Worse?

Yes, alcohol can make insomnia worse. In the short term, however, alcohol can help people fall asleep faster. Because alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, falling asleep is easier after consuming alcoholic beverages. 

While falling asleep faster after drinking alcohol can feel like it’s helping insomnia, the opposite is true. When someone falls asleep after drinking many alcoholic beverages, sleep quality declines. In fact, most studies suggest that there is a direct correlation between alcoholic beverages consumed and the quality of sleep. Even one alcoholic beverage can impact sleep.

Sleep quality declines after drinking alcohol because the body is unable to enter sleep cycles properly. Several cycles occur during sleep and the body goes in and out of each phase a few times per night. Some examples of sleep stages include REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, light sleep, and deep sleep.

After consuming alcohol the body struggled to balance each of the sleep stages. When this happens, the body is unable to rest properly. Therefore, alcohol only helps with insomnia in the short term. Over longer periods alcohol increases the risk of insomnia and reduces sleep quality.

Can you Drink Alcohol on Insomnia Medication?

No, you shouldn’t drink alcohol with insomnia medication. Most insomnia medications help people fall asleep and stay asleep by slowing down the central nervous system. While this process helps with sleep, it also slows the rate of breathing. 

Alcohol also slows the rate of breathing and depresses the central nervous system, so mixing alcohol with insomnia medications can lead to an overdose. These types of overdoses can put someone in a coma or increase the risk of death.

Is Insomnia an Indication of Alcoholism?

Insomnia can sometimes be used as an indication of alcoholism. Studies show that there is a link between long-term alcohol abuse and poor quality. Insomnia is a better indicator of alcoholism when someone has been abusing alcohol for many years (decades). For this reason, insomnia is not a strong indicator of alcoholism. 

So, what is alcoholism? Alcoholism is a substance abuse disorder that develops over time as people drink alcohol. Habits like binge drinking increase the risk of alcoholism and people who abuse alcohol at a young age are more likely to become lifelong alcoholics.

While insomnia can get worse when someone abuses alcohol, insomnia can also develop when people remain sober. Therefore, insomnia can only be used as an indication of alcoholism in some cases.