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Insomnia in Sobriety: Why It Happens and How To Fix It

Insomnia in early sobriety sucks, but it is (unfortunately) incredibly common.

In the early weeks, you’re kind of damned if you and damned if you don’t where sleep is concerned.

Both excessive drinking and abstention from drinking (for heavy drinkers) can severely disrupt your sleep patterns. That early sobriety insomnia? It can last days or even weeks. (Terrible news, I know.)

That’s because alcohol helps you sleep, right?

Actually, no. 

Alcohol makes you “pass out,” but that doesn’t mean you get quality sleep.

It disrupts your natural sleep rhythms. You may be unconscious, but that doesn’t mean your body is resting properly. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, “Drinking alcohol before bed can reduce REM sleep during the first two (sleep) cycles.”

The result is spending 10 hours in bed but feeling like you haven’t slept a wink. 

Incredibly smart human beings have studied the relationship between alcohol and sleep for decades and found that long-term alcohol abuse and chronic sleep problems are linked. 

It’s no wonder that many of us who spent years (or decades) subjecting our bodies to this destructive cycle now find ourselves incapable of sleeping once we’ve stopped drinking. 

Sober woman shadow above bed struggling with insomnia
sleeping problems and sobriety

Effects of Insomnia in Sobriety

Insomnia has powerful effects on our ability to function properly. In the short term, you might experience:

Couple these side effects with the challenges of quitting drinking, which can derail even the most earnest sobriety efforts. It’s a recipe for relapse!

Even a few days of insomnia can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. This is why it’s important to prioritize healthy sleep and get insomnia help immediately.

More>> Can Staying Up All Night Fix Your Sleep Schedule?

Two Basic Types of Insomnia

Before we tackle how to manage insomnia, let’s briefly discuss the different types of insomnia you may experience.

A graphic of a woman lying on bed with lightning zaps around her head, indicating a struggle to sleep. The title reads Insomnia in Sobriety: Why it happens and how to fix it
Insomnia in sobriety

1. Short-Term Insomnia

Also referred to as acute or adjustment insomnia, this type is characterized as a brief of difficulty sleeping. It’s usually caused by a stressful life event like the death of a loved one, a bad medical diagnosis, or quitting smoking or drinking.

It can also arise in pregnancy or during menopause.

2. Chronic Insomnia

Chronic insomnia is long-term insomnia, defined as having difficulty falling or staying asleep for more than three nights per week for three or more months.

The causes of chronic insomnia include (but aren’t limited to):

  • mental health disorders
  • poor sleep hygiene
  • irregular sleep schedules
  • persistent nightmares
  • medications
  • bed partners
  • underlying physical or neurological patterns
  • stressful situations

Like short-term insomnia, chronic insomnia can occur in adults and children alike, but it is more prevalent in women.

Insomnia Sub-Categories To Know:

Generally speaking, insomnia classified as either short-term or chronic. However, there are descriptions of insomnia that help us understand the different ways that insomnia manifests.

Sleep Onset Insomnia

This type of insomnia happens when you have difficulty falling asleep. This looks like tossing and turning and taking longer than 20-30 minutes to fall asleep.

Sleep Maintenance Insomnia

This type of insomnia occurs when you’re unable to stay asleep throughout the night. You may wake up multiple times throughout the night and struggle to get back to sleep.

Early Morning Awakening Insomnia

This type of insomnia is associated with waking up too early and being unable to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. This might look like always waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, no matter what time you go to bed and feeling exhausted throughout the day as a result.

Mixed Insomnia

This type of insomnia is exactly what is sounds like – a combination of two or more insomnia types.

Tips for managing insomnia in sobriety.

If you experience insomnia in sobriety, there are things you can do to manage your insomnia on your own, as well as with the support of a medical professional.

I’ll explore both, but it’s important to note that many factors can impact the type and severity of insomnia you experience. For this reason, I recommend you start with #1.

#1. Talk to your doctor about your sleep problems. 

I’ve had many sleep disruptions and insomnia problems throughout this journey. There were moments I thought I would never get a good night’s sleep. 

Add to the fact I was pregnant with awful reflux and then mother to a very anti-sleep baby, and well…you get the picture.

Once my daughter finally started sleeping, I continued to struggle with my sleep. A good night meant I only got up 2-3 times to use the bathroom and got back to sleep easily. 

During difficult bouts with insomnia, I would resort to drinking Nyquil or taking a bit too much melatonin before bed.

These things didn’t help me sleep at all. They made me feel groggy and mentally out of it for the next day. Zero benefits.

I consulted Dr. Google and thought I could sort it out by piecing together various sleep tips across the internet, but I was wrong. 

The sleep troubles continued. 

This is why first and foremost, I recommend seeing a doctor. 

Doctor speaking with his patient about her sobriety insomnia
get medical support for insomnia in sobriety

I know that’s not very sexy or DIY, but please see your doctor. 

In your consultation, be open about your drinking and sobriety so your doctor can work with you to create the right treatment plan. 

Alcohol abuse and co-occurring sleep disruptions are serious and should be treated.  

Advocate for yourself.

If your doctor seems dismissive or rushed to prescribe you a pill and send you on your way, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions.

Does he have any experience treating patients with histories of alcohol abuse? How familiar is she with sleep disorders? Is there someone they could refer you to?  

If you can book with someone specializing in sleep disorders, do that.

Another option is to consult a mental health specialist, particularly one with experience treating substance abuse and addiction. 

If there are supplements or something you’ve read about and are interested in, bring that to your doctor’s attention. He or she can better inform you of their efficacy and safety.

Don’t just start popping magnesium because an influencer swears by them. 

My sleep troubles improved after taking medication for my anxiety and depression.

Once I found the right dosage, I slept through the night without waking up to use the bathroom or settle from a nightmare for the first time in decades – something I ceased to believe was possible.

Because so many of us who abuse alcohol also struggle with things like anxiety and depression, I HIGHLY recommend getting counseling

Doing the emotional work of recovery has ripple effects throughout your entire life, including your physical health.

You will be amazed by the number of seemingly unrelated things that improve for you once you get support for your mental health. 

Bottom line – let a trusted medical professional help you decide which treatment plan is best for you. 

 

#2. Go easy on the caffeine. 

I love an ice-cold soda and drinking it too late in the day.

For this, I have been rewarded with bedtimes that came about two hours too late, jitters, and anxiety that did not need to be so bad. 

Do not do this. 

When it comes to caffeine consumption, know when to cut yourself off. 

cup of coffee
reduce caffeine intake when struggling with sleep

Some studies say no caffeine after 2 p.m. Others claim giving yourself 4-6 hours before bedtime is sufficient.

Which guideline should you follow? It depends.

What is your sensitivity level to caffeine? The more sensitive you are, the earlier you must cut yourself off to get proper sleep. 

Here’s the thing – I had no idea just how negatively my caffeine consumption was impacting my sleep until I quit drinking Coke every day. No more weird 5 p.m. crashes followed by 7 p.m. second winds that had me up way past my bedtime. 

I felt…stable. 

Even if you can get to sleep okay, are you staying asleep throughout the night? Lifestyle choices (like how much caffeine you consume) impact both. 

Sleep health is absurdly important, and I promise it’s worth skipping that extra cup of coffee or energy drink to be able to lie down and drift off to sleep at a reasonable hour. 

#3. Drink some herbal, non-caffeinated tea at night.* 

*If you’re taking any medication, consult your doctor beforehand to avoid potentially harmful interactions.*

Check the ingredients on any herbal tea you buy, as some things do not play nicely with certain medications. Valerian root, for example, should not be mixed with antidepressants. 

People have been drinking herbal teas at night for hundreds of years. But do they work? 

Depends on your definition of “work.” 

Do the ingredients in herbal and sleepy teas have the ability to make you sleep better? It largely depends on the tea, but not as much as we think. 

That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. 

The ritual of sipping a  warm drink and the calming effect of teas like chamomile can be very helpful. 

My personal favorite is Yogi Stress Relief Kava tea. It helps me relax and slow down, and it tastes good.

Does it knock me out? No. Is it the same as taking a sleeping pill? Also, no. 

It’s soothing and helps me wind down more easily. 

An ENORMOUS word of caution on Kava

I am recommending a very mild tea that contains some Kava extract. This is not Fijian grade, real-deal-Holyfield Kava. It’s not straight Kava root or extract, which has sedative and psychoactive effects. 

To learn more about Kava and why you, as a sober person, should probably avoid the hard stuff, check out this article on kava

man brewing tea on the stove to assist with his insomnia in sobriety
start a soothing nighttime ritual to battle sobriety insomnia

#4. Enjoy some tech-free time before bed. 

Do your nights look like this? 

After dinner, you sit on the couch and watch Netflix while semi-mindlessly scrolling through social media. 

A few hours later, you realize you’d better get to bed. 

You turn off the lights, wash your face, brush your teeth, and hop into bed. Once you’ve settled in, you roll over andddddd pick up your phone to do some last-minute checks. 

Another hour goes by before you attempt to sleep, which takes some doing because, despite the hour, your brain feels very alert. 

What gives?

The bright lights of your screen block the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. That’s the first problem.

Additionally, all that scrolling and responding is overstimulating your brain during a time of day when you should be doing the opposite.  

Even if you have good intentions, when you set your phone beside your bed, every buzz, ding, and ping is like squirting ice water on your meant-to-be-sleeping brain. 

Never mind the fact that sober scrolling can be anxiety-producing. Seeing pictures of friends partying or strolling down the uglier side of memory lane can keep you up even more at night. 

Why do that to yourself?

Sleep is central to your sobriety.

It’s your responsibility to do everything you can to sleep well, which often translates to forgoing guilty pleasures or habits that contribute to your sleep disruptions.

So it is with love that I tell you this.

Log off.

Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and treat yourself to at least an hour of luxurious peace before bed. 

#5. Make your bedroom conducive to sleep. 

This sounds obvious, but many of us do not have bedrooms that promote sleep.

There are too many distractions – technology by our beds, TVs mounted on the wall, work desks, and laptops taunting us from across the room. 

To the greatest extent possible, remove everything that distracts you from sleep. 

Put your desk in another room. Take out the TV. Charge your phone anywhere other than right beside your face. 

Until recently, I thought that slightly sheer curtains were better for me because it was too hard to get up if the room was pitch black.

Then I received the unexpected gift of sleeping in a room with blackout curtains, a breezy ceiling fan, and no baby monitor. 

When I tell you that I woke up the next morning having barely moved an inch! Total disbelief.

I don’t remember if I wept, but I surely wanted to. 

Like, wow! Is this what getting a proper night’s sleep feels like? 

I WANT THAT FOR YOU!

At the very minimum, your room should be dark, cool, and free from distractions. 

Here are some of my must-haves to achieve this:

1. A good pair of blackout curtains

They don’t have to be 100% blackout, but you want them close.

You do not need to invest a ton of money. Amazon has several budget-friendly options. 

2. A fan or noise machine. 

I have slept with a floor fan since high school. The sound is soothing to me, and I appreciate the breeze. 

After my daughter was born, I fell in love with white noise machines. Those suckers work, especially the newer models that repeatedly loop the same sound. 

I am incredibly sensitive to sound patterns.

Once I hear them, they get louder, and I can’t focus on anything else. On the flip side, total silence for my brain is like giving a two-year-old sugar before bed.

Terrible idea. 

White noise machines produce a lovely masking effect for noises and busy brains. 

3. Get some halfway decent bedding. 

It is hard to get good sleep when your pillow feels like a brick, and the fibers on your budget comforter make your skin itch. I have eczema, so this is particularly critical for me.

Your situation may be different. 

It would be GREAT if we could all afford hotel-grade bedding, but that is certainly not my reality.

Still, you should try to get a blanket and pillows that encourage you to snuggle up and stay awhile. Again, you do NOT have to spend much money on high thread-count brands. 

We recently moved into a new apartment after relocating back to the States and had to buy all new everything. Our budget was/is tight. 

I searched high and low for that perfect, luxurious bedding for broke people and landed at Homegoods, where we got one of those bed-in-a-bags for $40. When I tell you, it is the most comfortable bedding I have ever owned in my life!

*Chef’s kiss!

It’s possible, friends.

The more you can make your bedroom (and bed) a soothing, comfortable space, the likelier you will sleep well. 

Fixing your sleep will work wonders for your sobriety. 

Truly. 

Everyone’s situation, drinking history, and health are unique, so I recommend starting with your doctor for chronic sleep issues. 

Lifestyle changes are equally important. Changing your routines and behaviors to accommodate better sleep is 100% worth it. 

I promise you there is nothing happening on Twitter worth sacrificing your physical, mental, and emotional well-being for, which is what we do every time we start playing around with our sleep. 

If you’ve struggled with insomnia in early sobriety for a while, please know that it will not last forever.

I wish I had a special superpower to tell you exactly when and how it will get better for you, but I don’t. Give it time.

Know that you are not alone.

Sleep problems like insomnia are very common in sobriety. The fact that you are here, reading this, and taking it seriously is a major step toward better sleep. 

You will get through this! 

Additional Resources for Early Sobriety:

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist with the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

A woman lies in bed with her hands covering her face. The title reads Insomnia and sobriety: why it happens and how to get relief
insomnia and sobriety PIN

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you, this info is the most useful I’ve found.
    I go to bed at 7 pm fall asleep at 9 wake up at 10 12 1 2 3 and then wake up at 4 am. Can’t sleep. I’m awake 3 hrs before my toddler wakes up. I drink coffee all day. I am willing to cut down. I’m not giving up… it is not an option. I’ve been sober for almost a month. After drinking for about 10 mos, everyday.

  2. I am the State Outreach Director for SMART Recovery USA here in our headquarter state of Ohio. I also lead a number of meeting per week, including tool focus meetings that help our participants understand and utilize our CBT criteria more easily. I often use your articles and tips during my meetings as a welcome change of pace that coiensides with the rational methods of recovery we use in our program.
    Thank you for your insightful articles and I do hope for the opportunity to someday work with you in the future in some capacity.
    P.S.-Thanks for the shout out in your article “Best Recovery Programs of 2021” We really appreciated it!

  3. It’s 12.30am and I’ve just smoked a doobie to help me get to sleep, and I want to cut down (quit?) drinking. I couldn’t have found your article at a better time. Going to bed at 10.30pm and still awake by midnight nearly does my head in, so thank you for keeping me wanting to continue to abstain.

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