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?
Alcohol makes you “pass out” but that doesn’t mean you’re getting quality sleep.
It disrupts your natural sleep rhythms. You may be unconscious, but that doesn’t mean your body is properly at rest.
According to the Sleep Foundation, “Drinking alcohol before bed can add to the suppression of REM sleep during the first two (sleep) cycles.”
The end result is spending 10 hours in bed, but feeling like you haven’t slept a wink.
Incredibly smart human beings have been studying the relationship between alcohol and sleep for decades and what they’ve found is 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.
Tips for managing insomnia in sobriety.
#1. Talk to your doctor about your sleep problems.
I’ve had so many problems with sleep disruption and insomnia 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 own 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 did make me feel groggy and mentally out of it for the entire next day. Zero benefits.
I consulted Dr. Google and thought I could sort it out on my own by piecing together various sleep tips across the internet, but I was wrong.
The sleep troubles continued – the side effects of which I am still trying to heal from.
This is why first and foremost, I recommend seeing a doctor.
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 that 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 as such.
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’re able to book with someone who specializes 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 when I started 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 as well.
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 are getting 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 I especially love drinking it much too late in the day.
For this, I have been rewarded with bedtimes that came about two hours too late, jitters, and anxiety that, frankly, did not need to be so bad.
Do not do this.
When it comes to caffeine consumption, know when to cut yourself off.
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 need to 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.
Even if you’re able to get to sleep okay, are you also staying asleep throughout the night? Lifestyle choices (like how much caffeine you consume) impact both of these.
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 actually 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 generally speaking, not as much as we think.
BUT, 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, plus it tastes really good by itself.
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, click here.
#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 actually attempt to go to sleep, which takes some doing because, despite the hour, your brain feels very alert.
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 over-stimulating 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 part of memory lane can keep you up at night even more.
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.
Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and treat yourself to at least an hour of luxurious peace and quiet 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 literally anywhere other than right beside your face.
Until recently, I always 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.
Bayyyy-byyyyyy 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! This is 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-have’s in order to achieve this:
1. A good pair of blackout curtains.
They don’t have to be 100% blackout, but you want them pretty darn close.
You do not need to invest a ton of money. Amazon has several options that are budget-friendly.
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 really do work, especially the newer models that don’t loop the exact same sound over and over.
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.
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 make an effort to get a blanket and pillows that encourage you to snuggle up and stay awhile. Again, you do NOT have to spend a ton of 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 managed to get 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!
It’s possible, friends.
The more you can make your bedroom (and bed) a soothing, comfortable space, the likelier you will sleep well in it.
Fixing your sleep will work wonders for your sobriety.
Everyone’s situation, drinking history, and health is unique, which is why for chronic sleep issues, I recommend starting with your doctor.
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 wellbeing for, which is what we do every time we start playing around with our sleep.
If you’ve been struggling for a while with insomnia in early sobriety, please know that it will not last forever.
I wish I had a special superpower that could 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, taking it seriously is a major step forward on the path to better sleep.
You will get through this!