When I talk to individuals who are struggling with sleep, many of them will mention using alcohol as a sleep aid. They tell me that when they have a few drinks they find it easier to fall asleep, that alcohol quiets their racing mind and helps them relax.
Unfortunately, alcohol has been shown to disrupt sleep. Studies have found that alcohol harms our sleep cycle, making it difficult (if not impossible) to enter the deep sleep (REM) stage. It can also increase sleep apnea, which comes with its own set of health risks.
As with sleeping pills, it is also possible to build up a tolerance and an addiction to alcohol. This results in a vicious cycle of increased alcohol consumption and less sleep.
When looking to treat sleep issues it's best to avoid using alcohol as a sleep aid in the first place. A far better alternative is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of insomnia (CBT-i).
CBT-i is recognized as the best long-term treatment for insomnia. It works by addressing the root causes of most cases of insomnia. These are usually incorrect thoughts and behaviors toward sleep. CBT-i is also referred to as 'talking therapy,' since it helps you deal with negative thoughts and feelings and adopt positive changes. However, there is far more to CBT-i than just 'talking.’
Generally speaking, most CBT-i programs will:
Teach you basic facts about sleep (how much you need, what insomnia really is)
Teach you lifestyle habits and relaxation techniques to improve your sleep
Give you an objective look at the quality of your sleep
Help you develop a suitable sleep schedule
Change the way you think about sleep
A recent study found that even after four weeks of sobriety, insomnia symptoms can linger. CBT-i was still recommended as the treatment of choice since it comes with long-lasting benefits that do not harm drinking outcomes. Although medication can work more quickly to improve insomnia symptoms, it will often only work for as long as it is taken.
Treatments normally take place over a series of one-hour sessions. In each session you will be given clear solutions to the problems that are disrupting your sleep and you will be given clear goals. You will also record and receive feedback on your sleep routine.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a scientific method that does not require sleeping pills. However, it does require commitment and dedication. If you currently rely on alcohol to help you sleep, CBT-i combined with sobriety can improve insomnia symptoms – but it can take time.
If you feel as though you depend on alcohol for sleep, you should speak to your doctor. It is possible to end your reliance on alcohol as a sleep aid. It just takes time and persistence.
Brower, Kirk J. "Assessment and treatment of insomnia in adult patients with alcohol use disorders." Alcohol. January 7, 2015. Accessed April 06, 2016.
Guo, Rong, Steve M. Simasko, and Heiko T. Jansen. "Chronic Alcohol Consumption in Rats Leads to Desynchrony in Diurnal Rhythms and Molecular Clocks." Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. February 4, 2016. Accessed April 06, 2016.
Park, Soon-Yeob, et.al. "The Effects of Alcohol on Quality of Sleep." Korean Journal of Family Medicine. November 20, 2015. Accessed April 06, 2016.