Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Insomnia?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

Think you have a drinking problem?

If you suspect you might have a drinking problem, don't wait to seek help. Call our hotline now for confidential advice, support, and the first step towards understanding your relationship with alcohol and beginning your journey to recovery.

Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Insomnia?

Alcoholism is a type of substance use disorder that causes the user to feel they cannot control their drinking. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 29 million people 12 and older struggle with alcohol use disorder, or AUD. Many of those users will experience the signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal when they attempt to stop drinking. One of the symptoms they face is insomnia. You can learn more about the connection between alcohol withdrawal and insomnia before you reach out to get the help you need.

The Basics of Alcohol Withdrawal

Many people who struggle with alcohol addiction suffer from withdrawal when they stop drinking. This is more common among heavy drinkers but can affect anyone. Doctors refer to it as alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS. It occurs for the same reason a substance user experiences symptoms when they stop using other substances. The body builds up a resistance to the alcohol, which leads to the person drinking more in the hopes of feeling the effects. As their tolerance grows and they drink more, their body becomes dependent on the alcohol. 

When you stop drinking after having multiple drinks every day, your body and brain do not know how to react. It’s almost like trying to drive your car when it doesn’t have any gas or oil in it. Withdrawal symptoms can start within eight hours or less of having their last drink and continue for the next 72 hours. Some individuals will experience minor symptoms over the next few weeks until they learn how to survive without alcohol. Insomnia is one of those symptoms. 

The problem is that alcoholics often start drinking again as a way to deal with their symptoms. They want to avoid sleep disturbances and other problems, which leads them to reach for a drink. If you suffer from insomnia or any other symptoms because you stopped drinking, help is out there.

Timeline of Symptoms

You can usually divide the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal into those that begin immediately and those that take longer to appear. Some of the early symptoms that occur within six to eight hours include:

  • Uncontrollable shaking or tremors
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Anxiety or racing thoughts
  • Sweating
  • Head pain

Once your body starts adjusting to life without alcohol, you may suffer from seizures or hallucinations. Seizures cause your whole body to shake and are often uncontrollable. They can last for several days. Hallucinations cause you to see and hear people and things that aren’t there. The hallucinations usually last for no longer than one day.

In the next few days, your symptoms can range from fever and heavy sweating to confusion and high blood pressure. An increased heart rate or heart palpitations are also common. Experts often recommend that someone going through alcohol withdrawal do so in a treatment facility where they have doctors and other healthcare professionals ready to help them.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a type of sleep disorder. Acute insomnia is common with alcoholics because they have symptoms that go away on their own. Long-term or chronic insomnia lasts much longer and occurs for months or years. One of the problems with the insomnia that alcoholics experience is that it can go along with their substance use. When you drink too much and try to stop drinking, you may have a hard time calming your racing mind. Also, your brain can feel like it needs alcohol to fall asleep and help you rest.

When caused by alcohol use or during alcohol withdrawal, you experience secondary insomnia, which is trouble sleeping caused by a specific condition. It’s also possible that you might struggle with one or more types of insomnia:

  • Sleep-onset insomnia occurs when you cannot fall asleep
  • Sleep-maintenance insomnia is when you fall asleep but cannot remain asleep, which causes you to wake a few times at night or earlier than you would like
  • Mixed insomnia includes a combination of the above disorders, leading to trouble falling asleep and sleeping through the night
  • Paradoxical insomnia is less common and leaves you feeling like you didn’t get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is important because it gives your body time to rest and recharge. It’s especially important to sleep when you’re going through alcohol withdrawal because you need energy to curb your cravings. A lack of sleep can cause concentration issues and other problems that prevent you from focusing on your recovery. Experts help patients find treatments and solutions that help them get enough sleep while they go through withdrawal.

Alcohol and Insomnia

Alcohol is a type of depressant. Though you might think that having a few drinks will make you the center of attention and the life of the party, it dulls your nervous system and may leave you making choices you wouldn’t normally make. It can also have the opposite effect and cause you to feel tired or worn out. 

You may even drink after a long and stressful day because you think it will help you fall asleep faster. A 2021 study looked at young people who had insomnia and drank. It found no connection between alcohol use and sleep quality. In other words, the majority of participants did not find that drinking helped them fall asleep or remain asleep. Alcohol did not affect their sleep patterns.

Another study found that alcohol may have a negative impact on healthy sleep patterns. The study looked at patients diagnosed with AUD. Researchers talked with participants as they went through withdrawal and monitored their sleeping habits. They found that insomnia was common among those with AUD and that more than 30% of those going through withdrawal also experienced some form of insomnia.

The connection between alcohol use and insomnia may relate to rapid eye movements. In 2022, a team of researchers looked at how drinking affected rats. They created a control group and provided other groups with a specific amount of alcohol every night. The team then monitored the groups to track their sleep habits. Among the groups that consumed higher amounts, they experienced more rapid eye movements at night and were prone to insomnia. 

Though rats and humans are different, rapid eye movements occur in both groups. There’s some research to indicate that heavy drinking causes the brain to keep working, even as you sleep, which causes the movements. This can keep you from getting the right amount of sleep or make you wake up in the middle of the night, which are symptoms of insomnia.

Between 25% and 72% of people who misuse alcohol struggle with one or more sleep disorders. A loss of deep sleep is just one possible problem. Deep sleep is necessary to maintain a healthy life. Using alcohol or going through alcohol withdrawal keeps you from entering a deep sleep cycle or staying in that cycle. You may wake up feeling cranky or irritable because of the poor sleep you got the night before. These are all symptoms of insomnia that occur during the withdrawal phase.

Alcohol Withdrawal Treatments

Learning about the treatments for alcohol withdrawal is a good way to decide your next step. You can choose between home treatment or a hospital stay. The home option is best for those with a strong support system. You need a team you can trust to look after you and keep you safe. Never attempt to withdraw from alcohol on your own. There is always a risk you’ll develop symptoms that require medical intervention. Your loved ones can call 911 if needed.

Going through the process at home involves professional help, too. Consider signing up for some type of 12-step program or a similar option. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs have high success rates. 

Medical Treatment for Withdrawal

When you decide to check in to a treatment facility or go through a hospital program, you have a team that will watch you every night. Doctors can prescribe medications that treat your insomnia and help you go to sleep. Some of the reasons to choose hospitalization include:

  • Constant monitoring: The team in charge of your case monitors you 24/7. You can turn to them for help with insomnia and any other symptoms you have.
  • IV fluids: In a hospital setting, you have the option of IV fluids. In addition to insomnia, you may find it hard to eat and drink when you withdraw from alcohol because of your nausea. IV fluids ensure you stay hydrated.
  • Prescription medications: Your doctor may prescribe one or more medications to lessen your symptoms. Xanax and Ativan are some of the common medications used. Some patients also benefit from vitamins to replace the valuable nutrients they lost.

No matter which option you choose, getting help during withdrawal is important. Insomnia and other types of sleep disturbances increase your risk of relapsing later. Insomnia can make you feel anxious and irritable or cause other emotions because it prevents you from getting the sleep you need. This can lead to stress and cause you to reach for alcohol to escape your emotions. Do not hesitate to reach out if you or someone in your life needs help with alcohol withdrawal.

Improve Your Sleep

While insomnia often happens during alcohol withdrawal, it can continue long after your other symptoms cease. Getting a healthy amount of sleep helps you conquer your addiction and live a life without alcohol weighing you down. Whether you complete withdrawal at home or with help from a medical team, there are things you can do to improve your sleep and ensure you get the right amount:

Follow a Sleep Schedule

Instead of staying up late and sleeping in on the weekends, follow the same schedule every night. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, whether it’s a weekday or weekend day. This helps your body develop a rhythm. 

Try Melatonin

Melatonin supplements increase your body’s production of the hormone that helps you sleep. A recent study tested participants with AUD and asked them to take melatonin every night. Not only did more than 70% abstain from alcohol, but they also experienced fewer bouts of insomnia.

Relax at Night

Take some time to relax later in the day and also when the time gets close to bedtime. Take a long bath, practice yoga or do other simple activities that keep you calm.

Build a Peaceful Bedroom

A peaceful bedroom creates the perfect environment for getting healthy sleep. You may want to invest in a new mattress that supports your body and buy some new bedding.

Use Natural Remedies

Natural remedies like vitamins and supplements may help. They include L-theanine and Valerian root, both of which help you relax, battle stress and fall asleep easier.

Change Your Bedroom

If you use your bedroom as a home office or an extra living room, your brain has a hard time distinguishing between the activities you do in it, which makes sleeping difficult. Limit what you do in your bedroom to nighttime activities only even if it means getting rid of your TV.

Going through alcohol withdrawal lets you start recovery off on the right foot. You may have some problems with insomnia in the early days, but your sleeping problems can persist as you adjust to life without alcohol. Don’t assume you need to go through withdrawal and recovery on your own because help is out there. If you’re ready to withdraw from alcohol safely and need help battling insomnia and other symptoms, reach out to our AlcoholAwareness.org team today.

Concerned About Your Drinking?

We Can Help!

Understanding your relationship with alcohol is the first step towards making informed decisions about your health and well-being. Whether you’re questioning your drinking habits or seeking support, we’re here to help.