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How to Sleep Without Alcohol

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Drinking alcohol is often seen as something to do to let loose and enjoy oneself in the context of a party, bar, or other social scenario. Perhaps the strangest thing about alcohol as a substance is the fact that it is a substance that is dubbed a “social lubricant” and can make people active while simultaneously being consumed as a way to “wind down”.

The history of the word “nightcap” in regard to alcohol dates back at least to the 1800s and has persisted in the public consciousness since then. Many people return home from work and have a glass or two of wine as a way to unwind in the evening before bed. Humans are creatures of habit and when it comes to sleep, even more so. It can be difficult to divorce oneself from the habit of consuming alcohol to aid in falling asleep—especially for those in recovery from an alcohol use disorder. In this post, we’ll cover ways to help you learn how to sleep without alcohol, as well as position yourself for quality sleep and examine why alcohol is not the sleep aid it is thought to be.

Does Alcohol Help You Sleep Better?

In large part, the misunderstanding with alcohol and sleep stems from the fact that alcohol can make people feel drowsy or relaxed enough to fall asleep. In individuals who are consuming above the guidelines for a standard drink and becoming intoxicated, “sleep” may come even easier.

The catch is that while alcohol makes it easier to fall asleep, research shows that the quality of sleep is worse. This study performed by Stein and Friedmann reviews the association between disturbed sleep and alcohol use. They state that an estimated 10 million people speak to a healthcare professional about disturbed sleep and sleep disorders. The conclusion of the study found that in low to moderate doses, alcohol promotes the onset of sleep but also disturbs the physiology of sleep even for those who do not meet the diagnostic requirements for an alcohol use disorder. This is due to there being an observable reduction in REM sleep (rapid eye movement).

Another research study by Conroy and Arnedt on the effects of alcohol and sleep, reports that an important disruption of alcohol on sleep physiology is the reduction of melatonin production. Melatonin is a key hormone to circadian rhythm output.

So, does alcohol help you sleep better? The answer is no. While there are many dose dependent relationships at play with alcohol, overall, it is safe to say that alcohol disrupts optimal sleep physiology despite the role that alcohol may play in decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

How to Sleep Without Alcohol While in Recovery

It goes without saying that alcohol can be an addictive substance. It can also be said that the need and wish to sleep is so necessary and powerful that people often become addicted to the very things meant to aid their sleep, with alcohol or prescription drugs such as Ambien being a great example.

The early stages of recovery can be a precarious time rife with the cravings and the temptation to relapse. Experiencing insomnia is already difficult for someone who does not have a substance use disorder and is even more difficult for those who do. Insomnia itself can be a symptom of withdrawal and sleep disturbances during early recovery are linked to relapse. To place yourself in the best position to enter, and stay in recovery, getting sleep is fundamental.

Outlined below are a few basic steps for healthy sleep hygiene which don’t involve alcohol. While this generalized advice can help, it is always recommended to speak to a licensed medical professional in regard to any sleep challenges that you may experience.

1 – Develop a Relaxing Bedtime Routine

If you want to learn how to sleep without alcohol, examining your bedtime routine is perhaps the most important first step. Drinking alcohol used to be your bedtime routine. As we’ve established, that option is detrimental to your health and sleep quality. While many people attribute their ability to fall asleep to that nightcap, it may in fact be in part because of the routine itself.

Habits are powerful, and developing a bedtime routine such as reading, doing stretches, or even something as simple as brewing a non-caffeinated tea before bed can help signal to your body and brain that it’s time to sleep soon. Finding a routine that is right for you will be highly personal. Some individuals may find reading to be relaxing while others may find it stimulating. Try to find activities and processes to include in a routine that are a balance between being interesting and enjoyable, so that you will look forward to them, but not too stimulating.

2 – Don’t Rely on an Alternate Substance to Sleep

While we can make exceptions for a warm tea or a glass of milk, it’s imperative that you don’t replace one addiction with another. It may seem unlikely, but insomnia can be one of the most frustrating experiences and can and does drive people to rely on substances even when they shouldn’t. This includes over the counter medications, prescription drugs that have addictive properties, or other consumable products like CBD, or cannabis.

3 – Plan Your Day So You Don’t Suffer at Night

This advice isn’t simply limited to insomniacs or those in recovery from drug and/or alcohol use, it can be a great maxim for anyone. We’ve mentioned in point 1 about developing a routine at night to help get to bed, but what about the day?

There are many reasons that insomnia or disturbed sleep can be a problem. They range from the physiological to the emotional. Many people in recovery may suffer from sleep deprivation but not necessarily insomnia. Lack of consistency in a sleep schedule or overall sleep deprivation is also very common, and can persist even into later stages of recovery, beyond the initial withdrawal period.  

Keep yourself busy. Not only does this translate to a more productive life, but you’ll likely spend less time at night seeking out gratification because your day feels unfulfilled. Here are a few ways you can keep yourself busy during the day:

  • Engage in “NEAT” (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). That’s a fancy way of saying do things that get your body moving that are separate from planned exercise. Things like gardening, walking, cleaning your home or room, or anything else that gets you casually moving about.
  • Find a hobby or try many different hobbies to explore your interests. Finding something you truly enjoy doing has tremendous benefits on your mental health. It’s also a great place to direct your mental energies that may otherwise be spent unproductively at night ruminating or worrying.
  • Engage with a support group or friends. Support groups are heralded as one of the most powerful ways to prevent relapse and ward off negative mental health states. Going to additional support groups such as AA, NA, or other structured groups intended to foster relationships and solidarity are great to plan your days around outside of treatment.
  • Keep a sobriety journal. A sober journal—or even just a regular journal has been a timeless way to gather one’s thoughts and organize them by putting them to paper. Journaling has been shown to manage anxiety, reduce stress, and help cope with depression.

These are just a few of the many ways you can keep yourself busy during the day in a productive manner.

4 – Exercise

Apart from being good for our health, exercise—especially moderate aerobic exercise can be very helpful in discharging our energy and frustrations through a productive outlet.

This widely cited study examines the impact of aerobic exercise on sleep quality and latency. The results? The physical activity group showed improvements in sleep quality, latency, duration, as well as had reductions in depressive symptoms.

Learn How to Sleep Without Alcohol With Encore Outpatient Services

Early recovery can be a difficult time, because trying to get and stay clean can be very challenging. It is our mission at Encore Outpatient Services to help individuals learn skills like how to sleep without alcohol to navigate living a life in recovery and improve their lives.

Sleep is not a want; it is a need for all. Getting quality sleep is an important element in relapse prevention. Just as important is having access to professional addiction treatment programs. Contact Encore Outpatient Services today to learn more about our programs or if you have questions about admissions.

Suffering is hard

Getting help shouldn’t be.

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