Alcoholics should discuss and address sleep issues as part of recovery.
The first few months of recovery from an alcohol problem are hard enough. But they’re often made worse by serious sleep problems, caused by the loss of alcohol’s sedative effects, and the long-term sleep-disrupting impact that alcohol dependence can have on the brain.
Additionally, many alcoholics have obstructive sleep apnea where the brain wakes up hundreds of times a night due to closing of the airway passages. Typically indicated by heavy, grunting or sudden snores.
Now, a new study gives further evidence that insomnia and other sleep woes may actually get in the way of recovery from alcohol problems. In fact, a person’s perception of how bad their sleep problems are may be just as important as the actual sleep problems themselves, the study suggests.
The study is published in the new issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, by a team from the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry. They report the results of a small but thorough evaluation of sleep, sleep perception and alcohol relapse among 18 men and women with insomnia who were in the early stages of alcohol recovery.
The authors say their results show how important it is for alcohol recovery patients, and those who are helping them through their recovery, to discuss sleep disturbances and seek help. Often, sleep isn’t discussed in alcohol recovery programs – but, they stress, it should be.
“What we found is that those patients who had the biggest disconnect between their perception of how they slept and their actual sleep patterns were most likely to relapse,” says lead author Dr Deirdre Conroy, “This suggests that long-term drinking causes something to happen in the brain that interferes with both sleep and perception of sleep. If sleep problems aren’t addressed, the risk of relapse may be high.”
“We are now interested in what brain mechanisms are involved in the disrupted sleep of alcohol-dependent individuals,” says Dr Brower, who has previously led studies illustrating the prevalence of sleep disorders among people with alcohol dependence and abuse issues, and their correlation with relapse back into drinking.
The volunteers spent two separate nights in the sleep-monitoring area wearing electrodes on their head and body that measured their brain waves during sleep, as well as their breathing, muscle activity and heart rhythm. The detailed measurements, which together make up a procedure called polysomnography, allowed the researchers to determine when the volunteers were sleeping, when they were awake, and which stage of sleep they were in.
These sleep data were compared with the participants’ answers on morning evaluations of how they slept – including how long they thought it took them to fall asleep, how long they were awake in the night, and other measures. The two nights of sleep monitoring were done several weeks apart. The researchers also asked the participants to report any alcohol they drank during the six weeks following each sleep test.
Conroy explains that poor sleep quality can lead to mood disturbances. “If recovering alcoholics are irritable because they are not getting quality sleep at night, they might be more vulnerable to return to drinking,” she says. “Previous studies show that non-alcoholics with insomnia actually think they are sleeping worse than they are, so they may be more likely to seek appropriate treatment.
Our study shows that an alcoholic in early recovery has a lot of wakefulness in the night but they are not necessarily picking up on this.
Recovering alcoholics should discuss these sleep problems with their doctor.