Stopped drinking - when does sleep return to normal?
November 24, 2014 11:39 PM   Subscribe

For 15+ years I've been a daily drinker. I quit several days ago, and my sleep has been horrendous. When, if ever, does it return to normal?

I drank for a lot of reasons, and one of them was to fall asleep. Just knocked myself out every night. But I quit four days ago, and while I feel great otherwise, the sleep has been terrible. It takes me forever to fall asleep and when I do, I dream the whole time, hear strains of voices and conversations, and even though I know I'm falling asleep in spells, it feels like the night is happening in real time.

(I know I'm falling asleep because I used to have some lucid experiences, and I use that trick where you find some written text, read it, look away and then look back. If the words have changed, you're dreaming.)

What I'd like to know is typically how long before my mind and body get back to a healthy sleep pattern. I know I've trained them to rely on the drinks to get through the night, but now that those are not there, how long should I hang in there before I can expect to lay down, fall asleep, and wake up refreshed?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
First off, good on ya.

Second off, if you've been drinking daily for this long, quitting cold turkey can be a dangerous game. Alcohol is one of the few drugs whose withdrawal symptoms can be fatal. Heavy drinkers (you aren't really clear about how heavy, but knocking yourself out sounds reasonably heavy) are typically advised to get some medical supervision when they try to quit, and for good reason.

The handful of times I tried to stop without such supervision, I too had a great deal of difficulty doing several normal activities, including eating and sleeping (I also had hallucinated encounters/conversations that seemed simultaneously dead real and dreamlike, if that makes sense). When I'd quit, I'd be sick/shaky/ansty/sleepless as hell for about 24 hours, then feel great, and then -- at about 36 - 48 hours -- have hallucinations and seizures. My guess would be that you've passed that general window, and should be able to return to a (relatively) normal sleep schedule within the next few days.

But I'm no doctor, and that's kind of what I'm driving at, here...

Heavy drinking really does a number on your nervous system, and your system in general; there's a degree of organ damage, there's nutrient imbalances, and there's definitely a period where the brain/body readjusts and regains its bearings. As a non-doctor, I'd strongly advise you to consult someone who is one. Especially if you eventually need to quit again. At the very least, they can help stabilize your functions and give you plenty of calming, sleep-inducing chemicals!
posted by credible hulk at 12:26 AM on November 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Generally, I've heard it takes between two weeks and a month before it starts returning. A friend said he had to "learn" how to go to sleep again. That there is a lot to sleep hygiene – from pre-bedtime rituals, to the rhythm of the body itself.

Another friend said that one of the keys is switching off the mental chatter. She said that the difference of sleeping whilst drinking versus sleeping sober, was that her mind raced when she was sober. It never settled down naturally, hence, taking a drink quieted it down.

In both cases, they said it was the stuff that they did way before bedtime that made the difference. He needed four hours after work to relax and rest. If he stopped at 6pm, he fell asleep at 10pm. If he stopped at 10pm, he fell asleep at 2am. When drinking, he didn't have that window because he would work work work – have a brandy – and go to sleep within 30 minutes.

She found that it had to do with getting up at the same time each day, and getting into bed at the same time each day. Something that she didn't do when she was out on the piss. Some nights she was in at 9pm. Some nights she was in at 2am. She also had an erratic waking schedule. Her mind was always running. She always felt there were things she had to do. Drinking took the edge of that thinking and allowed her to go to sleep, regardless of what time it was.

In both their cases, the first month was a bit rough, but they sorted it out pretty quickly. And they're both back to drinking, but they each drink a lot less, both less in volume and less in number of days / week.
posted by nickrussell at 4:48 AM on November 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

This won't last very long. Probably about 7-10 days. Do not be discouraged.
posted by thelonius at 5:18 AM on November 25, 2014

It's a variable and individual time frame. I hope you have someone or some people around you or who call you a few times a day at the very least. That you are writing so lucidly at day 4 is a big positive.

But you've been caning your body. You need to stay hydrated, eat nutritional balanced meals and, maybe in a few days when the fog clears properly, you can start getting a bit of walking exercise. In other words, treating yourself well puts you on track to return to a healthy sleep pattern. You might consider seeing a GP for a general check up and maybe a vitamin B injection. But be nice to yourself above all.
posted by peacay at 5:23 AM on November 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

peacay nailed many of the essentials--there are also some very safe prescription drugs that can help with sleep--note help, not make you sleep. If the problem persists you might consult a physician and ask for a prescription for trazodone, remeron, low dose seroquel, topomax, etc. Before people start telling you their horrible experience with some of these I am only suggesting as a sleep aide, at an appropriate dose and not as a regular on going therapeutic agent. These are non addictive and no tolerance. If the choice is between starting to drink to help sleep and the short term use of these I can almost absolutely promise you they are much safer. Good luck yeah IANAD
posted by rmhsinc at 6:03 AM on November 25, 2014

Be patient, this too shall pass.
Taking sleep-related medications won't help the issue of "your body relies on chemicals to fall asleep", but if you're feeling frustrated enough with the sleep that you're starting to regret giving up the drink, then it's better to switch to a medication that's all about sleep instead of medicating with alcohol that's got its' own fleet of issues. Make sure you have a box of otc stuff (benadryl is a fine start!) in the bathroom cabinet that you can fall back on if you have a crisis of being willing to do anything (incl drink) to get to sleep.
posted by aimedwander at 6:44 AM on November 25, 2014

I have trouble dropping off to sleep on a regular basis. There are two tricks I use that help: (1) remind myself that lying there resting is good, even if I don't fall asleep. This helps with the anxiety-spiral over not being able to fall asleep. (2) Listen to the noises around me and the layer of noises underneath those noises. This isn't listening intensely, with a lot of focus, it's more just becoming aware that I am hearing things and letting sound come and go. You'll forget what you were doing and start thinking and that's no big deal, just come back to the listening when you realize what has happened.
posted by CMcG at 6:50 AM on November 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I find that melatonin helps. Also valerian tea, or kava tea. I know people who have had success with magnesium as well. Good luck, and major kudos to you for quitting right before the holidays!
posted by hippychick at 7:12 AM on November 25, 2014

If you can, take a few days off of work so you don't have any pressure to fall asleep at a particular time. Find something to occupy your mind. Get a nice audiobook -- ideally on a topic you're interested in, but not too exciting -- a history book, maybe, or a biography. Turn out the lights and just listen to it without making any particular effort to go to sleep. Just enjoy the book-- you'll probably still eventually drift off.

You can try taking 50mg (no more!) of Benedryl to help go to sleep, but don't do that for more than a few days in a row.

I'd say it'll probably take you a week or so to get back into a normal sleep schedule. It can be one of those 'Don't think of an elephant' things where focusing on it just makes it harder.
posted by empath at 7:18 AM on November 25, 2014

If it's your pre-bed ritual (of drinking) that you miss, it could help to swap in some herbal tea (hot or iced) for alcohol and keep the rest of the ritual the same. Valerian tea, especially Celestial Seasoning's Tension Tamer, works really well. Add a sleep aid or melatonin to the mix if you still need a hand.

Also, are you exercising very much? It could be good to step that up--even if you're just taking standing breaks at work and doing squats here and there. Your best best bet might be to just knock yourself out from pure exhaustion.
posted by magdalemon at 7:28 AM on November 25, 2014

You probably don't need a B-vitamin injection, but you should be taking a B-complex pill that includes a lot of thiamine (Wikipedia,
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:45 AM on November 25, 2014

I did much the same thing about 20 years ago. As I dimly recall, it was about two weeks before I began to get normal sleep with occasional random bad nights, and maybe about a month for those to go away.

I agree with everyone else on the importance of keeping hydrated and eating well.

Hang in there!

(If you feel like sharing, I'd love to hear why you decided to quit. I have my own peculiar story about how it came to pass for me, and something about your question makes me wonder if it was the same for you. MeMail me if you like).
posted by doctor tough love at 8:02 AM on November 25, 2014

Around two weeks is typical. If you're like me, you'll start to put together a couple of hours at a time by your first week, then slowly work your way up to regular sleep after. You will also note a real increase in the quality of your sleep. Seriously; waking up feels so much better than coming to.
posted by Gilbert at 8:23 AM on November 25, 2014

I urge you to try yoga, meditation or other non-medicine-type ways to deal with the stress of your day as you reteach your body to fall asleep naturally without alcohol. It took me between 2 and 4 weeks to do it successfully. As others have said, one needs a different way to "wind down" after one's day and yoga was a huge help for me.
posted by Lynsey at 10:57 AM on November 25, 2014

I have read it can take a few days to months, but generally just a couple of weeks. Each nitght will get easier. Take tyrosine and trypthophan, they are nuerotransmittor pre-cursors and will help bring your brain chemistry back to normal. Your Dopamine pathway is likely going to take a while to adjust to living without alcohol. Also, cut sugar and wheat (processed carbs), and eat more vegetables, animal fat and protein (grass fed if possible). Saturated fat is the best brain food. I guarantee you will feel as good as new in no time, but the key is to stick with it. Congratulations!
posted by waving at 11:26 AM on November 25, 2014

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