I mentioned to a gastroenterologist that I was writing a book about insomnia.
“Alcohol,” he said in response. “If you want to understand insomnia, look at alcohol and coffee.” His assumption that alcohol and coffee are causal factors in insomnia is widely held, and eventually I checked it out.
The story on alcohol and sleep is complicated. About 10 to 14 percent of adults in the United States use alcohol as a sleep aid. While it generally degrades the quality of sleep, the use of alcohol does not predict the development of persistent insomnia, say the authors of a large longitudinal study published in January 2012 in the journal Sleep. But—and here’s the troubling part—twice as many insomniacs become problem drinkers as people who sleep well.
Marilynn’s Story of Sleep and Alcohol
“Insomnia’s been a problem since I was very young,” Marilynn told me in an interview. “Unless the house was totally dark and quiet, I couldn’t sleep.” At her house those conditions were hard to come by. Her parents “always partied on the weekend, and very, very frequently during the week. It was just a noisy house.” The TV was always on, blasting away because her father was deaf in one ear. At parties the booze flowed freely. “In our house the bar was a shrine.”
“I remember my mom having bridge club and somebody letting me taste their creme de menthe,” she said. Marilynn was 9. “So I just helped myself one night when the babysitter was upstairs and I was downstairs at the bar. I remember taking a glass … and filling it with creme de menthe and thinking I was going to be sick to my stomach. But I also remember waking up the next morning and walking into this horrendous mess (from the party) downstairs. And I thought, ‘I slept through this. That stuff helped me sleep.’”
Marilynn dipped into the liquor cabinet occasionally for help in sleeping through the parties and her parents’ loud fights. Then in high school she learned about the dangers of drinking and stopped. But her problem with sleep continued unabated. Several years later she raised the sleep issue with her ob/gyn. “He suggested drinking a glass of red wine at night. He said two would be OK, too. And it worked for quite a while.”
Then she found herself needing to increase the amount. To the wine she added a whiskey chaser. This, too, worked for a while. But by the mid-1990s, her drinking was out of control. She was hiding bottles from her husband and doing strange things at night.
“I wasn’t going to sleep,” Marilynn said. “I was passing out. I didn’t know then that I was also getting up.”
But her husband knew, and he was hiding the evidence. Then one morning Marilynn went down to the kitchen and found barley soup splattered all over the kitchen cupboards.
“’Who made this mess?’” she recalled shrieking at her husband. She had, he told her, and similar things had happened before.
“I had no recollection,” she said. “As far as I was concerned, I had slept through the night.” Around the same time, Marilynn lost her teaching job. She realized then that she had to get help, and she got it through AA. But while she’s given up drinking, her insomnia persists.
“I think it’s kept me very scattered, disorganized and unambitious. It’s been very, very limiting,” she said. “Definitely, absolutely, it’s what led to my problem with alcohol.”
Sleep problems are no trivial matter, as the link between insomnia and the higher rate of alcoholism suggests. If you’re going to imbibe, say the experts, do it early in the evening. But if you’re looking for a sleep aid, you’d be wise to choose something else.