The woman sitting before me is explaining how her sleep problems began nearly 30 years ago, when she was at university.
For years, she was plagued with insomnia. She would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, counting down the hours until she’d be able to get up. Later, her constant tossing and turning drove her husband mad. She was convinced that the strain caused by her sleep problems contributed to their divorce.
Often, she was so exhausted that she’d find herself dozing off at her desk. Once, in a meeting with a client, she started snoring. But, she tells me, she stumbled across a solution and now her sleep is fine. Sort of. She’s not seeing me because of her sleep issues although clearly this is where the origin of her present problem lies. She is in an alcohol detox clinic, after her GP did routine blood tests and found her liver was on the brink of failure. In an attempt to tackle her insomnia, she was, in effect, slowly killing herself with alcohol.
Over the years her tolerance for alcohol increased to the point where she drank at least a bottle of wine a night - sometimes two - just to doze off. And she is far from alone in her experience. When I worked in drugs and alcohol services, I’d see lots of people who were using alcohol to self-medicate a sleeping problem.
A study this week uncovered this hidden epidemic, finding that a quarter of us regularly use alcohol to get to sleep. That’s an astonishing number. One in four people are, effectively, self-medicating with booze in order to drop off. What’s more worrying is that the numbers are rising. Just four years ago, it was 15 per cent or us
What’s happening? I think part of the reason for this is the rise in smartphones. We know the screens of many electronic devices emit blue light, which significantly alters people’s sleeping patterns and can make it far harder to drop off when you have been exposed to it shortly before bed. This is because the blue light mimics natural sunlight and tricks the brain into thinking that it’s actually day time.
What’s worse, if you’re lying in bed sleepless, the answer is often to reach for a smartphone, tablet or laptop to stave off boredom, which compounds the problem. The Information Age means people are also expected to be contactable all the time, even when they are not physically at work, so many of us check our emails right up until the moment we go to bed and keep our phones next to us so we never really relax or switch off. No wonder an alcohol-induced slumber can be tempting, especially if you’re struggling with insomnia.
However, the sad fact is that it actually makes things worse in the long run. While alcohol undoubtedly has the ability to knock out even the most hardened insomniac, it doesn’t allow the body to go through a full sleep cycle with the result that drink-fuelled sleep is not properly refreshing. People who routinely use alcohol to sleep report feeling groggy in the morning.
This is not simply a hangover, but the result of the brain not having rested properly.
And then there is another particularly pernicious effect involving depression. I’ve seen many people resort to alcohol as a way of self-medicating their depression although, despite any initial mood lift, alcohol is itself a depressant.
It means that, in the long run, using alcohol as a crutch can trigger a downward spiral. What’s more, one symptom of depression can be difficulty sleeping, so sufferers start using alcohol to help them sleep, too. This makes their mood worse, so they drink more to try to numb themselves and the situation deteriorates further. I believe there is a whole sub-set of alcoholics who have fallen into using alcohol because they haven’t had their insomnia or depression properly managed and so, in desperation, they self-medicate.
Finding the root of the issue, seeing a sleep specialist and getting on top of the insomnia without alcohol is the only solution. Alcohol only stores up more problems further down the line.
© Daily Mail