Does alcohol withdrawal cause nightmares?

The effects of alcohol on your body and brain can build up over time. For those who drink regularly because they believe it helps them sleep, stopping the alcohol consumption can make for a lot of sleep disruption, up to and including vivid, unsettling dreams. Does alcohol withdrawal cause nightmares? It’s important to note that nightmares are fairly common and can be caused by stress, excessive tiredness or watching a scary movie. However, alcohol withdrawal can lead to nightmare disorder. Those who suffer from nightmare disorder regularly have frightening dreams in the second half of the night that make it impossible to fall back asleep. Those who suffer from the condition may also try to avoid falling asleep or use alcohol and other drugs to limit REM sleep and avoid constant nightmares.

How Alcohol Disrupts Your Sleep

Many people find that a drink before bed makes them sleepy. As alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, the sleepiness makes sense. However, alcohol is also disruptive to the central nervous system, which means that any sleep you do get after a drink will not be the best quality. Poor quality sleep is not good for the brain long term; sleep is a time of cleansing and healing. The more you drink and the longer the duration, the more damage is done to the brain by the disruption. Quality sleep occurs in four different stages called sleep cycles. Each cycle lasts about two hours. Dreaming generally only occurs in the last stage, or REM sleep. During a normal night of sleep, we experience

  • light sleep, or the initial shut down
  • deeper sleep as the body temperature drops
  • deepest sleep, or slow wave sleep
  • REM sleep, when the body and brain become more active

This cycle takes from 90 minutes to two hours each time. Those who drink alcohol before bed have a shorter session of REM sleep during the first two cycles, but the brain will correct this shortage in the later cycles. Thus someone who drinks to excess may not dream or remember their dreams during the first 3 to 4 hours of sleep, but may have more vivid dreams later in the night. During and after a detox, that suppressed REM sleep time may become more active and generate even more vivid dreams. REM sleep is critical for brain health and for memory fixing.

Long term alcohol abuse can cause a great deal of damage to your ability to build healthy neural pathways, maintain memories, and make cognitive connections. Alcohol can also contribute to obesity and sleep apnea, which can limit the oxygen getting to your brain during the crucial REM time. Sleep apnea, which may or may not include snoring, can also be a trigger for nightmares. Many who suffer from apnea related to drugs, from prescription meds to illicit drugs to alcohol, can suffer nightmares about drowning or being suffocated. The sense of being trapped is also common.

When your brain is not getting oxygen, it sends out danger signals that manifest as nightmares. It’s important to note that there are ways to improve the quality of your sleep by treating the underlying cause of the nightmares. Many people use alcohol as a self medication for depression, anxiety, PTSD and mental illness. Getting treatment for mental illness and mood disorders can limit the risk of intense, frightening dreams. Many who suffer from PTSD struggle regularly with dreams related to the trauma in their past. Therapies such as imagery rehearsal ask the nightmare sufferer to write down the elements of the dream, rewrite it with a positive ending, and fall asleep intending to dream again but face the dream with the new ending in mind.

Should you be struggling to detox on your own, you may have found that the nightmares derailed your plans. The agitation and exhaustion of impending nightmares may have made it impossible to stick with the program. You are not alone and help is available. Nightmares and the dread of them can make falling asleep, which should be a comforting thought and a pleasurable experience, an impossibility. If you are ready to get started, call us today at 833-820-2922.