After a heavy few months of drinking — thanks 2016 — I decided to quit alcohol cold turkey for the first time, and attempt “Dry January.” Never again.
Lots of people give it a go when the new year rolls around to exercise their self-control, or perhaps start the year with a health kick. For me, it was that my tolerance had become worryingly high over December, and it was getting expensive.
But I was looking forward to some of the supposed health benefits too. I’d heard that a detox from booze could make my skin better, increase my energy levels, and even improve my sleep.
None of this happened. In fact, I’d say this month I’m poorer than every month before last year, and I have just as many zits as usual. I’ve also had the worst sleep of my life. Which made me wonder…Was I the only person who’d experienced something like this after trying a Dry January? Was there something wrong with me?
For me, giving up drinking wasn’t the hard part of Dry January. After Christmas, I was having a tight month budget-wise, so going out and spending money every weekend wasn’t really an option. It was the lack of sleep that made me question everything, especially since sleeping is one of my favourite activities.
In January, I didn’t make any changes to my diet. I did, however, make it to about one extra exercise class a week thanks to all my new free time. At bedtime, I felt just as tired and ready for sleep as usual. But actually falling to sleep became a real chore almost immediately.
I don’t know when the insomnia started exactly, but it was definitely early on in January, and since that point, I’d toss and turn for what felt like hours. My brain would be buzzing, with thoughts whizzing around, and I’d be unable to relax. It wasn’t like I was particularly alert either; I’d be exhausted but unable to shut off the space behind my eyes.
Sleep hasn’t been a problem for me for years either. I used to struggle when I was a teenager, but taking better care of myself and exercising more sorted it out.
Some physicians I spoke with suggested that the real reason for my disturbed sleep was that I was experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. I don’t normally drink that much during the week, if at all, which is why this diagnosis was surprising. Could I really have had so much to drink over Christmas that I’d upset the balance in my body?
An addiction expert I spoke to who has an Msc in addiction studies and is a drug and alcohol recovery worker suggested my body was getting used to falling asleep naturally — without the relaxing state brought about with a drink — but she also suggested that for that to be happening, I would likely have to have developed alcohol dependency.
In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can cause insomnia and other sleep problems. Studies suggest that difficulty sleeping may be part of the vastly more complex and multi-faceted picture of why someone who’s become addicted to alcohol may be unable to stop, even after successful periods of sobriety. According to one article in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, insomnia can have a significant impact on a patient’s cognition, mood, and ability to participate in alcohol treatment.
It has also been suggested that whenever we get hangovers, this is actually mild withdrawal. This study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine puts forward the theory that hangovers as a milder form of withdrawal, called acute withdrawal, with symptoms that many of us are all too familiar with including headache, nausea, fatigue, sometimes along with anxiety, guilt, and depression.
Omitting the possibility that I have an alcohol problem, another possibility is that drinking may have been helping out my body clock. I’ve always been a night owl and I find getting up in the morning immensely difficult regardless of how much sleep I’ve had. It’s also possible that alcohol played a part in helping my brain relax, when it wanted to be at its most alert at night-time.
Many studies have shown that people can be divided into morning people and night people, or larks and owls. It’s not a myth. If you prefer to get up at the crack of dawn, or stay up until the early hours, it’s probably because you’re wired that way.
One study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine saw subjects categorized into morning, intermediate, and evening chronotypes, and found that people who were described as night owls tended to have more irregular sleep-wake schedules than those who weren’t. So maybe I was self-medicating without really knowing it.
Whatever the cause, I’d had enough. During the last weekend of January I packed it in and had a few glasses of wine. Needless to say I then had best night’s sleep I’d had in weeks.
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