Insomnia, self-medication, and relapse to alcoholism

Am J Psychiatry. 2001 Mar;158(3):399-404. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.158.3.399.


Objective: This study was an investigation of the frequencies of insomnia and its self-medication with alcohol in a group of alcoholic patients, as well as the relationship of these variables to alcoholic relapse.

Method: The subjects were 172 men and women receiving treatment for alcohol dependence. They completed a sleep questionnaire, measures of alcohol problem severity and depression severity, and polysomnography after at least 2 weeks of abstinence.

Results: On the basis of eight items from the Sleep Disorders Questionnaire, 61% of the subjects were classified as having symptomatic insomnia during the 6 months before treatment entry. Compared to patients without insomnia, patients with insomnia were more likely to report frequent alcohol use for sleep (55% versus 28%), had significantly worse polysomnographic measures of sleep continuity, and had more severe alcohol dependence and depression. Among 74 alcoholics who were followed a mean of 5 months after treatment, 60% with baseline insomnia versus 30% without baseline insomnia relapsed to any use of alcohol, a significant difference. Insomnia remained a robust predictor of relapse after application of logistic regression analysis to control for other variables. A history of self-medicating insomnia with alcohol did not significantly predict subsequent relapse.

Conclusions: The majority of alcoholic patients entering treatment reported insomnia symptoms. Given the potential link between insomnia and relapse, routine questions about sleep in clinical and research settings are warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Alcoholism / diagnosis
  • Alcoholism / epidemiology*
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Chronic Disease
  • Comorbidity
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Ethanol / therapeutic use
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polysomnography / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales / statistics & numerical data
  • Recurrence
  • Regression Analysis
  • Self Medication*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / epidemiology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Ethanol