Going Sober For a Month Gave Me Nightmares

The side effect isn't uncommon among people who've recently quit drinking.

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Jan 25 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Marcel / Stocksy

Gasping for breath, legs aching, I tear down a hallway, barreling left around a corner only to skid to a halt.

Fuck—dead end.

I pause to collect myself and formulate a plan. Okay, I can hide. Or, no, maybe I should just turn around.

But the thought comes too late. When I look over my shoulder, my attacker's massive frame is already darkening the entryway. As moonlight glances off the jagged blade in his hand, I do the only thing left I can think of: I scream. And then I shoot upright, scrabble for my phone, punch the home button to awaken the calming backlit glow—2:33 am, Sunday, January 8—and crumple into my pillow. What the hell?

I'm generally not a person who remembers my dreams, but this was the third vivid, violent, and kind of bizarre nightmare I'd had in the last week. (The first I can only describe as Jurassic Park with serial killers instead of dinos; in another, my cat went full Cujo.) But I hadn't been watching any scary movies, and I wasn't feeling particularly anxious (or more anxious than usual). The only thing that was different, I realized eventually, is that I had decided to quit drinking for the month of January.

"Oh, yeah," a friend of mine, now sober for about two years, muttered around a mouthful of tacos a few nights later. "That happened to me, too. Violent ones, specifically, right?"

That quitting drinking could be a literal nightmare came as a surprise to us, but as it turns out, it's actually not uncommon for a newly abstinent person to experience vivid dreams. Clinical psychologist Neil Smith has studied the relationship between detox, sleep problems, and relapse, and he says that to understand what's going on here, you first have to understand what your brain is doing while you're catching ZZZs.

"Our brains are very active when we sleep," Smith says. He explains that there are two kinds of sleep—rapid-eye movement (REM, the one where we dream) and non-rapid-eye movement (NREM)—and these alternate in cycles. This ongoing electrical activity in our brains each night is called "sleep architecture," and how it functions determines whether or not we have restful sleep.

And if you're regularly drinking before bed? You're not getting good sleep. Because alcohol depresses brain function, drinking at night means you're more likely to go quickly into a deeper sleep stage, which Smith says confuses people into thinking substances help with sleep. "They knock you out, but they don't give you restful sleep," he says. As the effects of alcohol wear off during the night, the brain will try to "catch up" with its cycles, meaning that activity changes rapidly and erratically.

Here's the kicker: Brain activity continues to be disturbed in the newly sober drinker, and Smith says cutting out booze can actually be more disruptive to sleep than the alternative, at least in the short term. "Alcohol and drugs mess with sleep architecture, and continue to do so for some weeks after cessation of the substances," Smith says. As the brain adjusts to normal patterns and returns to healthy cycles and stages, the shift between REM and NREM is erratic, with electrical brain waves changing rapidly. This, he says, is thought by many to be the basis of the detailed dreams people report when newly abstinent.

Another theory is that vivid dreams could be a result of heightened amounts of REM sleep that can occur after kicking the sauce. "We know that alcohol suppresses the REM sleep stage," explains psychologist and clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Michigan, Deirdre Conroy. She's also spent years studying the relationship between sleep and alcohol. "When people suppress their REM, whether it's due to a substance, or because they have sleep problems, or because they take a medication, what can happen is something called REM rebound."

Because dreams occur during the REM stage, that rebound period could mean more dreaming. And even if you aren't necessarily dreaming more, Conroy notes that less sedated sleep could lead to better dream recall. We're more likely to remember our dreams if we wake up during them, and not knocking yourself out with liquor might mean experiencing several mid-dream disturbances throughout the night.

Okay, so that explains the vividness and increased frequency—or at least, perceived increased frequency—with which I was dreaming. But why the violence?

We actually know little about sleep at all—let alone dreaming—says Rafael Pelayo, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University's Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. This semester, he's teaching a course on sleep and dreams.

We know how and why we breathe, for example—that there's an actual, biological need for it. But Pelayo says it's unclear what biological need dreaming fulfills, though there are several theories. "The first question is: Does it really have a function?" Pelayo asks. "Is it just an empty phenomenon?"

That's tough to determine, as scientists still can't fully explain what the function of sleep is. There's evidence that the brain cleans itself while we sleep, flushing out waste chemicals that are a byproduct of the functions it performs while awake. Another theory is that sleep could be an adaptive evolutionary response humans developed to protect themselves and stay hidden from predators. It could be a means of conserving energy. (Pelayo notes that something as necessary and common as sleep probably performs more than one of these functions.)

But, clearly, there's a difference between resting and sleeping, when you're entirely disengaged from the outside world, not seeing or hearing.

That's why, Pelayo explains, there's also a school of thought that sleeping is a means of memory consolidation, and that could be where dreams come in. We learn new things every day, and the brain needs to organize that incoming information, connecting and correlating new and old thoughts—and, perhaps as importantly, getting rid of unnecessary information.

"We think they're meant to be forgotten," Pelayo says. The average person dreams about two hours or 25 percent of every night, and most are mundane. "It would be inefficient for us to remember all of those dreams."

As Conroy explained, you're more likely to remember them if you wake up during them. And Pelayo says that could be caused by something as simple as eating too much before bed to compensate for not drinking, which can cause heartburn and lead to sleep disturbances. In all likelihood, he says, I'm not having any more nightmares than usual, I'm just remembering them better.

And Pelayo adds that the entire idea of "Dry January" could, counterintuitively, be partly to blame. The combination of end-of-year holiday festivities and the knowledge that I was going to give up drinking for a month might have meant I was consuming more alcohol in the preceding weeks, suppressing REM more than usual during that period. He says that the more you suppress REM, the more need there is to have it, which leads to a flurry of brain activity and more of that REM rebound effect.

Conroy says that folks who break suddenly from a drinking routine experience a number of nocturnal disturbances in addition to vivid dreams—like trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep. While there's certainly a relationship between sleep disruption and alcohol use, the specifics vary from person to person depending on a number of factors (including how much you drink, how frequently you drink, and when you drink).

Luckily, Smith says, sleep architecture is homeostatic, meaning that eventually these cycles eventually return to their normal patterns. But that process can take several weeks, and this period can be stressful for the newly sober or sober-ish person as alcohol offers a route to easier (albeit subpar) rest.

To readjust to booze-free evenings, he recommends developing good nighttime habits: dim the lights, limit your laptop and phone use, and don't eat or drink any stimulants. Conroy says "wind down time" is crucial and suggests not doing work or studying in the hours before bed. And she says it's helpful to have a set bedtime and wake-time, one that you stick to. (Yes, even on weekends.)

But there's really no shortcut, here. Taking these steps can speed up the readjustment process, "but it is still a process that will take time and perseverance," Smith says.

"The brain really does recover, definitely," Conroy adds. "There's plasticity. There's a lot that happens in the brain once you stop drinking that's good."