Alcohol Problems, Insomnia and Suicide Risks Are Linked
People with alcohol use disorder (the modern term for alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse) are known to have increased chances of developing a number of significant sleep problems, including insomnia. People with serious alcohol problems also have increased chances of attempting to commit suicide. In a study published in December 2014 in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers from four U.S. institutions looked at the role that insomnia plays in increasing the suicide risks of individuals who consume alcohol. These researchers concluded that sleeplessness can form a crucial link in the chain between alcohol intake and suicide.
There are two basic types of diagnosable alcohol problems: alcohol abuse not associated with a physical reliance on alcohol intake and alcohol use that is characterized by a physical dependence (i.e., alcoholism). Doctors, public health officials and researchers once believed that the symptoms of the first problem do not overlap to any substantial degree with the symptoms of the second problem. However, they now know that any given person affected by non-dependent alcohol abuse can also have symptoms that indicate the presence of alcoholism, just as any person affected by alcoholism can have symptoms that indicate the presence of non-dependent alcohol abuse. Alcohol use disorder, created and defined in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association, is the diagnosis that doctors now use to identify alcoholism, alcohol abuse and overlapping instances of alcoholism and alcohol abuse.
Doctors look for 11 specific symptoms when diagnosing cases of alcohol use disorder. At the minimum, a person with a mild form of the condition has two or three of these symptoms. A moderately impacted person has four or five symptoms, while a severely impacted person has at least six symptoms. While symptoms of alcohol use disorder don’t have to occur simultaneously, they must appear in the individual within a span of 12 months.
Occasional bouts of insomnia are not uncommon among adults. However, an individual who has repeated problems with sleeplessness can experience a notable decline in mental and physical well-being. A person with medically serious, life-impairing insomnia may qualify for a diagnosis of insomnia disorder, a mental health condition with official recognition from the American Psychiatric Association. Estimates compiled by the National Sleep Foundation indicate that approximately one-third of all American adults experience at least occasional bouts of sleeplessness. Risks for insomnia may decline with age.
From Alcohol Intake to Suicide
In the study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, researchers from Mississippi State University, the Baylor College of Medicine, the Emory School of Medicine and a branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs assessed the potential connection between alcohol intake, insomnia and suicide with the help of 375 young, adult men and women enrolled in college. Each of these individuals took part in an online survey that posed detailed questions about issues such as level of alcohol intake, any experience with the symptoms of insomnia, any experience with nightmares and any experience with suicidal thinking, suicidal behavior or actual suicide attempts.
After reviewing the survey results, the researchers concluded that there is a connection between alcohol consumption, sleeplessness and the chances of thinking about suicide, planning suicide and/or attempting suicide. The nature of the link between drinking and suicide apparently varies according to gender. Among women enrolled in the study, alcohol use increased the risks for suicide-related issues in individuals affected by or unaffected by insomnia. However, among men, suicide-related problems were associated only with the combination of alcohol intake and sleeplessness.
The study’s authors note that nightmares may also play a role in increasing any given person’s risks for suicide. However, this impact appears to be separate from any impact associated with drinking. In addition, alcohol use does not appear to have any influence on the odds of experiencing nightmares. The authors note that insomnia is just one of many factors that can contribute to suicide risks. They believe that further understanding of the link between sleeplessness and suicide may help doctors and public health officials lower the suicide rate.