Kreed Kleinkopf
October 17, 2023

The Role of Sleep in Healing from Substance Abuse

Decades of studies have confirmed that sleep is necessary for healthy functioning and even survival. It helps us think clearly, be alert, and sustain attention. It also helps us consolidate memories, regulate emotions, and improve overall health. However, substances like drugs and alcohol have disruptive effects on the natural sleep cycle. They make it hard to fall and stay asleep, exacerbate existing sleep problems, and lead to new ones.

Lack of sleep can lead to a range of physical and psychological issues, including mood changes, impulse behavior, suicidal thoughts, trouble thinking or concentrating, anxiety, depression, etc. But the relationship between sleep and recovery goes both ways. The way drug use can lead to sleep issues is the same way that sleep issues cause substance abuse. This article highlights this relationship and how consistent sleep patterns can help in the addiction recovery process.

The Connection between Substance Abuse and Sleep

Addiction is a chronic disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite the negative consequences. It’s considered a brain disorder because it rewires the brain circuits responsible for self-control, stress, and reward. These changes can lead to a range of issues, including short and long-term sleep problems like:

  • Sleep apnea: Where substances relax the throat muscles or depress the respiratory system, exacerbating sleep apnea symptoms and events.
  • Insomnia: Due to the disruption of sleep-wake cycle
  • Circadian rhythm disturbances: Irregular use patterns like all-nighters and binging can throw off circadian rhythm and lead to erratic sleep schedules.
  • Nightmares and night sweats: Withdrawal can trigger intense nightmares and night sweats

Conversely, sleep deprivation and disorders can lead to substance abuse as people seek drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Lack of sleep disrupts the brain’s reward system, making it more susceptible to addiction. This vicious cycle further complicates recovery efforts.

How and Why Different Substances Impact Sleep

Different substances can have varying effects on sleep, and the impact largely depends on the type of substance, the dose, and individual factors. Here’s a quick look at the effects of drugs on sleep:

Stimulants – Cocaine, Amphetamines, and Methamphetamine 

Stimulants increase alertness, energy, and wakefulness and make it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. If you use stimulants, you might experience episodes of insomnia, where you find it almost impossible to get a good night’s rest. Additionally, the crash that follows stimulant use can lead to extreme fatigue and excessive sleeping, further destabilizing your sleep cycle.

A study of college students found that those with a history of nonmedical psychostimulant use had more sleep disturbance or worse subjective or overall sleep quality than those who hadn’t used such substances.

Depressants and Sedatives – Alcohol, Benzodiazepines, and Certain Prescription Drugs

Depressants and sedatives have a sedative effect that makes you feel drowsy and relaxed. However, while they may help you fall asleep faster, they disrupt the natural sleep cycle. As your body processes these substances, they interfere with the deeper stages of sleep, resulting in fragmented rest.

Sedatives like alcohol have also been shown to increase the risk of snoring, sleep apnea, and snoring. People in recovery from alcohol, marijuana, and other sedatives may continue to experience sleep problems for weeks or even months after withdrawal.

Hallucinogens – LSD and Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

Hallucinogens typically don’t have a direct sedative or stimulant effect on sleep patterns. However, the hallucinatory experiences associated with these substances can lead to sleep disturbances. Vivid and sometimes unsettling dreams or nightmares are common after using hallucinogens. These dreams can disrupt your sleep, causing you to wake up frequently during the night and leading to a less restorative sleep overall.

How Sleep Deprivation Leads to Substance Abuse

Substance abuse detoxification and mood stabilization influenced by sleep deprivation illustrated by stressed African American woman suffering from insomnia

Lack of sleep can hurt the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of those in recovery. It can also get in the way of substance abuse treatment. Sadly, studies reveal that persistent sleep disorders after withdrawal are linked to relapse. Let’s look at how sleep deprivation leads to substance abuse:

Increase Stress and Anxiety

When you’re sleep-deprived, your stress levels rise, and your ability to cope with anxiety diminishes. You may start seeking substances like alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate and temporarily relieve these feelings. Over time, this can lead to a dangerous pattern of substance abuse.

Impair Decision-Making

Sleep deprivation impairs your cognitive function and decision-making abilities. You might make impulsive choices, including experimenting with or using substances you wouldn’t otherwise consider. This impaired judgment can lead to the initiation of substance abuse.

Make you Feel Fatigued and Sluggish

To combat this, you may turn to stimulants like caffeine or even more potent drugs to stay awake and alert. This quest for energy can quickly escalate into substance abuse, especially with highly addictive substances like amphetamines.

Make you Crave for Rewards

Sleep deprivation disrupts the brain’s reward system. It can make you more susceptible to seeking immediate rewards, such as the pleasurable effects of substances. This craving for rewards can intensify and become a driving force behind substance abuse.

How Sleep Can Help During Healing From Substance Abuse

Woman stretching in bed illustrating the role of sleep in detoxification mood stabilization and cognitive function during recovery from substance abuse

Sleep plays an important part in healing from substance abuse and can greatly contribute to a person’s recovery in the following ways:

Consistent Sleep Facilitates Natural Detoxification

Your body undergoes a natural detoxification process during sleep. It’s during these crucial hours that the brain activates the glymphatic system, a waste clearance system that removes toxins and metabolic waste products. Adequate and uninterrupted sleep enables this process to work optimally, aiding in the elimination of substances from your system.

Reduces Withdrawal Symptoms

The detoxification process is often accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, which can be physically and emotionally distressing. Quality sleep helps mitigate some of these symptoms, such as physical discomfort, restlessness, and anxiety, making the detoxification process more manageable.

Balances Neurotransmitters

Consistent sleep patterns play a pivotal role in regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are closely tied to mood. Substance abuse disrupts these neurotransmitter systems, leading to mood swings and instability. Adequate sleep aids in mood stabilization and makes you feel more emotionally stable.

Manages Cravings

Mood swings are closely linked to cravings for substances. When you’re well-rested, you’re better equipped to manage these cravings and make healthier choices. This mood stability can be a powerful ally in your recovery journey.

Enhances Memory and Learning

Substance abuse often impairs cognitive functions like memory and learning. Sleep is essential for memory consolidation and the processing of information. With consistent sleep patterns, your brain has the opportunity to repair and enhance these cognitive functions, aiding in your overall recovery.

Better Decision-Making

Sleep deprivation impairs decision-making abilities and can lead to impulsive choices, including returning to substance use. When you prioritize sleep, you can think more clearly and make more rational decisions, reducing the likelihood of relapse.

Improves Attention and Focus

Recovery often requires significant lifestyle changes and therapeutic work. Consistent sleep helps improve attention and focus, enabling you to engage more effectively in therapy and adopt healthier habits.

Tips for Improving Your Sleep in Recovery

Here are some bedtime routines to help you achieve a good night’s sleep as a crucial part of your holistic healing from substance abuse:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps regulate your body’s internal clock.
  • Develop a calming routine before sleep. This could include activities like reading, taking a warm bath, or practicing deep breathing exercises to reduce anxiety.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Ensure it’s dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Avoid screens (phones, tablets, TVs) at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.
  • Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime. These substances can disrupt your sleep patterns.
  • Incorporate regular physical activity into your daily routine, but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime.
  • Engage in relaxation techniques such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness to calm your mind and reduce stress.

If you continue to struggle with sleep despite your efforts, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a healthcare professional or therapist. They can provide tailored strategies and, if necessary, medication options to improve your sleep.

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