Addiction And Sleep

Break the cycle, rest well.
Addiction And Sleep
Tom Greenspan
December 21, 2022

As a reader-supported website, we're able to keep it free. Buying something through a link on this page might earn us commissions. Thanks for that.

Did you know that people with drug addiction and alcohol misuse are five to ten times more likely to suffer from sleep disorders?

Many people use stimulant drugs, alcohol, and opioids as insomnia treatment and help them fall asleep, but they ironically worsen sleep disturbances. And even if people did not have sleep problems before drug abuse or alcohol addiction, long-term substance abuse can literally alter your brain’s chemistry and mess up your sleep cycle. 

Additionally, addicts who require drugs to perform the bare minimum activities during the day also rely on drugs for sleep - so the entire circle continues until broken.  

Addiction recovery is the only remaining solution when things get worse, and one of the most long-lasting withdrawal symptoms is sleep deprivation. However, as you progress on the road to recovery, quality sleep will actually lower the chances of a relapse.

For a better understanding, let’s dive deeper into the correlation between addiction and sleep.

Which Drugs Cause Sleep Abnormalities?

Many readily-available substances cause sleep disruption, including the ones prescribed by your doctor to improve your sleep quality. That’s why you’ll find many sleeping pills with an information brochure containing many possible side effects. If you’re being negatively affected by any prescribed medicine, ask your doctor to lower the dose.

Here are some of the substances that can lead to poor sleep:

  • Marijuana
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Illegal drugs (including amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin)

Other over-the-counter medications that give you trouble sleeping are: 

  • Antidepressants and other drugs treating a mental illness 
  • Medicine for blood pressure
  • Medicine that contains caffeine (example: NoDoz, Excedrin)
  • Asthma or allergy medications
  • Pseudoephedrine

Sleep And Substance Use: How Can Drugs Disrupt Sleep?

The most common symptom of substance use disorders (SUDs) is sleep difficulties, including chronic illnesses such as insomnia, sleep apnea, etc. That’s why experts have started looking closely at the possible brain connection between these two. 

Most often, poor sleep leads to a stage called ‘hyperarousal,’ which is similar to stress, therefore, increasing the risk of drug craving. Moreover, some substances are capable of changing how your brain works through the sleep-wake cycle. 

While some lower the duration of the NREM stage, responsible for deep sleep, others can mess with your rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, where you dream. Such poor sleep quality due to substance abuse can lead to various symptoms of sleep deprivation. They are:

  • Lower chances of ‘good sleep’
  • Daytime sleepiness and fatigue (hypersomnia)
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty in regulating sleep

When you start misusing drugs like cocaine, heroin, nicotine, etc., your brain falls into a vicious cycle. Since these drugs are stimulants that keep you awake, you’ll have trouble falling asleep. Consequently, you’ll be tempted to use them again when you feel tired in the morning. 

Alcohol And Marijuana Use: Role of Sedative In Poor Sleep

Since alcohol is considered to be a depressant, many people resort to alcohol use as a way to prevent sleep disturbance. Studies show that more than 20% of adults in America who suffer from chronic sleep problems use alcohol to help them fall asleep. So, does alcohol actually help improve sleep quality?

Well, alcohol can often put you to sleep, but this sleep isn’t as restful as a natural one - it comes with nightmares, snoring, sleep apnea, bedwetting, etc. Moreover, alcohol disrupts your sleep by affecting your core body temperature. Our body temperature is one of the many ways in which the brain regulates our sleep habits. 

Typically, the body temperature starts to drop in the evening, which helps produce melatonin, making us feel drowsy and ready to fall asleep. In the same way, our body temperature increases during the day, helping us stay awake. This circadian rhythm is disrupted when you have an alcohol use disorder. 

While alcohol helps you fall asleep by dropping the body temperature, it also forces your body to react to it by increasing its temperature when it wears off. So, alcohol might help with sleep latency, but it causes discomfort and early waking, which can ultimately affect your creative performance and mental health.

Marijuana is another substance that is often used as a sleep aid. Even though marijuana doesn’t cause early waking like alcohol, it can still lead to poor sleep quality by shortening the duration of REM or slow-wave sleep. Besides, its effect on the REM stage is so strong that marijuana users in addiction recovery have very vivid dreams during the withdrawal period.

Drug Use: Amphetamines, MDMA, Cocaine, Heroine, And Hallucinogens

These drugs are ‘stimulants’ that give you a false sense of energy, thus, preventing you from getting enough sleep. Since your brain is filled with excess dopamine production during this energizing high, most drug users get easily addicted to the feeling. People who practice drug abuse get so energized during this high that they find it extremely difficult. Furthermore, this period of high is followed by a withdrawal period marked by intense hypersomnia.

Even low doses of hallucinogen or cocaine can significantly affect your sleep quality and cause daytime fatigue and mental health issues. Prolonged drug use can even cause permanent cognitive failure. 

MDMA (molly/methamphetamines) has a more severe effect on brain chemistry and the sleep cycle since it gradually lowers your serotonin levels. And since serotonin is an important component in melatonin production, chronic use of MDMA can lead to sleep deprivation, which manifests faster than those you use other drugs. In this way, MDMA can also affect your cognitive ability, memory, and impulsivity. 

Opioid Abuse And Sleep Problems

Opioids are important substances frequently used in pharmaceuticals, especially for pain medications. And since humans cannot handle large amounts of pain on their own, opioid pain drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone are as popular as ever. These medications also relieve pain associated with post-surgery treatment, cancer, and other severe illnesses.

Simply speaking, opioids attach themselves to the dopamine receptors in your brain, making it better equipped to withstand pain. However, chronic opioid use can give you the same feeling of euphoria as cocaine since they interfere with normal dopamine production. This results in drug addiction, making people heavily rely on opioids to help with even smaller amounts of pain.

Like every other drug, opioids also interfere with REM sleep and prevent your body from regenerating itself with deep sleep. Most opioid addicts can only experience light sleep, and they suffer from an increased risk of sleep apnea. 

Moreover, as the addiction progresses, opioid users show physical and mental deterioration along with a decreased tolerance of pain. Such severe effects can be seen in the fact that even prescribed use of opioids can potentially harm your brain chemistry.

Opioid withdrawal usually requires immediate medical assistance since the symptoms can be quite intense, and the chances of relapse are high. One of the unique opioid withdrawal symptoms is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).

Abuse of Sleep Medication 

Abuse of medications that cater to various sleep disorders is a major part of substance abuse disorders and addiction. If the drugs prescribed by your doctor are correctly used, they will help you experience good sleep and accelerate brain function. But many people take liberties with their dosage since these medications are considered to be ‘safe.’ Increasing the dosage of medications like Lunesta, Sonata, or Ambien can make you increasingly susceptible to drug addiction. 

Most people abuse their sleep medications to cope with stress or get high, but they’re unaware that these drugs can actually worsen sleep problems if overused. Drugs that alleviate symptoms of sleep apnea and insomnia work best as short-term treatments and should only be used as prescribed. Prolonged use can lead to mild and severe symptoms such as:

  • Confusion
  • Mental health problems
  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Nausea
  • Problems with speech
  • Cardiovascular diseases

Some studies also show that misusing sleep medication increases your vulnerability to cancer and triples mortality risk.

Behavioral Addiction and Insufficient Sleep

This is not talked about widely, but did you know that deeply indulging in gambling, social media, and the internet can soon turn into an addiction?

Even though this type of behavioral addiction may not initially affect your physical health, it can definitely affect your sleep cycles. And when you look at the close relationship between behavioral addiction and suicide, you’ll soon find enough evidence of physical harm. 

People addicted to gambling, the internet, and social media show several symptoms of mental illness, such as mood disorders and anxiety, that can often lead to insomnia. Moreover, poor sleep quality will make the addicts feel bad about their addiction, but they’ll start to indulge in them more out of anxiety, thus entering a vicious cycle.

Some researchers have examined college-goers with smartphone addiction, and they found a direct connection between smartphone use, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and daytime fatigue. The sleep deprivation that culminated from their excessive smartphone use further fueled their addiction, leading to an increase in the number of suicide attempts.

Recently, social media addiction has become a real problem that affects a major portion of the people with access to it. A study in 2014 concluded that there’s a direct relationship between the amount of time spent on social media and the intensity of a person’s sleep deprivation. 

Moreover, the subjects in the upper quartile (who used social media most) seemed twice as likely to have sleep problems than those in the lower quartile (with lower social media usage). And depression and anxiety that comes from social media abuse are by themselves detrimental enough to cause insomnia.

Sleep Problems During Addiction Recovery

When you quit drinking or taking drugs, you will suffer from sleep problems, such as insomnia, broken sleep, restless leg syndrome, nightmares, etc. These symptoms can often lead to severe sleep deprivation causing mental and physical issues, making a complete recovery quite difficult to achieve.

Most people who are in addiction treatment complain of having poor sleep quality, and they feel like the withdrawal symptoms are much more difficult to handle than the addiction. This is because addicts could handle various symptoms with drugs and other substances, which temporarily energized them and often reduced pain or discomfort. But when you’re in treatment, you can no longer rely on things that worked before.

During your addiction, your brain adapts to new levels of dopamine, which alleviates pain and helps stabilize emotions and thoughts. However, in the initial stages of withdrawal, the brain falls back onto normal dopamine levels, so the negative emotions and pain are much harder to handle without abusing drugs.

Moreover, people who smoked marijuana or drank alcohol before bed subconsciously trained their minds to consider them as precursors to sleep. When you stop this habit, your brain is left confused about the time to sleep, even when it’s clearly nighttime. This leads to sleep deprivation during your detox, which often increases anxiety and irritability, making people lash out for no reason.

This is why insomnia and other sleep disorders are one of the most common causes of a relapse. So, it's best to consult a doctor and get treatment for a particular sleep problem - this will also help reduce anxiety and depression and improve the quality of your life.

To Sum Up

The extended correlation between addiction and sleep is the leading reason for the difficulty of following through with substance abuse treatment. Since sleep governs major functions of our mind and body, it can be really tough to bear the withdrawal symptoms, especially poor sleep. 

If you’re suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, contact The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and they’ll help you find a treatment center nearby. You can also ask for non-addictive over-the-counter sleeping drugs such as ramelteon and doxepin to help with sleep issues. These medications, coupled with mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exercise, and supplements, can surely help you on the road to complete recovery. 

With that, we’ll be signing off for now. Take care!