It’s a safe assumption that most who have dealt with a substance use disorder (SUD) have experienced sleep issues at some point or another. Substances like drugs and alcohol can have a major impact on your body even when they aren’t actually in your system anymore; even if you’re in recovery, their effects could still be hindering your sleep.
This guide aims to help you reclaim your sleep — and your peace of mind — while maintaining your sobriety. It will help you understand the connection between addiction and sleep deprivation, as well as techniques you can employ whether or not you’re still currently using. Remember to always consult a doctor before making any major changes to your health regimen, and never take any medication without medical guidance.
To best treat your symptoms, you must first understand how substance use affects your body and its ability to rest. No matter the stage of drug use you’re at — whether you use regularly, are in withdrawal from a substance, or are undergoing treatment and no longer use at all — your addiction could have more to do with your restlessness than you realize.
For example, alcohol is a common perpetrator against sleep despite common belief. Although many people drink alcohol as a way to unwind, it ultimately ends up working against you. As the relaxing effects wear off, it prevents you from falling into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and getting fully rested. It can even increase the number of times you wake up throughout the night.
Sleep problems are also common among illicit drug users. Extreme stimulants like cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines can certainly make it difficult for your body to relax while you’re under the influence, but even once you’ve stopped using there can be lingering problems. People in withdrawal or detoxing from a drug often report insomnia symptoms: studies have shown that withdrawal from marijuana, cocaine, and opioids all cause significant sleep problems, some of which may last for weeks or months.
There are also numerous prescription drugs that could disturb your sleep cycle. Certain medications for high blood pressure, respiratory problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and even contraception may hinder your nightly rest, even when used correctly.
So exactly what kind of sleep problems can an alcohol or substance addiction cause? There are a range of symptoms, including:
Unfortunately, the seemingly endless battle with these symptoms can cause many recovering addicts to relapse. Whether someone breaks their sobriety in an effort to foster sleep, as a coping mechanism to deal with insomnia, or as a result of poor judgment caused by sleep deprivation, it’s no surprise that it’s a slippery slope. Recovery is an arduous journey in itself, and it can feel nearly impossible for someone who’s going night after night without adequate rest.
It’s also worth noting that recent research suggests that not only does substance abuse sometimes lead to problems sleeping, a lack of sleep can actually increase a person’s risk for substance use and abuse.
Insomnia doesn’t have to win — there are plenty of options that can help you get the rest you deserve!
If you’re still using drugs or alcohol, you’ll need to be very careful when addressing your sleep issues. Never mix any substances or medications without first consulting your physician, and don’t use anyone else’s prescription (even if it’s “just for a night”). If you believe that your habit is having a direct impact, consider talking to your doctor or a drug counselor about finding a healthy way to cut back or even stop using altogether. It’s important to consult a professional, especially if you’re a heavy user; reducing or cutting out substance consumption completely can lead to dangerous detoxification and withdrawal symptoms, so don’t try to navigate sobriety on your own.
Not ready for treatment but still unable to get proper rest? Try to limit your habit — regardless of your substance — to only daytime. Avoid using drugs, alcohol, and nicotine within at least three hours of bedtime (or longer for especially stimulating drugs like cocaine). It may be a tough shift at first, but try to focus on getting your body ready for rest as evening comes. Remind yourself that using may bring you solace initially, but it won’t be as comforting when you’re lying awake in bed.
If you’re headed to treatment or are currently in treatment, be sure to talk to your doctor or counselor about your sleep woes so you can effectively treat both problems together. The good news is that there are plenty of holistic ways to fight insomnia, from adjusting your sleep environment to changing daily habits.
To start, take a look at your bedroom: does it nurture a relaxing, sleep-friendly setting? Is it dark, cool, and quiet? If not, make some simple changes. Blinds or light-blocking curtains on your windows are a quick way to keep the room dark — light naturally signals your body that it’s time to wake up, so keep exposed light to a minimum. If you need night lights for the hallway or bathroom, consider using red bulbs that aren’t as disruptive to sleep.
There are a couple components to keeping your bedroom a “quiet” place. First, eliminate noisy elements like televisions and computers. Having the TV on while you’re sleeping can actually be a major disruption to your cycle; if you need sound to fall asleep, opt instead for white noise. There are portable sound machines as well as phone and tablet apps that let you choose from a variety of soothing sounds. You could even bring in a floor fan: most create enough white noise to drown out sounds that could disturb your slumber, plus it can be an excellent way to keep the room cool.
The second component of keeping your bedroom quiet is to ensure you use it for sleeping only. Don’t lie in bed after work and check your phone or laptop, and limit serious or stressful conversations with your partner to the kitchen or living area. Your brain needs to recognize the bedroom as a place to relax and sleep, so it’s important to keep out all signs of work and stress.
There are also some easy changes you can make to your routine. If you’re on the sedentary side, try getting some exercise early in the day — aim to be done at least three hours before you plan to go to bed. Working out can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly, but if you do it too close to bedtime, your body may have trouble unwinding. Avoid late dinners, and be sure to stay well-hydrated enough that you can cut back before bed and skip the midnight trip to the bathroom.
Create a consistent bedtime routine and stick to it. Start getting ready for bed around the same time each night and do the same activities to wind down. You might enjoy a nice bath, reading a good book, or even practicing some relaxation techniques. If your mind has trouble quieting down, set aside some time each night to put your worries to paper. Write down all the things stressing you out — it can be as detailed as a journal entry or as simple as a numbered list — and then stash them in a drawer or cabinet outside the bedroom. It can be an effective way to acknowledge your concerns while still allowing yourself to “put them away” for the night.
Whether you’re still grappling with an addiction or have recently found sobriety, don’t submit yourself to the idea that you’ve lost sleep for good. Talk to your doctor about finding a way to treat your sleep deprivation without sacrificing your sobriety, and do what you can from a holistic standpoint in the meantime. Give your body some time to get used to its new (healthier) sleeping routine, and sleep just might find you sooner than you think!