Sleep plays a foundational role in health and wellness, impacting everything from hormonal regulation to the development of chronic diseases. While many people are aware that getting quality sleep is important, they're unaware of the links between sleep and substance abuse.
Here are some interesting facts about sleep and substance abuse and how to lead a healthier life.
Insomnia Increases Substance Abuse Risk
There's an intricate link between sleep disorders like insomnia and the development of substance abuse disorders. Many people struggling with insomnia self-medicate with alcohol or drugs in attempts to make sleep come easier. As they develop a tolerance, they'll often increase the dose to get the same effect. This issue leads to substance abuse and dependency, which may require professional support to overcome. If this is the case for you or a loved one, click here to find different resources for overcoming addiction.
Unfortunately, insomnia and substance abuse have a cyclical relationship. People who use drugs or alcohol often struggle to get quality sleep. Continued substance abuse can lead to the development of a sleep disorder, creating a vicious cycle that's difficult to break.
When most people consider drug dependencies or addictions, they typically envision illicit narcotics or prescription painkillers. Sleeping pills tend to fly under the radar. However, these prescribed and over-the-counter substances can be insidious. Studies showed that approximately 25% of individuals who used the sleep medication Ambien experienced withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop and that nearly half a million Americans misused a sedative in 2016.
Addiction is a complex issue, and so is insomnia. Unfortunately, one can lead to the other, creating a slippery slope for those who just want a good night's rest.
Alcohol Reduces REM Sleep
One of the most common myths about alcohol use is that it helps you sleep. This stems from the sedative effect of alcohol, which causes a sense of peace or calm in small to moderate quantities. Many people rely on a nightcap to help them sleep without surpassing the recommended limits of 1-3 drinks per day.
While alcohol may help people fall asleep, it negatively impacts their sleep cycle by reducing REM sleep. REM is when your brain is actively storing memories and learnings from your day, improving your cognitive function. REM also contributes to protein production and healing.
Alcohol consumption minimizes REM sleep and disrupts the sleep cycle, further contributing to decreased cognitive function. Scientists have recently uncovered a link between a lack of deep sleep and the development of Alzheimer's. As alcohol consumption is also linked to the development of Alzheimer's, this is a real concern.
It's time to dispel the myth that alcohol helps people sleep. While passing out may feel like a deep sleep, it's highly interrupted and damaging to the body and mind.
Alcohol Contributes to Sleep Apnea
Alcohol and other substances lead to the development or exacerbation of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the person stops breathing for periods of time throughout the night. This issue can lead to long-term oxygen deprivation and heart damage. Sleep apnea can increase your heart attack risk by 30% and stroke risk by two to three times.
The theory is that alcohol consumption causes the muscles in the throat to relax more, which exacerbates the effects of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). A meta-analysis of studies shows that alcohol may increase your sleep apnea risk by 25%.
Alcohol Intake and Sleep Quality Reduction
In addition to interrupting the important REM cycle, alcohol intake has a direct impact on overall sleep quality with a dose effect. In essence, the more you consume, the more disruption you'll experience. Even those who only consume low amounts of alcohol are at risk.
The study showed that people who consume fewer than 1-2 servings per day notice a 9.3% decrease in sleep quality. People who consume a moderate amount at 1-2 servings per day experience a 24% reduction in sleep quality. Finally, those who consume more than 1-2 servings per day see a 39.2% reduction in sleep quality.
Drugs Dysregulate Dopamine
Dopamine is often referred to as the happy chemical in the brain. It's your brain's reward system, creating a sense of self-satisfaction and motivation. Many drugs release dopamine to create a high, which is what makes them so attractive to people. That feeling of euphoria, energy, and joy creates a false happiness.
How does this relate to sleep? Dopamine can suppress sleep and interrupt the body's natural sleep-wake cycle. While this may be the short-term goal of taking these substances, this particular effect doesn't end when the drugs wear off. This dysregulation can completely disrupt natural circadian rhythms and lead to the development of a sleep disorder. Many people who take dopamine disruptors (uppers) feel compelled to use a depressant to offset the impacts when they're ready to sleep, exacerbating an already troubling cycle.
Sleep Deprivation Impacts Mental Health
Sleep deprivation is intertwined with mental health disorders. Good quality sleep contributes to hormonal regulation and emotional processing. Low-quality sleep makes it difficult to cope with minor stressors and process emotions healthily.
Many people who struggle with sleep deprivation develop depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Substance use can exacerbate sleep deprivation while also having an impact on hormonal regulation and emotional processing. As people with sleep disorders or mental health disorders are more likely to abuse substances, this issue also contributes to the concerning relationship between sleep and substance use disorders.
Sleep Quality Promotes Addiction Recovery
Re-establishing sleep hygiene is considered one of the most important aspects of addiction recovery. The side effects of poor sleep make it more difficult to overcome stressors and triggers, increasing relapse risk. Dedicating time and effort to ensuring high-quality sleep is a holistic health practice that improves the chances of success in recovery.
Start your journey to a better night's rest by forgoing substances and seeking professional support in diagnosing and treating any underlying sleep disorders. You can also put healthy habits in place to improve your sleep quality and build a healthy routine. Create an environment that promotes good sleep with dim lighting, ambient noise, and a cool temperature.
If you're concerned about your relationship with substance use as it pertains to sleep, reach out to a professional for support.