Sleep and Addiction Recovery: Why Healthy Sleep Patterns Matter

Humans spend nearly one third of our lives sleeping. Our bodies require sufficient amounts of quality sleep for rest and recovery. And perhaps surprisingly, quality sleep is as important to our well-being as food and water. 

How Important is Sleep for Healthy Living?

Humans spend nearly one third of our lives sleeping. Our bodies require sufficient amounts of quality sleep for rest and recovery. And perhaps surprisingly, quality sleep is as important to our well-being as food and water. 

There are many forms of sleep that help us to fully recover and restore different parts of our bodies and brains. Deep sleep (also called slow-wave sleep), for example, is the deepest sleep a person can get without going into REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep. Among other things, deep sleep helps integrate memory processing and restore the physical body while the brain is virtually silent and relaxed.

During REM sleep, on the other hand, the brain is very active. This state stimulates brain development, dreaming, and even emotional processing. Both REM and deep sleep are important for proper rest and recovery.

What are the Effects of Poor Sleep? 

Lack of sleep over long periods of time increases the risk of a number of health problems. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart diseases
  • Insulin resistance
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression 
  • Other mental health disorders

Moreover, not enough sleep or poor sleep quality decreases productivity and increases your irritability. This is because healthy sleep helps to form and maintain the pathways in your brain that are responsible for learning and new memories, which results in difficulty concentrating. Feeling lethargic, foggy-headed, forgetful, overwhelmed, or even grumpy can all be signs of poor quality sleep.

What can make these symptoms even more destructive over the long-term is how they relate to substance abuse and addiction. The effects of poor sleep can exacerbate someone’s pre-existing struggle, or even lead someone to engage in substance abuse to cope with their poor sleep habits.

What’s the Link Between Substance Abuse and Sleep?

The link between sleep and substance abuse often goes both ways: substance abuse can cause problems with sleep patterns; and insomnia and poor sleep are often factors in the onset of substance use.

Different substances affect sleep in different ways:

  • Alcohol increases deep sleep but suppresses REM sleep. During periods of alcohol withdrawal, the time it takes to fall asleep is increased and the total time spent asleep is decreased. Much of the research done on substance abuse and sleep cycles pertains to alcohol use, as summarized in a recent study in the American Journal of Addictions.
  • Opiates, despite being sedatives, disturb healthy sleep by increasing wakefulness and decreasing total sleep time. This includes both deep sleep and REM sleep. Moreover, opiates are known to regulate the part of the brain that controls breathing. This can cause incidents of sleep apnea where people experience long pauses in their breathing, resulting in snoring, dry mouth, and even a headache in the morning.
  • Cannabis users often develop a tolerance towards the substance’s sleep-enhancing effects. During withdrawal from chronic cannabis use, unusual dreams and poor sleep quality are common.

How Do Sleep Patterns Affect the Risk of Relapse?

According to the journal of Medical Hypotheses, sleep disturbances are now acknowledged as one of the “universal withdrawal symptoms.” During recovery, these disturbances such as insufficient amounts of sleep, poor quality of sleep, or disruptive dreams can fuel cravings and increase the risk of relapse.

Disturbed sleep—especially in combination with the most studied-substances like alcohol—is a predictive factor in relapse. This means that the likelihood of relapsing increases if you’re experiencing poor sleep quality or not enough of it during your recovery process.

Practicing Healthy Sleep Patterns

Since we know that healthy sleep patterns can affect the recovery process significantly, what are some ways you can practice getting there? In addition the treatments recommended by your recovery team, here are a few tips that can help you maintain healthy sleeping:

  • Spend time in the sunlight: Daylight is one of the key drivers of the internal processes that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and that repeat roughly every 24 hours.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine: Such chemicals (and many others) interfere with sleep, especially if used later in the day.
  • Exercise early: If done at the right time of day, exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. Ideally, exercising should be completed at least three hours before your scheduled bed time.
  • Unplug from electronics: Make space for a 30-60 minute time frame before you sleep that is free of all devices such as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and televisions. Not only do these devices cause brain stimulation, they also generate “blue light” that may decrease melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.
  • Have a consistent routine: Before sleeping, follow the same steps each night, including things like putting on your pajamas and brushing your teeth. This helps your brain pick up on the little cues that are telling it to get ready for sleep and rest time.
  • Wind down before sleep: Take 30 minutes before sleeping to engage in calming activities such as soft music, light stretching, reading, meditation, or prayer. This is also one of those cues that helps your body prepare and relax for deep sleep. Meditation, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques help to put you in the right mindset for bed.
  • Avoid tossing and turning: Once you’re in bed, try to keep healthy and positive associations between being in bed and actually being asleep. If after 20 minutes you haven’t managed to fall asleep, it’s better to get up and stretch, read, or do another calming activity in low light before trying to fall asleep again.
  • Eat at the appropriate times: Eating dinner close to bedtime, especially if it’s a big, heavy, or spicy meal, can mean that you’ll still be digesting when it’s time for sleep. If you absolutely need to snack before bedtime, the snack should be a very light one.

If you are a recovering addict or alcoholic and you are experiencing persistent problems with sleep, do not ignore them. Keep a sleep journal, speak to your sponsor or counselor, and seek assistance in improving your quality of sleep.The team at Seven Arrow Recovery can help you get the help you need—get in touch with us today for treatment and support on your recovery journey.

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