Substance abuse can cause a range of problems in a person’s life, from relationships to health problems, but very little attention is paid to how it affects a user’s sleep.
It isn’t news to anyone that substance abuse is bad for you and its negative effect on sleep is another prime example. However, few people realize just how negative this effect can be and how it actively encourages further abuse.
Despite the threat of being arrested for drug possession or cultivation of cannabis offense, people still abuse drugs and often use them to fall asleep.
In this post, we’re going to discuss how substance abuse negatively affects your sleep and try to dispel the myth that substance use helps people sleep better.
What Effect Does Substance Abuse Have Upon Sleep?
There are a number of ways substance abuse negatively affects sleep and several drugs that can cause this. Each drug has its own effect but there are some similarities in the way different drugs affect sleep.
Sleep latency is a term used to explain the amount of time it takes for a person to fall asleep, and it can be severely affected by substance abuse.
Although drugs such as alcohol and cannabis are known for helping people to fall to sleep quickly, this is only true when consumed in healthy people who take the drugs recreationally.
Chronic users find that sleep latency increases the more they use the drug, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep. This effect is felt most strikingly during prolonged periods of use and withdrawal when the person is no longer able to consume alcohol or cannabis.
For alcohol especially, it can take 5 to 9 months for a person’s sleep to return to normal once they’ve become addicted. For an individual’s latency to recover, the abuse must stop sooner rather than later.
It’s no surprise then that cocaine, a drug known for perking people up, substantially increases sleep latency - leaving people lying awake in bed for 60 minutes or more before they drop off. Prolonged usage of cocaine can lead to insomnia.
Duration of Sleep
It’s not only sleep latency that’s negatively affected by substance abuse; drugs can also reduce the duration of time a user is asleep.
Numerous studies examining the total sleep time of people who abuse alcohol showed that they had significantly reduced sleep time in comparison to healthy controls. This same phenomenon has also been seen across the abuse of various illicit drugs.
As with the sleep latency issue, abstinence from drugs such as alcohol improves the total sleep time of recovering addicts after 19 weeks. Incredibly, users who have been off the drugs for 1-2 years show no abnormality compared to healthy control subjects.
The main requirements of people wanting good quality sleep tend to be the ease at which they can fall asleep along with how long they can stay asleep. However, there is a growing conversation around the quality of sleep.
Typically, you have a long period of non-rapid eye movement NREM sleep, also known as deep sleep, followed by a shorter period of rapid eye movement REM sleep. You cycle through these states throughout the night until you eventually wake up.
Some substances negatively alter the way you go through your various sleep stages which can affect your learning and memory - which REM is responsible for - as well as your body’s ability to recover, due to lack of NREM.
Several studies show how substance abuse can even cause the brain to flit between REM and NREM sleep spontaneously, causing periods of awakening that result in unhealthy sleep fragmentation. This fragmentation can last up to 2 years after abstinence.
An interesting study published in Science Translational Medicine in 2018 has pointed to drug abuse as a narcolepsy risk factor.
It was conducted by a team of UCLA researchers who wanted to understand the role of the wakefulness-regulating neuropeptide orexin in narcolepsy. The researchers examined human postmortem brain samples and found that there were more of these neuropeptides in the brains of people who had been addicted to heroin.
A lack of orexin can be a huge factor in narcolepsy and when someone comes off an addictive substance that causes a high production of it, the numbers of this neuropeptide decrease significantly.
This means that the withdrawal from a highly addictive substance can trigger narcolepsy in some people.
When it comes to drug abuse withdrawal, the most common result is that the abuser suffers strong bouts of insomnia, which is when you have trouble falling or staying asleep for long periods of time.
Marijuana interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system which is involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Trouble sleeping during cannabis withdrawal is common and affects over 40% of those trying to get off the drug.
The worst part about this insomnia is that it increases the risk of returning to substance abuse, as it’s often the only way for someone going through withdrawals to get to sleep. Abusers often start to take stimulant drugs to combat the daytime fatigue caused by the lack of sleep.
If you believe that your sleep troubles may be due to sleep apnea rather than another sleep disorder, contact a sleep specialist and ask if a sleep study is right for you.
If you live in Alaska and would like to schedule a sleep study, contact The Alaska Sleep Clinic and receive a free 10-minute phone consultation with a sleep educator. Our clinic is owned, operated, and mostly staffed by women who can help provide top-quality, comprehensive care for our female patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea.
Are These the Only Way Drugs Negatively Affect Sleep?
In this post, we’ve shared the main ways in which substance abuse can negatively affect a person’s sleep.
The issues we’ve detailed are the most observed across various substances but there are others specific to each type, such as cannabis causing peculiar dreams and alcohol causing sleep apnea.
Hopefully, the information in this article has given you a deeper insight into the negative effect of substance abuse on sleep and you understand why abusers always look so tired.
Please be advised that this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for advice from a trained medical professional. Be sure to consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if you’re seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. We are not liable for risks or issues associated with using or acting upon the information on this site.