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Substance use and sleep

Alcohol and Sleep

Alcohol often is thought of as a sedative or calming drug. While alcohol may induce sleep, the quality of sleep is often fragmented during the second half of the sleep period. Alcohol increases the number of times you awaken in the latter half of the night, when the alcohol’s relaxing effect wears off. It prevents you from getting the deep sleep and REM sleep you need, because alcohol keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep. With continued consumption just before bedtime, alcohol’s sleep-inducing effect may decrease as its disruptive effects continue or increase. The sleep disruption resulting from alcohol use may lead to daytime fatigue and sleepiness.


Stimulants and sleep

Stimulants are substances such as caffeine, cocaine and amphetamine that have an effect on the central nervous system and body, leading to increased alertness and a sense of being very awake.  These substances can prevent the onset of sleep and keep people alert well into the next morning. The result is a sleep deficit whereby users feel exhausted and low in mood and energy when the effects have worn off.  The more stimulants that are used the more difficult it will be to have a regular sleep pattern contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression.


Cannabis and sleep

Cannabis users report that they feel more tired and sleepy after use and many use it to fall asleep. Research has identified that different strains and levels of use have different effects on the various stages of sleep with some being longer or shorter. In stopping smoking, cannabis users may find that they need time to adjust their sleep patterns; an example of this is an increase in dreaming or insomnia.


Vicious cycle of insomnia and substance use

Regardless of the type of substance used to self-medicate insomnia, it will generate a cycle that can be difficult to break. For example, someone may might drink alcohol to fall asleep more readily, but drinking also disrupts sleep. As a result more alcohol is drunk in the hope of finding relief. If stimulant drugs are used, they will reduce the need for sleep. However, the body still needs to rest, so it will start to slow down. When that occurs it’s easy/likely to reach for more drugs in order to stay alert or awake.

Remember natural sleep patterns are optimal so where insomnia is a problem it is always better to use approaches that don’t involve self-medication.