The Relationship Between Sleep and Recovery

January 8, 2022

Written by Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson is a sleep coach at the Learn more about Dave and his expertise here.

Sleep and addiction have a complex and bi-directional relationship. Those with poor sleep are more likely to reach for a substance to help, be it alcohol, marijuana, or sleeping pills, and those with an addiction or substance disorder are up to 10 times more likely to have a sleep problem than the average adult.

In one study of alcoholism, almost all of the subjects reported impaired sleep quality and more than half reported moderate-to-severe insomnia, compared to 17–30% of the general population. Almost half of the subjects admitted to abusing a substance to promote sleep, and there were significantly above-average levels of the sleep disorders of Sleep Apnoea and Restless leg syndrome. Both of these require medical intervention to solve them. Then, once sober and in recovery, those who lose sleep are twice as likely to relapse as those who solve their insomnia. 

One of the prompts for relapse is that when losing sleep, people lose their ability to focus and be rational and have an increase in risk-taking behaviour, and thus become vulnerable to a ‘slip’. 

Also, as sleep is involved in memory consolidation, when people lose sleep, they find it harder to retain the new coping skills, healthy habits, and self-regulation tools for recovery. Indeed, if you get less than 6 hours of sleep, you lose 40% of what you studied that day. 

From being sleep deprived in the day, other addictions can arise as individuals turn to other ‘stimulating drugs’ to keep them awake in the day – including caffeine.  

Addiction invariably disrupts one’s lifestyle, sleep, and wellness, which suffer often over the longer term. In addition, diseases of morbidity, such as stroke, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s, are all associated with chronic sleep deprivation.

How does alcohol disrupt sleep?

The link between alcohol and disrupted sleep is well documented. Alcohol is a good sedative and can help people get to sleep quickly, however it then disrupts a segment of sleep called Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM) which occurs later in the night. This REM sleep is a key part of helping people control their emotions. 

Dopamine, addiction, sleep loss, and relapse

Dopamine is a brain hormone which is commonly referred to as the happy chemical. More specifically, it is a ‘reward hormone’ driving people to repeat behaviours that stimulate the brain to promote its release. Drugs such as cocaine, meth, etc. stimulate dopamine, but the problem is that dopamine is also involved in making individuals more alert and regulating sleep, thus causing a disruption to the circadian rhythm and sleep. Those who have sleep deprivation in recovery downregulate the dopamine receptors which makes them more impulsive and likely to relapse.

Overeating and sleep loss.

One problem of sleep loss is weight gain due to the metabolism getting disrupted, as well as an increase in cravings for sugary and fatty foods. Then, when eating poorer carbohydrate-based foods, not only is weight likely to increase, but there is also a disruption of sleep, creating another vicious circle of disease. 

The key here is to break these vicious circles of relapsing health and addiction and get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, which are required for a healthy mind and body, and a sustained and vibrant recovery. Here are the top tips for making good sleep an integral part of your recovery.

10 top tips for a good night’s sleep. 

1. Keep it consistent.  

Your body clock expects you to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If you can’t do this, set your alarm to wake you up at the same time each week to appease your body clock. 

2. Create a relaxing and focused wake-up routine. 

When you get out of bed, open the curtains/blinds to get some sunlight. Do some early morning meditation to set your intention for the day and to invest in your sleep. 

3. Exercise. 

Cardio exercise is proven to increase quality of sleep by increasing deep sleep and also produces endorphins, which are great for your mood. If you don’t like cardio, walking for 20-30 minutes a day will also improve sleep. 

4. Stop caffeine at lunchtime. 

All caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, sodas) can interfere with your sleep, as they keep you alert and adrenalised. It takes your body 6 hours to remove ½ of it from your body, so stopping the consumption of caffeine around lunch will allow your body to wind down later in the evening. 

5. Eat for sleep. 

Follow a healthy Mediterranean diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish, and a little red meat. 

6. Follow an evening wind-down routine. 

Create a regular sleep routine such as bath, book, meditation and bed, as this sets up your brain that sleep is coming. Dim all your lights to help with the production of Melatonin, your sleep hormone.

7. Set your bedroom up for sleep. 

Black-out blinds are great, as the absence of light is the biggest ‘initiator of sleep’. Your bedroom should also be quite cool, around 65 F or 18 C. 

8. Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. 

Avoid lying awake in bed and building up anxiety. Allow 20 minutes to nod off, and if you can’t get to sleep, get out of bed, have a warm drink, or read a book in dim light and then come back to bed when you are feeling tired. This means your brain associates your bed with getting to sleep, rather than lying awake. 

9. Avoid all technology within one hour of sleep.  

Technology such as mobile phones and computers emit blue light, which blocks the production of Melatonin. Always put filters on your tech to help. In addition, the stimulation of being on social media and apps will also keep your brain too alert. Ideally, keep your phone out of the bedroom, and never use it when lying in bed – it’s too tempting. 

10. Learn ways to switch off. 

Anxiety is the most common cause of sleep problems. Learning to switch off with yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises ( such as the 4-7-8 technique) can all help you sleep. In addition, always breathe through your nose, though as it’s proven to help you sleep better. 

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