Substance use disorders and insomnia commonly co-occur, as many struggling with insomnia turn to drugs and alcohol in effort to combat their symptoms through self-medication.
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The Connection Between Insomnia and Addiction
In today’s modern world, insomnia has proven to be a common occurrence. At least 25% of Americans experience symptoms of the disorder each year. Due to the multitude of stress from working long hours, constantly being connected via smartphones, and the high cost of living, it’s no wonder that sleep evades a large portion of the population. These problems are magnified when insomnia and addiction are present at the same time.
Addiction and insomnia frequently co-exist, as lack of sleep creates multiple physical and emotional issues that some individuals will attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of the people that suffer from sleep disorders and regularly abuse alcohol and/or narcotic drugs, do so in order to enhance sleep.
Additionally, insomnia is one of the most common complaints among patients in recovery from a substance use disorder. Both continued abuse and sustained abstinence of a substance alters sleep patterns, and this change can cause some recovering users to suffer from insomnia for days or even weeks. Many experience such intense insomnia that it prompts them to relapse just so they are able to sleep. This is especially true for alcoholics and those that were addicted to benzodiazepines, as they start drinking or using again because they believe that the sedative effects will help them sleep normally.
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What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that regularly affects millions of Americans each year. Insomnia can make it hard for someone to fall asleep, to stay asleep, or cause an individual to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. The disorder significantly affects a person’s mood, psychological state, and ability to function during the day.
There are two types of insomnia: acute insomnia and chronic insomnia. Acute insomnia occurs when symptoms last only a few nights and often happens because of life circumstances, such as not being able to fall asleep due to a big exam the next morning or after receiving stressful news. This type of insomnia is extremely common, and many people have experienced it at least once in their lives. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts for at least three months. Unlike the acute condition, the underlying causes of chronic insomnia are often linked to other medical or psychiatric issues.
Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia is usually a result of stress, life events, or habits that disrupt sleep. Although emotional issues are typically the culprit behind the majority of insomnia cases, simple daytime habits such as drinking too much caffeine can also disrupt circadian rhythm and induce insufficient sleep.
The most common causes of insomnia include:
- Travel and/or work schedule
- Poor sleeping habits
- Eating too much late in the evening
- Other mental health disorders (i.e. depression or anxiety)
- Other sleep-related disorders (i.e. sleep apnea)
- Using caffeine, nicotine and/or alcohol late in the evening
Insomnia as a Co-Occurring Disorder
People who suffer from sleeps disorders are 5-10 times more likely to also be diagnosed with a substance use disorder than those without sleep disorders. Many attribute this to be the cause of the availability of sleeping aids for these individuals and the false belief that insomnia can be resolved with the self-medication of drugs and alcohol.
Sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta, are frequently prescribed for short-term relief from insomnia and other sleep disorders. However, these drugs are extremely addictive and present a high potential for abuse. Many become dependent on the pills and then use them beyond their prescribed intent for continued relief. Many people with insomnia don’t realize that they have become addicted to the sleeping aids until they stop taking their medication and begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal. This makes substance abuse recovery for insomniacs even harder, as they often will suffer from “rebound insomnia” when attempting to quit or a compounded insomnia that is even worse than it was before.
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Addiction to alcohol for insomniacs occurs for a similar reason, as many will use alcohol for its sedative effects to induce sleep. However, this is misleading as the effects of continued alcohol abuse are usually more harmful and detrimental to the natural sleep cycle. Alcohol actually exacerbates insomnia symptoms; a vicious cycle then develops of increased alcohol use and ever-worsening insomnia, which more often than not turns into a full-blown addiction. In fact, some studies indicate that alcohol near bedtime interrupts the REM cycle of sleep and never allows the user to get to a state of restorative sleep.
Despite the fact that the idea of whether smartphone, video game, and internet addictions exist is a controversial topic, it is indisputable that electronic use is on the rise and that it is impacting insomnia. Using electronic devices up to thirty minutes before bed can increase the likelihood of interrupted sleep as the “blue light” of the device confuses the brain with simulated “daylight” and makes going to sleep feel unnatural.
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Insomnia and Addiction Treatment
Co-occurring sleep disorders and substance use disorders are very treatable, and a multi-disciplinary approach that simultaneously addresses both disorders has proven to be particularly successful. If you’re someone that has been struggling with insomnia and uses drugs or alcohol in an attempt to “fix” your disorder, contact a dedicated treatment provider today. Know that you are not alone and that there are multiple treatment options available to you.