Drug Abuse and Sleep Disorders: The Harrowing Link

The relationship between drug abuse and sleep disorders is complicated as it actually works both ways. While it is common for those with a mental disorder to experience disturbed sleep, a sleep disorder can also be a potential factor for drug abuse and addiction. The recent acknowledgment of this relationship has highlighted the importance of sleep disorders and disturbances being accounted for in substance abuse treatment.

How Are Sleep Disorders and Drug Abuse Related?

Drug abuse and sleep disorders have a complicated and persistent connection. Research has found that individuals living with a substance abuse disorder are 10 times more likely to deal with some sort of sleep disorder as well. The reason for the relationship being complicated and intertwined is that it can work in several ways.

One direction the relationship works is that sleep disorders can contribute to the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. If you are having trouble sleeping, there are a range of prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications that you can take to help you have a better sleeping experience.

Another popular option for those experiencing insomnia or sleep disorders is to have a joint before bed or maybe a large glass of wine; it’s far too easy to reach for a substance to help you fall asleep. Whether it is cannabis, alcohol, or prescription medications, once an individual has experienced the benefits to their sleep, this creates a dependency on the substance and a cycle is formed. Therefore, it increases the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder.

On the other hand, abusing drugs, or other substances can really impact an individual’s quality of sleep. A substance abuse disorder is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:

“A mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behaviour, leading to a person’s inability to control their use of substances.”

Therefore, it is no surprise that the disorder is linked to a lack of sleep. Substances can lead to chemical changes within the body and brain which can directly impact our sleep stages. However, different substances can impact our sleep in many different ways. So, how exactly do drugs affect our sleep?

How Do Drugs Affect Sleep?

A key connector between how drugs affect our sleep is through the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is found within the brain and is associated with our feelings of reward and pleasure. It is often released when we are experiencing things that we enjoy, but it is also released after the consumption of several drugs.

However, dopamine also affects our alertness and is used within the sleep-wake cycle in terms of helping to regulate our sleep. This is why medications that increase dopamine are used for treating sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy. Therefore, it is no surprise that if a person is abusing drugs that increase their levels of dopamine, they are likely to experience trouble with their sleep.

Alcohol and Sleep

Maybe you have heard that a glass of wine before bed is as good as any sleeping pill; however, this is far from the truth, as alcohol can have both short and long-term effects on our sleep. Alcohol induces feelings of drowsiness as the substance is a known depressant, however, as the alcohol wears off, you are likely to become more alert and therefore awake. 

Opioid Drugs and Sleep

While opioids are effective in reducing pain, they are extremely addictive and the use of them often results in a low quality of sleep; it causes less restorative sleep and rapid eye movement (REM). Rapid eye movement is a unique phase of sleep where dreams take place, and it typically starts within 90 minutes of a person falling asleep. Although people who are experiencing chronic pain may use the drug to aid with symptoms so they are able to sleep, research has found that the drugs may actually worsen the symptoms of insomnia. A study found that individuals who were consuming prescription opioids were 42% more likely to experience insomnia than people who did not take the drug.

Stimulants and Sleep

 If you’ve ever had a coffee late in the afternoon or early evening and have been unable to sleep, you have experienced the negative effects of stimulants on your sleep. One example of a popular street drug is cocaine. Cocaine increases the amount of dopamine in our brains, causing a short and intense effect of increased alertness, therefore negatively impacting our ability to sleep. Repeated abuse of the drug can result in a reduction of our REM stage of sleep, therefore resulting in fatigue and drowsiness throughout the day and memory difficulties.

Cannabis and Sleep

Many people who have issues with falling asleep use cannabis to reduce feelings of anxiety and to relax the body. However, new research has found that marijuana may actually harm our long-term sleep cycle. In fact, issues with sleep are an extremely common symptom of those experiencing marijuana withdrawal. Research found that over 40% of people trying to stop using cannabis reported sleep disturbances and signposted it as one of the most distressing symptoms.

Drug Withdrawal and Sleep

The link between sleep disorders and drug abuse goes further than the two directions we have discussed. An individual’s sleep quality can be heavily impacted by their experience of withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms are what an individual will experience when they stop taking a substance that they have been abusing. This is problematic as sleep is essential to a successful recovery and a lack of sleep can leave you feeling vulnerable, increasing the risk of a relapse.

Also read: What Is the Best Way To Take a CBD Tincture?


It is extremely common for those with a substance abuse disorder to experience a sleep disorder such as insomnia. Around three quarters of people receiving treatment have a substance abuse disorder. However, there are a number of effective treatment options available to help you recover from a substance abuse disorder and in turn positively affect your sleeping patterns.

It can be difficult to stop taking drugs on your own. If you are struggling with a substance abuse disorder, then it is important to seek treatment so you are able to begin your recovery journey with support and care.