Recovering from an addiction is a long and slow process that requires patience, time, and the willingness to seek help. It also means working to improve your health to recover from the physical and mental side affects of substance abuse. While anxiety and cravings are often-discussed aspects of recovery, insomnia is a less-discussed but still frequent symptom.
Unfortunately, sleep is one of the cornerstones of good health, and failing to get enough rest will cause mental and physical health issues. This is especially dangerous for recovering addicts because fatigue can reduce your willpower, cause depression-like symptoms, and cause physical health problems. For example, sleep is directly linked to a suppression of the insulin system, resulting in a change in blood glucose, which is further linked directly to willpower. Essentially, not getting enough sleep reduces your willpower so that you are more likely to give into cravings and to relapse. Even without those considerations, not getting enough sleep is uncomfortable, reduces your performance, and will generally make you feel bad.
Despite that, many doctors are hesitant to prescribe sleeping aids to recovering addicts, because sleeping aids are often highly addictive. While you may be forced to choose a pharmaceutical option if you cannot solve insomnia in any other way, there are plenty of natural non-pharmaceutical treatments for insomnia that you can try first.
What Causes Insomnia in Recovery
Insomnia is a very common side affect of alcohol and some opioid withdrawal. In most cases, recovering addicts will suffer from sleep problems and insomnia for at least the first few weeks of recovery. However, in some cases, insomnia can last longer and may become chronic.
This happens because of how addictions affect the brain. The primary cause is in that substance abuse affects the body’s natural production of serotonin. Serotonin causes happiness in the brain’s reward system, but is also converted into melatonin in the brain. Melatonin helps to maintain your sleep schedule by causing drowsiness, relaxation, and lowering the body temperature. When you change your body’s serotonin output with a substance, you potentially damage your sleep cycle for a long time to come.
Substance abuse and recovery also exacerbate anxiety, restlessness, and an inability to quiet your thoughts, all of which can also prevent you from falling asleep.
Insomniacs – Many people become addicted because they are insomniacs. Alcoholics often start out using alcohol to fall asleep. Many prescription sleep aids are also highly addictive, which can lead to a worse addiction. If you suffered from sleep problems before an addiction, they will come back and will potentially be worse than before.
Non-Pharmaceutical Options for Insomnia
These options will help you to reduce stress, calm your body, and reduce elements that keep you awake. However, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor about your insomnia before you start any new routines.
Minimize Stress – Stress is one of the primary causes of insomnia. If you are in the early stages of recovery, that stress is likely both physical and mental as you struggle with cravings and withdrawal symptoms. However, if you have been clean for some time, your stress may stem from work, family, or financial causes. Try to find out what is causing you stress, and work to minimize it. This is important because stress is also one of the primary triggers for a relapse and if it keeping you awake at night, you are at risk.
Practice Mindfulness – Practicing mindfulness can help you to still your mind, reduce stress, and reduce how much you are affected by stressful situations. Studies show that when compared directly to traditional pharmaceuticals, mindfulness offers similar results to practitioners who attend at least 2.5 hours of meditation per week. You can attend classes or use online resources like Headspace.com to get started.
Meditate Before Bed – Meditation lowers the heart rate, reduces stress, and can reduce the body temperature, preparing the body for sleep. Harvard University recommends doing mindfulness meditation shortly before bed.
Avoid Caffeine – Caffeine is a well-known stimulant that many people rely on to stay awake or to have energy during the day. Unfortunately, it can also keep you awake at night. Caffeine has a half-life of 5.7 hours in healthy adults, which can keep you awake when you try to go to bed. Recovering addicts can expect even longer times. Studies have shown that persons with compromised liver function, like from substance abuse damage, can have a caffeine half life of up to 60 hours. This means that even a small amount of caffeine can remain active in your system for days. If you do have caffeine, have it in the morning, and then limit soda and chocolate intake throughout the day.
Eat Frequently – Eat small meals every 2-3 hours, make sure that you have at least 15 grams of protein with each, and don’t binge on carbohydrates (like sweets) shortly before bed. Why? Normal American eating patterns of having large carbohydrate laden meals 3 times per day cause blood sugar spikes and energy spikes, which later result in a crash. This will affect your sleep schedule and could prevent you from sleeping at night. By balancing out your food intake, ensuring that you’re getting plenty of protein, which is a long-lasting energy source, and avoiding large meals, you keep your energy levels even so that you are more likely to fall asleep at night.
Practice Moderate Exercise – Moderate exercise can help you to fall asleep by producing dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Serotonin naturally converts to melatonin, which helps you to sleep. Moderate exercise will also help to improve your blood pressure, will naturally fatigue the muscles, and will give you energy during the day. However, if you are having sleep problems, you should avoid aerobics or hard exercise, which could increase your blood pressure to much and might worsen your insomnia.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Cognitive behavioral therapy is increasingly seen as the best therapeutic option for treating insomnia. However, if you also suffer from a depression disorder, CBT might not be an appropriate solution for you. You should discuss this with your doctor, or your therapist if you are already undergoing CBT through your recovery program.
Create a Regular Sleep Schedule – Waking up and going to bed every day at the same time improves your body’s internal circadian rhythm, which makes it more likely for you to fall asleep when you go to bed. Pick a reasonable time that you can go to bed every day, and plan to wake up 8 hours after you go to bed. Stick to this schedule every day, including on weekends for the best results.
Eliminate Electronics from Your Bedroom – Televisions, tablets, and mobile phones all emit a form of blue light, which will keep you awake. Blue light wakes up the brain, and can prevent REM sleep, preventing restful sleep. Try to turn your phone, tablet, and TV off at least an hour before bed and then read, meditate, take a bath, or do light exercise such as yoga instead.
In most cases, each of these habits will take time to take effect, which means that for early recovery insomnia, they may begin to take effect as the symptoms of insomnia are abating. However, for chronic and longer-term insomnia, these methods can and will work to improve your regular sleep.
Trying Herbal Remedies
While herbal remedies offer weaker results than pharmaceuticals, you can induce drowsiness and help yourself fall asleep using some herbs, foods, and plants. For example, in some cases, insomnia is directly linked to nutrient deficiencies which are common in recovering addicts, rather than expressly to anxiety and other side effects of recovery. These remedies only offer light results and they are only temporary, meaning that they will help you fall asleep, they won’t cure insomnia. In addition, they will quickly become less effective as your body adjusts to them, so you should only plan to use one while fixing your sleep schedule.
Catnip – Catnip is largely known as the cat plant, but while it makes cats playful, it makes people relax. Catnip contains a substance called nepetalactone, which can create drowsiness and relaxation to help you sleep.
Valerian – Valerian is a commonly prescribed herbal sleep remedy that works by influencing the levels of GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) in the brain, causing relaxation.
Chamomile – Chamomile features a substance known as apigenin which binds to the GABA receptors, causing relaxation and drowsiness.
Saint John’s Wort – Saint John’s Wort is an herbal remedy that is used as a natural treatment for depression. For insomnia, the herb works when hypericin reacts with the brain to prevent serotonin reuptake inhibition (SSRI) to raise the levels of serotonin in the brain. Saint John’s Wort is relatively safe for long-term use but cannot be used with other SSRI medication.
Eat More Fruit – Fruit like cherries and bananas contain a large amount of tryptophan, which is an amino acid that the body converts to serotonin and then to melatonin. This can help you to sleep better.
Magnesium Supplements – Talk to your doctor to ask if magnesium supplements are a good choice for you before you start to take them. Many recovering addicts suffer from magnesium deficiency, but magnesium influences the GABA receptors in the brain. By not having enough, you promote anxiety and agitation, as well as insomnia.
There are plenty of ways to combat insomnia without pharmaceuticals. If you are recovering, staying away from addictive drugs may be a priority for you. However, if you try non-pharmaceutical insomnia remedies for several months with no results, it’s important to talk to your doctor about prescription sleeping aids.
If you or your loved one are suffering from substance dependence or addiction, it is important that you seek professional help. Please call Lighthouse Treatment Center today. We are happy to provide a no-cost, no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced treatment advisors. We are here to help.