How Substance Use Affects Sleep Quality

By: Anna Ruokis, RN

Sleep is vitally important to every aspect of our lives. The sleep-wake cycle is our body’s way of alerting us to when it’s time to wake up, keeps us awake, helps us go to sleep and works to help us stay asleep. When we don’t get enough sleep or poor sleep, we can very quickly feel the negative effects on our physical health, mental health, outlook on life, ability to concentrate and more.

Whenever someone uses drugs and/or alcohol, it interferes with the sleep-wake cycle and can affect how long it takes to get to sleep, the duration of sleep, and quality of sleep. Even after someone stops using substances, it can take a while to get the sleep cycle back on track. People new to recovery may experience insomnia for some time until chemicals in the brain stabilize to normal baseline levels.

This sleep deprivation or insomnia can be very frustrating for those in recovery because it makes it more difficult to practice the new positive coping skills they are learning. Some people in recovery unfortunately end up going back to self-medicating with substances or alcohol.

Understanding Dopamine’s Role in the Sleep-Wake Cycle

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain–it is the “reward center” of the brain and plays a part in regulating our sleep. When someone uses substances, it stimulates the dopamine (reward) pathways in the brain, which adds to their addictive properties. When someone uses drugs or alcohol, this dopamine (reward) is released, and makes us feel good, which motivates us to keep using the substance, and causes us to keep coming back to it.

With alcohol or drug use, the brain experiences higher than normal levels of dopamine. However, the more times the dopamine (reward) centers of the brain are triggered, the more someone will begin wanting or needing larger amount of the drug and/or alcohol to provide the same level of high from the dopamine.

Dopamine and Sleep

Dopamine also helps us to feel more awake. During daytime hours (when we are awake), the body makes more dopamine. During the night (when we sleep), Dopamine levels decrease, which makes us feel sleepy. 

For example, when someone uses cocaine or methamphetamines, this stimulates a massive increase of dopamine levels in the body and can cause insomnia (no sleep). The high level of dopamine from these stimulants confuses their brain to be awake and alert even when it’s time to sleep. 

Getting Help

If you have any issues with your sleep, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider for assistance to get your sleep cycle back on track.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, Pine Rest can help! To learn more, call 866.852.4001 or visit

You are not alone! We can support you or your loved one at every step of recovery.

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