Opioid addiction affects millions of Americans, and the chronic use of heroin and prescription opiate painkillers can seriously disrupt the sleep of the user. In order to experience overall mental health and well-being, it is vitally important to receive sufficient uninterrupted sleep on a nightly basis. If someone is struggling with an opioid addiction, disrupted sleep can exacerbate many of the side-effects and problems that already come with drug abuse. Opiate users must find ways to get quality, restful sleep in order for them to overcome opioid dependency.
Association between Opiate Use and Sleep
Opiates cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to special receptors in brain areas associated with reward. Over time, receptors may change their sensitivity to opiate molecules. As a result, the structure and function of brain circuitry change after long-term opiate use. This causes many people using opiates to report the following symptoms:
- Insomnia or difficulty falling asleep.
- Problems staying asleep during the night
- Feeling as though sleep is fragmented or not restful
- Need to take sleep medications to get a good night of sleep
- Daytime sleepiness
- Vivid dreams that may have disturbing or unsettling content
- Difficulty concentrating at work or school because of tiredness
- Rapidly fluctuating emotions
This cluster of sleep-related symptoms is a direct result of opiates’ impact on the brain. In fact, a study conducted by researchers at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in London compared individuals experiencing opiate addiction to drug-free controls. The researchers found that opiate users and those with an opioid addiction were more than 5 times as likely to report difficulty falling asleep and 9 times as likely to say they didn’t get good sleep quantity or quality. Thus, sleep problems are a common condition among opiate users but may be under-assessed by medical professionals.
Physiological Explanation for Sleep Disturbance
Healthy sleep cycles go through a series of stages throughout the night. Scientists measure these stages by evaluating the electrical potentials produced during sleep. Particularly important are the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage, in which dreams occur and memories are consolidated, and the deep, restorative phases of non-REM sleep. Opiates disrupt both of these stages of sleep, setting the stage for fragmented sleep that does not leave a person suffering from opioid addiction feeling refreshed in the morning.
So how do opiates cause a disruption in sleep? According to scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, this seems to be a result of a brain chemical called adenosine. Adenosine is the main chemical that causes us to feel sleepy. Caffeine, for example, blocks the action of adenosine to prevent us from realizing we’re tired.
Scientists now realize that opiates may have similar effects as caffeine on the adenosine system. Interestingly, opiates appear to have both sleep-promoting and wake-promoting effects. The sleep-promoting effects lead to opiates’ characteristic sedating qualities, while the wake-promoting effects disrupt the ability to get a good night of sleep.
Opioid Addiction May Increase the Risks of Sleep Apnea
One other effect of opiates on sleep is that prolonged use may contribute to sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person breathes shallowly or experiences pauses in breathing during sleep. These breathing pauses may occur dozens of times in an hour.
Upon waking, people with sleep apnea often report that they are very sleepy and feel as though they have not gotten enough rest. Although sleep apnea is not dangerous in and of itself, it increases the risk for a variety of other medical conditions, including diabetes, cognitive problems, or daytime accidents. As a person receives treatment for opiate dependence, and opioid addiction, the symptoms of sleep apnea may gradually go away.
Despite the fact that sleep affects many aspects of daily life, health care providers often fail to ask substance users about their sleep quality. The Waismann Method helps individuals struggling with opiates find ways to get better quality, restful sleep. Learn more about the Waismann Method’s safe, proven, and effective rapid detox treatment for opioid addiction.
Opiates, Sleep, and Pain: The Adenosinergic Link. Anesthesiology. Retrieved, March 17, 2015.
Subjective sleep–wake parameters in treatment-seeking opiate addicts. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Retrieved, March 17, 2015.