girl sitting on the bed hugging her knees

Do we really need to sleep?

Despite a robust body of research, it’s still unclear why humans need sleep. What is abundantly clear is that sleep is not a luxury but a necessity for repairing our brains and bodies each night. Humans are the only animal that denies themselves sleep. Lack of sleep is linked to everything from cardiovascular disease to depression and anxiety. We know that sleep deprivation is used as a torture method in war and have found that our bodies can survive longer without food and water than without sleep.

Sleep is the base function of a lot of things. As part of our daily habits and paths to healing, it correlates with nutrition, medication, therapy, and exercise. It takes many pieces to build a bridge to Rome.

How is sleep part of the recovery process?

A resident came to Sabino Recovery with an addiction to meth, cocaine, and alcohol. The resident was anxious, depressed, and hadn’t slept well in years. When she first arrived, we knew our priority was to make sure she safely detoxed from the substances she had been using. Her mood was dysregulated, she was irritable, and had a hard time knowing when she was hungry.

Drugs like cocaine and meth make it difficult to sleep and she said that she started drinking more to help herself get to sleep. We frequently see this cycle of using a substance to stay awake and then needing another to sleep. This resident also suffered from anxiety and depression but wasn’t sure if that was because of the drugs or if she started using because she was depressed, which is often the case with dual diagnosis.

The resident was given her personalized treatment plan and as she began healing, she noticed that her mind cleared and her body healed. Recovery is difficult and there were hard days but she was developing tools to take care of herself. Her sleep was improving too. A sleep study discovered that she ground her teeth at night, which disrupted her sleep. As her sleep improved, so did her anxiety, which improved her teeth grinding. As she slept more, her body was able to heal more, giving her mind even more recovery tools.

What is the purpose of studying sleep?

Much of the focus of modern medicine is on finding out what is wrong with a body and making a diagnosis. We look at signs and symptoms to find out what’s wrong and then decide what medication or further tests that person needs. But if we can’t make a diagnosis, does that mean the person is perfectly healthy? What does healthy mean? By taking a broader, more holistic view of health, we understand that it’s not just one thing and is about the connection between physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

About 20 years ago, there was a study that showed how sleep helps and heals the heart. The number one cause of death in the world is cardiovascular disease. If we can understand how sleep heals the heart, we can gain a better understanding of how it affects the brain. Anything good for the heart is good for the brain.

A good example of the link between brain chemistry and health is looking at nutrition and exercise. There is plenty of conventional wisdom about diet and exercise, including the right amount of exercise for each body type and the types of foods that are best for you. But no one is perfect. We all know the guidelines for healthy eating but do we all follow that perfectly? Do we all exercise daily?

We know that a sleepy person is naturally hungry, and that lack of sleep leads to sugar and fat cravings. This is neurochemistry and yet people are made to feel shame about their lack of willpower around food. Lack of sleep is shown to contribute to lack of impulse control, irritability, and poor decision-making. This applies to food, exercise, and substance use.

Part of studying sleep is connecting people to their best health. We sleep to protect our brains and bodies. Every night we repair our bodies and set ourselves up to live well the next day. This concept is especially important in recovery.

What is the purpose of studying sleep in recovery?

Even when we accept how important sleep is to our overall health, what does studying common sleep problems like sleep apnea have to do with recovering from substance use?

Lack of sleep or sleep problems can be the source of some people’s addictions. Many people use substances to help their insomnia, such as Ambien, alcohol, Xanax, or marijuana. They may also use substances to stay awake during the day if they haven’t slept enough the night before. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with happiness, is also associated with sleep regulation. When people use drugs that increase dopamine, such as cocaine or meth, it disrupts their circadian rhythm.

Not getting enough sleep during recovery can leave people vulnerable to relapse and make mental health issues worse. Common sleep problems like teeth grinding and sleep apnea can indicate deeper issues or mental health concerns. There is a clear connection between lack of sleep, mental health, and addiction. The more we know about the links, the better equipped we are to help people achieve long-term recovery.