Insomnia Plagues Addicts in Early Recovery

People in the early stages of addiction recovery may have as much as a 400 percent higher chance of experiencing bouts of insomnia than the general population and those sleep disturbances may continue for months to years, researchers say.

In a report published in November/December 2014 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, researchers from two American universities detailed the unusual frequency of insomnia in people recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The researchers also detailed the damaging effect that insomnia may have on the chances that a person in addiction recovery will experience a relapse back into active substance use.


People affected by insomnia have sleep-related problems that may include difficulty falling asleep at the time normally reserved for sleep, difficulty remaining asleep for adequate stretches of time throughout the night and/or difficulty remaining asleep during early morning hours. Some people occasionally experience these problems, while others experience them often or constantly. An individual seriously impacted by insomnia may undergo life disruptions significant enough to merit a diagnosis of insomnia disorder, a mental health condition officially recognized and defined by the American Psychiatric Association.

Insomnia has a range of potential underlying causes. These causes include habit- or lifestyle-related factors such as failing to maintain a regular sleep schedule, maintaining a largely sedentary daily routine or trying to sleep in an unsuitable environment; substance-related factors such as consuming excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol, using certain cold remedies or smoking excessively; and mental and physical factors such as high levels of stress, having bipolar disorder or having a disruptively painful physical ailment. In addition, some people develop temporary or lasting insomnia as they grow older and their sleep patterns alter over time. Whatever the underlying cause, insomnia can lead to consequences that include serious daytime fatigue, lack of sufficient mental focus and increased risks for accidental injury.

Addiction Recovery and Relapse

Most people start the addiction recovery process by halting substance use and going through a period of detoxification. (Some programs don’t view complete substance abstinence as a mandatory treatment goal, and therefore don’t absolutely require a detox period.) Depending on the substance that functions as a source of addiction, detoxification may be followed by treatment based primarily on medication, treatment based primarily on some form of psychotherapy or treatment based on a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Regardless of the treatment approach, all people recovering from substance addiction must deal with the effects of withdrawal and the ongoing urges to keep using drugs or alcohol. A relapse occurs when a person in recovery suspends abstinence (or monitored substance use) and resumes uncontrolled substance intake. Such an event is common, and as a rule, treatment programs devote much of their energy to helping their clients/patients get past relapse episodes and return to active program participation.

What Is Insomnia’s Impact?

In the report published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and the University of San Francisco addressed the frequency of insomnia in people beginning their participation in addiction recovery. After completing a review of the available literature, they concluded that such individuals may have up to a 400 percent higher chance of experiencing insomnia than the average American adult. In some cases, these increased sleeplessness risks may extend beyond the early phases of recovery and remain a relevant factor for several months to a year or more.

The researchers also addressed the impact that insomnia may have on the effectiveness of addiction recovery. After completing their literature review, they concluded that insomnia may significantly increase the odds that a person recovering from alcohol dependence (i.e. alcoholism) will relapse back into active, uncontrolled alcohol use.

Finally, the researchers addressed the issue of treating insomnia in people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. They concluded that, in some cases, use of sleep-inducing insomnia medications may reduce the chances that a person in recovery will relapse back into active substance use (especially in the case of alcohol). However, they note that sleep medications generally come with their own inherent risks for substance abuse and substance addiction. A person already recovering from an addiction may have an increased vulnerability to the misuse of these medications. He or she may also fall back into an insomniac sleeping pattern when use of sleep medications comes to an end.

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