Binge drinking or using illicit drugs can have a significant impact on your sleep.

binge drinkingBinge drinking can have significant effects on sleep long after alcohol is out of your system. Similarly, many illicit drugs can impact sleep long after their other effects have worn off. The effects of binge drinking and illicit drug use, can be the start of sleep problems for many people I see in my practice. Despite no longer binge drinking or using drugs, they have ongoing symptoms of disturbed sleep and insomnia. For others, the sleep disturbance that occurs can result in ongoing use of alcohol or drugs to prevent the withdrawal insomnia that occurs after a binge or drug use.

How does binge drinking effect sleep?

Binge drinking, or drinking alcohol in excess with the aim of becoming intoxicated, has significant short and long term health effects. With regards to sleep, recent studies have shown that binge drinking can result in a substantial reduction in the normal ability to either fall asleep or gain the restorative benefits that normally come from sleep.

A study published in 2013 looking at just over 14,000 young adults showed that binge drinking was associated with disturbed sleep even when correcting for mental health problems associated with binge drinking. A similar study in just under 5,000 older adults showed that those that indulged in binge drinking twice a week or more were 84% more likely to have sleeplessness and insomnia compared to those who did not binge drink.

The exact mechanism by which binge drinking impacts on sleep is not clear, but appears to involve disturbing brain mechanisms involved in sleep regulation. Melatonin, a hormone important in regulating the sleep-wake cycle can be suppressed by binge drinking. In a 3 day experiment, it was shown that binge drinking leads to reversal of the usual sleep-wake cycle on the second day after a binge, with rats not being able to sleep during the day (when they normally sleep), but wanting to sleep at night (when they are normally awake). Other research has shown that binge drinking increases adenosine levels. This can result in people falling asleep earlier, but then waking during the night and having trouble returning to sleep.

What effects do illicit drugs have on sleep?

Illicit drugs such as marijuana, methamphetamine (ice) and MDMA (ecstasy) are commonly used together with alcohol in binge drinkers. They can have their own effects on sleep. Illicit drugs can be grouped in to 2 main groups with regards to their effects on sleep:

  1. binge drinkingStimulants (cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) – These drugs all stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and increase wake-promoting neurotransmitters. In the short-term they can prevent sleep, keeping people awake for hours and even days at a time. But, in the longer-term and once the drug wears off, people often feel even more tired, sleepy and depressed than usual.
  2. Sedative (marijuana) – In the short-term, marijuana can help induce sleep. However, the problems come when people stop marijuana use as there is often then a withdrawal effect with rebound insomnia and poor sleep.

What can be done?

If you or people you know have been binge drinking or using illicit drugs and not sleeping well, it is important to seek help from their health professional.  There are many things that can be done to help with drinking, drug use and sleep such as changing behaviour and thinking around alcohol, drugs and sleep and modifying other lifestyle factors.  Implementing these strategies, together with more advanced strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, takes away the need for relying on alcohol or drugs as sleep aids.

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has published guidelines on safe drinking levels for adults. The recommendations are that for healthy men and women, drinking no more than 4 standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion. The NHMRC also recommends no more than 2 standard drinks per day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. A standard drink is defined as 10 grams of alcohol, which is 200ml of standard strength beer (5% alcohol), 80ml of wine (12% alcohol) or 25ml of spirits (40% alcohol).

For people who find they are already reliant on alcohol or drugs to help with sleep there is good research showing that working with health professionals experienced in the management of alcoholism or drug dependence can successfully get people off alcohol or drugs. If you or someone you know needs help with alcoholism or drug dependence there are good services available such as the ones listed below:

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Check our resources or take our Sleep Wellness Quiz for a free assessment of elements that may be keeping you from a good night’s sleep.

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