Most addicts have some kind of difficulty with natural sleep. This is not especially surprising, since about a third of the general population has some degree of trouble sleeping.


Insomnia is a very general term meaning having trouble sleeping. Most of the time it is due to lifestyle factors, like staying up too late, drinking coffee in the evening, inadequate exercise during the day, erratic sleeping hours, or too much noise and light. Addiction to mood-altering drugs, including alcohol and possibly large amounts of sugar, is likely to disrupt the body’s biochemistry enough to make sleep difficult.

Sleep Apnea

Apnea means stopping breathing for a few seconds or longer. The sleeping disorder called sleep apnea means periods of ten seconds or more without breathing. Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, signaling the brain to wake up enough to initiate breathing. Since this is not remembered in the morning, people with sleep apnea usually complain of sleepiness during the day rather than sleeplessness during the night.

Obstructive sleep apnea Obstructive sleep apnea, the most severe and the most common kind, affects about 1 percent of men aged thirty to fifty, most often those who are overweight and heavy snorers, but it does affect all ages and both sexes. In this type of sleep apnea, the actual obstruction of the airway causes or contributes to the disorder.

Pickwickian syndrome Pickwickian syndrome is named after Joe, a “fat and red-faced boy in a state of somnolence,” in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club by Charles Dickens. This disorder, related to sleep apnea, affects very obese people. When they sit or lie in positions where the diaphragm must lift a lot of weight to breathe, the breathing becomes very shallow, and they can lose consciousness due to hypoxia. Then, after a time, their brain wakes them with a start.

Other Sleep Problems

There are other sleep disturbances that may have little to do with addiction, although obesity, alcoholism, and other addictions certainly don’t help them any.

Snoring When any condition causes difficulty in breathing through the nose, you naturally breathe through the mouth. In certain positions, like lying on your back, the soft palate tends to vibrate — causing snoring.

In extreme cases snoring may be relieved by surgery, but often simply sewing an object into the pajama top near the small of the back will make it uncomfortable to sleep on your back and alleviate the symptoms. There are also strips that you can attach to your nose to hold it open a little — these might work.

Narcolepsy Frequent sleep episodes and excessive sleepiness during the day may suggest this sleep disorder. It is often inherited, and treatment may include frequent naps during the day and stimulant drugs to counteract drowsiness and antidepressant drugs to suppress cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone without loss of consciousness).

Depression People with certain psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety and depression, may have difficulty with sleep. Those with depression typically wake early in the morning and have trouble getting to sleep at night.


While many approaches to sleep disorders are well beyond the scope of this manual, we can offer some suggestions:

Getting off all unnecessary drugs, including, of course, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, can help a lot. Improvement should be apparent in just a couple of weeks.

Better nutrition will insure that the body has all the raw materials to make its needed neurotransmitters and other chemicals.

Exercise during the day, especiallythe morning, can help with sleeping. A short walk (not vigorous exercise) just before retiring is helpful for some.

Keeping a schedule that is as regular as possible will give your body a much better chance to be regular about sleep.

The amount of sleep a person needs varies greatly, from as little as about four hours to over ten, with most being around seven to nine hours. But often there is more disturbance due to poor quality sleep than not enough of it.

Try not to use sleeping pills. For one thing, moodifiers are dangerous for addicts of any sort. Also, most “sleeping pills” don’t induce sleep, actually. They promote a state that is between natural sleep and a coma. The real benefits of sleep, including all four stages of sleep plus REM sleep (dreaming), may not accumulate until the drug wears off.

Certain sleep disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea, may require careful diagnosis and even surgery to correct.


Brain activity during sleep causes dreams. Dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, for some ten to twenty minutes about every ninety minutes.

Research reported in the Lifetime Health Letter of the University of Texas (Dec 1989) suggests that dreaming is an automatic process governed by the random firing of neurons and the release of brain chemicals during sleep. Its biological function is unidentified but believed to be important.

These firings originate in the brain stem and are transmitted to areas of the brain involved in emotion, sensory perception, and higher thought processes. Dreams appear to be a melange of events of the day, preexisting memories, and aspirations woven together in a mysterious way. In theory, when the electrical impulses reach the brain’s center of higher thought, the cortex takes the information and tries to form a coherent story by relating them to stored memories.

No one knows for sure what dreams mean. The simplest explanation is that they are the by-product of the brain’s filing activity and mean nothing. Others believe they reveal deep feelings, conflicts, and desires. Many therapists use dreams to help clients learn about themselves, develop intuition, or solve problems.

“Using” dreams Many addicts report “using” or bingeing dreams that involve addictive behavior. In early recovery these may be frightening. Since addiction itself is dramatic, it makes sense that memories of using, bingeing, and consequences would be prominent, and would be involved in dreams. Addicts years into recovery still have such dreams. Some report gratitude that it was just a dream, use it as a reminder that they are still addicts, or just dismiss them as insignificant.

Sleep, see also: Abstinence, Aftercare, Chronic pain, Drugs, Exercise & activity, Habit & structure, Prayer & meditation, Relapse prevention, Relaxation, Stress & strain, Tranquilizers.

Updated 12 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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