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Addiction Medicine FYI

Insomnia and Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Addictive disorder research is beginning to define the relationships between detoxification, early recovery and sleep disorders. Although detoxification and early recovery have always been associated with sleep disorders, the association between them is now under closer examination. The research encompasses the association between sleep disorders, the use of alcohol and/or drugs of abuse for self-medication and patient relapse. A recent study, "Insomnia, Self-Medication, and Relapse to Alcoholism," (Brower, K.J. et al.) documents the relationship between sleep disorders, detoxification and patient relapse. Since research in this area is still very limited, this particular study raises the awareness of the medical profession and increases the likelihood of further study. This FYI In-Depth discusses basic sleep knowledge and substance-induced sleep disorders.

The Addiction Medicine Unit is currently in discussions with researchers in the United States and Canada and will be working together to administer surveys to study the possible link between insomnia and relapse.

What is Sleep?

Sleep is defined as a normal and recurring state of changed consciousness or partial unconsciousness from which one can be readily aroused. It is an essential part of life that is as fundamental to our health and well being as air, food and water. On average, a person spends about one third of their lives asleep. Due to its necessity, the disruption of restful sleep can result in the diminished quality of life and health. It is speculated that sleep aids in restoration of the central nervous system, conservation of energy, thermo-regulation, discarding irrelevant memories and information processing. (Sleep Cycles, 07/18/01).

Normal sleep consists of 4-9 hours of a 24-hour day with two broad phases: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (nonREM). Overall, nonREM sleep is characterized by slow and uniform brain activity with frequent body movements. Blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate during this sleep phase are low and steady. (Pacific Sleep, 07/13/01). The sleep cycle can be broken down into four distinct phases based on the size and speed of the brain waves that are generated by the sleeper. The biggest and slowest brain waves, delta waves, are found in stages three and four of the sleep cycle. It is very difficult to awaken an individual from stage four because the deepest sleep of the night occurs in this stage.

REM sleep, also known as deep sleep, is characterized by irregular brain activity, and is almost indistinguishable from that of an active, waking brain. During REM sleep, only the heart, diaphragm, eye muscles and smooth muscles are spared from decreased movement. It is characterized by rapid eye movements, muscle twitches, fluctuations in blood pressure, as well as variations in heart rate. It is less restful than nonREM sleep and is usually associated with dreaming. The function of REM sleep and dreaming is still under investigation, although, it has been suggested that it plays a role in information processing and memory. (Sleep Cycles, 07/18/01).

Normal sleep is a continuous and dynamic process. It has a complex sleep architecture all of its own, which is accompanied by predictable patterns of brain-wave activity that occur throughout the night. Typically, the normal sleep pattern begins with 80-100 minutes of nonREM sleep followed by about 15-20 minutes of REM sleep. As this cycle repeats during the night, the REM sleep increases and nonREM sleep decreases. Four or five of these alternating cycles are experienced in a full night of sleep. (Ambien, 07/13/01).

The amount of sleep required varies by individual and depends on many factors. As one ages, both the distribution of sleep in a 24-hour period and total sleep requirements change. Infants require much more sleep than adults, sleeping about 18-20 hours; 50% is REM sleep. At age two, total sleep time decreases to 10-12 hours, including the nap period. About one-third of total sleep time is REM sleep. By age 10, total sleep time has decreased to 9 hours each day and 25% is REM sleep, stabilizing at 7-8 hours in adulthood with 20-25% REM sleep. Therefore, with age, sleep tends to become lighter and more fragmented. (Spangler, F.A., 1997).

The basic mechanisms of sleep cannot be localized to a single neurotransmitter system or anatomic area. However, it has been stated that the sleep-wake cycle involves the interaction of many different neurotransmitters or nerve-signaling chemicals. For example, serotonin is a chemical messenger that plays a prominent role in the regulation of certain aspects of REM sleep. as well as the onset of nonREM sleep. Norepinephrine is a chemical messenger that helps regulate REM sleep and facilitates arousal. The role and interactions of these neurotransmitters in the sleep-wake cycle is not known. However, when the function of these chemical messengers is disrupted, sleep disorders can result. (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse (NIAA)-Alcohol Alert, 1998).

What is a Sleep Disorder?

In our culture, sleep disorders are very common. On average, 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders each year and an additional 20 million Americans experience occasional sleeping problems. (National Institute of Neurological Disorders, 07/13/01). Sleep disorders can arise from many causes: dysfunctional sleep mechanisms, abnormalities in physiological functions during sleep, abnormalities of the biological clock, and sleep disturbances that are induced by factors extrinsic to the sleep process. The DSM-IV divides sleep disorders into four broad categories: primary sleep disorders, sleep disorders from other mental disorders, those due to medical conditions and substance-induced sleep disorders. These four broad categories are referenced below, but only substance-induced sleep disorders are discussed in detail in this FYI In-Depth.

Primary Sleep Disorders

Primary sleep disorders are characterized as abnormalities in the quantity, quality, or timing of sleep. The five major types are: primary insomnia, primary hypersomnia, narcolepsy, breathing-related sleep disorders and circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Primary insomnia is a symptom rather than a disease and is a difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep. Primary insomnia results in daytime fatigue, and impaired reasoning, judgment and mood. It is classified according to the part of the sleep cycle most affected: sleep initiation, sleep maintenance (frequent awakenings), or early awakening (terminal insomnia). It is the most frequently reported sleep complaint and is diagnosed if the sleep problem causes difficulty in the person's social, school, work or other significant area of life.

Primary hypersomnia is associated with excessive amounts of sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. Usually a person with hypersomnia has difficulty getting out of bed even after sleeping more than eight hours. People with this disorder often report that no matter how much they sleep, they do not feel rested and their sleepiness causes problems in work and social settings. (Adams, D.B., 07/24/01).

In narcolepsy, breathing-related and circadian rhythm sleep disorders, abnormal behavior disrupts the natural rhythm of sleep. Even though these events can be traumatic and dangerous, they do not necessarily cause a person to lose much sleep. Often, these events are not remembered the next morning and most people do not suffer day time effects from these actions. The most common parasomnias are nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking. (HeliosHealth.com, 07/18/01).

Mental and Medical Sleep Disorders

There are many mental/medical disorders that disrupt sleep such as: depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. Depression is a serious mental illness that can interfere significantly with an individual's ability to function. Difficulty falling/maintaining sleep or oversleeping are often associated with depression. Among patients with depression, about 85% report insomnia and 10 - 15% complain of hypersomnia. (Clinical Frontiers, 01/12/00). Also, sleep studies have shown that depression can be linked to a number of changes in normal sleep pattern, including prolonged sleep latency, reduced total sleep time, reduced sleep efficiency, reduced stages 3 and 4 sleep, reduced REM latency and increased REM density. (Clinical Frontiers, 01/12/00).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by memories of a traumatic event. The most frequently reported complaints among individuals diagnosed with PTSD are sleep disturbances and are noted by recurrent nightmares and sleep continuity disturbances (trouble initiating or maintaining sleep). PTSD has also been associated with increased REM activity and REM latency under extremely stressful situations.

Chronic pain in the form of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, headaches, and fibromyalgia, for example, can also be associated with a variety of sleep disturbances. These sleep disturbances include initial insomnia, frequent awakenings, decreased sleep duration, daytime sleepiness or fatigue, and nonrestorative sleep. Sleep disturbances of this magnitude are experienced by approximately fifty to seventy percent of pain patients. (Clinical Frontiers, 01/12/00).

Substance-Induced Sleep Disorders

Substance-induced sleep disorders involve the use of, or exposure to, medications, toxins, alcohol or other drugs. Intoxication and withdrawal can also result in substance-induced sleep disorders. Recently, substance-induced sleep disorders and their importance in terms of best treatment practices for those with addictions is becoming more well recognized.

It has been shown that alcohol interferes with normal sleep patterns by disrupting particular neurotransmitters in the brain which control or regulate sleep. When these neurotransmitters are disrupted, disturbances can result. Small amounts of alcohol can cause early sedation or sleepiness, and is often used as a sedative. However, the use of alcohol as an effective sedative can be extremely misleading because the side effects that can result are usually even more harmful and detrimental to the natural sleep cycle. For instance, due to the natural elimination of alcohol from the body, arousal and sleep fragmentation can occur and the second half of the sleep period can be drastically interrupted. This is due to the fact that, although alcohol will cause sedation, it will also decrease REM sleep in the first half of the night resulting in the rebound of REM sleep later in the night. When the rebounding of REM sleep occurs, it causes frequent awaking during the night, and suppression of REM sleep. Gene rally, with continued consumption, alcohol's sedative effects decrease and its disruptive effects remain the same or increase. (NIAA-Alcohol Alert, 1998; Oscar-Berman, 1997; NIAA -NIH guide, 07/02/01)

Alcohol can be associated with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the upper air passage narrows or closes during sleep causing one to awake many times during the night gasping for air. Because of alcohol's depressant effects, the muscles of the upper air passage are affected, snoring is increased and sleep quality and total sleep time are reduced.

Cocaine is a stimulant that produces a sense of euphoria and is followed in several hours by a sense of depression. The euphoria produced by cocaine occurs because of the effect that cocaine has on the brain chemical dopamine. Since dopamine is also involved in wakefulness, the use of cocaine can have an effect on sleep patterns. It typically reduces nonREM sleep and REM sleep. When cocaine use is discontinued, sleepiness results causing one to use more cocaine to function. (Pacific Sleep, 07/13/01).

In a study by Weddington et al. (1990), cocaine withdrawal was examined over 28 days in male inpatients. In the discussion, the authors suggested that cocaine abstinence did not produce a "classic withdrawal pattern" as seen with other drugs of abuse. However, with respect to sleep, the results showed that cocaine-dependent patients reported more difficulty falling asleep and significantly more wakefulness than those who didn't use cocaine. Therefore, the cocaine withdrawal period can be initially associated with hypersomnia - excessive wakefulness.

Marijuana interferes with the normal sleep patterns. The active compound found in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, interacts with specific chemicals in the brain that are associated with sleep and therefore, produces changes in brain wave patterns. The effects that can be contributed to this interaction depend on the amount of substance that is used. In small doses, REM sleep is only slightly suppressed, but large doses and/or continued use of marijuana can cause insomnia and significantly reduced REM sleep. (Pacific Sleep, 07/13/01).

Sleep Disturbances May Threaten Recovery

A variety of studies have been conducted which portray the relationship between alcohol and sleep. A number of these studies have indicated that alcohol's subtle ability to sedate is reinforcing for some insomniacs and that the positive reinforcement could lead to dependence. For instance, studies have shown that 28 percent of those who complain of insomnia reported using alcohol to help them sleep. Individuals who reported having two or more weeks of insomnia were more likely to have met diagnostic criteria for alcoholism at one-year follow-up. (Ford, D.E. et al, 1989). Therefore, insomniacs should be made aware of the potential dangers of using alcohol as a sedative.

Alcohol withdrawal can also be associated with sleep disturbances. Studies have demonstrated that pronounced insomnia and marked sleep fragmentation often result when chronic drinkers go through withdrawal and that this may even occur many weeks into abstinence. Studies have also shown that nonREM sleep is reduced during withdrawal and ultimately restful sleep is diminished. Additionally, in some alcoholic, who attempt to withdraw from alcohol, long-suppressed REM sleep tends to rebound excessively, which can be associated with hallucinations. A symptom of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremors (DT's). DT's is a condition that occurs 2-4 days after alcohol withdrawal, which consists of trembling and agitation with hallucinations, over- excitation, fever, sweating, and rapid heartbeat. Studied have suggested that these DT's represent a state of continuous REM sleep. Given these findings, sleep disturbances may be associated with relapse during withdrawal and long-term abstinence. (NIAA-Alcohol Alert, 1998; Oscar-Berman, 1997; NIAA -NIH guide, 07/02/01)

In the study by Brower, K.J. et al., the frequency of insomnia and self-medication with alcohol for a group of alcoholics, as well as the relationship of these variables to alcohol relapse was investigated. The results revealed that patients with baseline insomnia were about twice as likely to report using alcohol to sleep as patients without baseline insomnia (55% vs. 28%). These findings suggest that insomnia may be a predictor of relapse. This study was the first of its kind and many significant findings were found, there is little doubt that future studies will be conducted to make better treatment practices for those with addiction.

Treatment and Insomnia

It is evident that sleep is essential. Changes in sleep quality can be detrimental to health and well being. Screening tools that assess the pattern and quality of sleep are available and can be incorporated into treatment planning to treat patients with sleep disorders. One tool, for example, that is effective and widely used in evaluating sleep quality is The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). It can be easily administered in a traditional addiction treatment program. The PSQI was developed to: provide a reliable, valid, and standardized measure of sleep quality; to discriminate between "good" and "poor" sleepers; to provide an index that is easy for subjects to use and for clinicians and researchers to interpret; and to provide a brief, clinically useful assessment of a variety of sleep disturbances that might affect sleep quality. It differentiates "good" from "poor" sleepers by measuring seven different aspects of sleep: subjective sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleeping medications, and daytime dysfunction over the last month. The patient self-rates all seven of these areas based on a 0-3 scale. A total score of 5 or greater indicates a "poor sleeper." This tool is useful to medical staff because it allows them to adequately assess sleep problems and determine what interventions, if any, are needed to treat the patient. It also provides the staff with the ability to follow up and assess the effectiveness of the intervention. (Buysse, D.J. et al, 1989).

When an individual is diagnosed with a sleep disorder, various treatment alternatives should be discussed with the patient. Many treatment options exist and include, for example: medication, acupuncture, yoga, tea/herbal remedies, biofeedback and meditation. Usually, the most effective treatment regimes are those that incorporate a combination of these therapies. Since each patient is different, effective treatment regimes vary depending on the patient needs. It has become common practice for a physician to treat substance-induced sleep disorders from a holistic approach, using relaxation and herbal therapies with less medication. Medications most often prescribed include: Vistaril®, Elavil®, Neurontin®, Trazedone®, Benedryl®, Ambien®, Sonata®, and Thorazine® with each of them having specific risks and benefits. In addition to these treatments, doctors often work with patients to help them restructure their daily living habits in such a way as to improve sleep quality as well. For instance, the doctor might instruct the patient to remove all stimulant use six hours prior to sleep, to go to bed and rise from bed about the same time each day, to avoid late meals and daytime naps.


Physicians and clinicians need to be aware of the growing body of evidence that exists about the relationship between substances of abuse and sleep disorders and they must recognize that when diagnosed and treated effectively, treating sleep disorders in those with addictions can improve their chances of recovery.

Works Cited:

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         American Journal of Psychiatry, 158:3
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         http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/archives/sleep.php; last updated link on 08/25/06