Getting Your ZZZs: 5 Ways to Improve Your Sleep for a Stronger Recovery

Feb 2, 2023

More often than not, we downplay the crippling effects of sleep deprivation to justify our lifestyle choices, such as pulling long hours for work or school, staying up late on our phones, going to parties or events, and so on. Sure, you’re a little tired, but that’s nothing a quick nap or a can of Red Bull can’t fix.

And if those remedies don’t work, many turn to prescription drugs like Adderall or illegal stimulants to keep them energized and awake during busy or stressful periods. The problem with turning to drugs of any kind is two-fold: one, you open yourself up to the possibility of developing an addiction; and two, these substances mask the physical and mental issues that inevitably come with not getting enough good sleep over an extended period.

That second point is especially critical if you’re in a drug treatment center trying to fight an addiction. You are already under a tremendous amount of stress in recovery. No sleep makes everything a thousand times harder.

Some of the problems we face when we don’t get the quantity and quality of sleep we need include the following:

  • Excessive daytime tiredness
  • Experiencing times where you can’t keep from dozing off for a few seconds, even in the middle of a conversation (microsleeps)
  • Low inhibition
  • Foggy thinking, trouble concentrating
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Lack of energy
  • Mood changes
  • Reduced attention span
  • Poor memory
  • Slow metabolism, obesity

In the long term, insufficient sleep increases your risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiency, and mental health disorders.

Ways to Improve Your Sleep for a Stronger Recovery

(Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

How Drugs and Alcohol Affect Sleep

Using controlled substances of any kind affects the chemistry of your brain, which, in turn, disrupts your circadian rhythm or sleep cycle. For example, amphetamines and other stimulants work to release excessive dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin into your system, causing intense alertness, euphoria, and sometimes paranoia.

Marijuana, alcohol, and other depressants, while well-known for inducing relaxation and sleep in the short term, likewise pose sleep problems with extended daily use. A Boston University study shows that those who use marijuana daily suffer from more sleep disruptions than those who only use the drug occasionally or not at all. Other research has found that daily alcohol intake also disrupts sleep.

Ways to Improve Your Sleep

“Practicing good sleep hygiene is a vital aspect of recovery,” said Preston Dixon, COO at Renaissance Ranch, a men’s residential drug treatment program with facilities in Utah and Idaho. “Our daily scheduling reflects that in terms of keeping our residents active and getting them on board with a regular sleep routine.”

Ranch counselors, having gone through drug or alcohol rehab themselves, suggest the following ways to build a healthy sleep routine:

Experiment with Different Bedtimes and Stick with What Fits

The exact number of hours of sleep you need will vary depending on your age and genetics, but the Centers for Disease Control estimates that adults ages 18-64 need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. That number works out to roughly five to 6 sleep cycles per night.

Researchers generally agree consistency is more important than the time of night/day that you sleep. Maybe you work the swing shift, and you’re awake from 9pm to 5am. Despite the unnatural timing, you can still achieve restorative sleep if you stay on a consistent schedule of going to bed and waking.

Try going to sleep at different times and adjusting the hours you sleep, and then pay attention to how you feel during your waking hours. Once you find the times that work best for you, stick with them.

Don’t Eat a Big Meal Before Bedtime

Eating about 2-3 hours before bed allows your body to digest your food and ensures that you won’t have to deal with a sour stomach or reflux while trying to sleep. Once again, consistency is key. Establish daily dinnertime and hold to it. When we don’t eat at a regular time, we leave ourselves vulnerable to making poor food choices and going to bed feeling bloated and uncomfortable.

As for eating after dinner, try a protein-dense snack low in carbs, fat, and calories. Protein will help your body repair and rebuild your muscles while you sleep and help you feel less starved when you wake. Healthy before-bed snacks include anything from a handful of nuts to a small protein smoothie.

Develop a Daily Bedtime Routine

Remember when you were a kid? Like many children, you probably had a regular bedtime routine that included bathing, brushing your teeth, changing into your PJs, and snuggling with mom or dad for a few stories and nightly prayer. Adults need bedtime rituals, too, especially calming ones that support healthy sleep.

Once you have a regular bedtime, start winding down earlier with soft music, meditation, stretching, or a good book. You might even enjoy a nice bath.
We realize that when your recovery journey takes you back home, you may have to juggle a lot of people and priorities before you can spend time on yourself. This is why it’s critical to put the bedtime routine on your daily schedule and stick to it as often as possible. Naturally, things will come up, but a late night or two won’t be enough to drive you back into chronic sleep deprivation if you’re consistent with your pre-sleep pattern.

Turn Off and Put Away the Screens

The blue light emitted from LED screens like phones, tablets, computers, and TVs have been proven to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In addition, scrolling through endless social media feeds and other content keeps your brain engaged and active instead of winding down for the night.

Even when you finally turn off your device, your mind will continue to race, delaying your body’s natural progression to deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. While there’s no hard and fast rule on how long you should be device-free before bed, it’s a good idea to put your notifications on silent and shut down those electronics about an hour prior to turning in for the night.

That doesn’t mean leaving your phone on vibrate under your pillow or right next to your bed where you can see it light up if someone texts or calls. Also, keep the alarm clock display on dim and turn it away from the bed. If you can see it or hear it, it’s disturbing your sleep.

Spend Time Being Active

Completing a gym workout, practicing pilates, or even going for a 30-minute walk outside in the fresh air gets your blood pumping and helps elevate your overall health. And according to the 2013 Sleep in America poll, a person’s sleep quality improves in direct correlation with their exercise level.

Get active, but avoid engaging in high-intensity exercise right before bed, as it can negatively affect sleep by raising your heart rate and activating your central nervous system. You may lie awake in bed for quite some time before your body relaxes enough to fall asleep.

Simply put, your body functions much more efficiently when you’re well-rested. That fact alone will do much to reduce the stressful effects of participating in a substance abuse center program and help you avoid relapse. Take it from us – investing time and effort in developing healthy sleep habits is worth it.