How Stimulants Affect Sleep

Stimulants can help you feel awake and alert, but they can also affect your sleep if misused. Over time, poor sleep can lead to other health issues, including high blood pressure, weight gain, a higher risk of diabetes, and a weaker immune system. Most of us have used stimulants in one way or another, so it’s important to understand how stimulants affect sleep and what constitutes a stimulant.

What are Stimulants?

how stimulants affect sleep cup off coffee next to caffeine pills stimulants close up

Stimulants are substances that increase brain activity and temporarily increase alertness and wakefulness. They affect the entire central nervous system and increase dopamine levels in the brain, including the addiction and reward pathways.

Examples of stimulants include:

  • Caffeine
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription medications, such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine

Caffeine is arguably the most widely used stimulant on the planet. Millions of people around the world use it every morning to help them feel more awake and refreshed.

Short-Term Effects of Stimulants

Stimulants can have positive and negative short-term effects, including:

  • Greater wakefulness and physical stamina
  • Reduced appetite
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Hypersensitivity
  • High blood pressure
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Irritability

Not everyone will experience all of these symptoms. Many people who drink coffee, for example, only experience improved wakefulness, elevated heart rate, and increased alertness.

Long-Term Effects of Stimulant Use

Over the long term, stimulant use can have adverse effects, especially when abused. These can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Greater irritability
  • Paranoia
  • Malnourishment
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Confusion
  • Psychosis
  • Impaired cognitive functioning
  • Restlessness 

How Stimulants Affect Sleep

Stimulants help you feel more awake and alert, which can have a negative impact on your sleep. They can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • One study looked at the effects of energy drinks, coffee, nonmedical prescription stimulants (NPS), nicotine, and cocaine on sleep. NPS had a negative effect on sleep, but nicotine was especially disruptive.
  • Another study found that stimulants prescribed for ADHD cause sleeping problems in children. ADHD and ADD drugs often list sleep disturbances as a side effect.

Many people who use prescription and nonprescription stimulants suffer from insomnia and have a more difficult time getting restful sleep.

Affects Your Circadian Rhythm

Your internal clock, or circadian rhythm, plays an integral role in sleep. If your rhythm is out of whack, it can be harder to fall asleep, stay asleep and get into a deeper sleep state.

There’s a growing body of evidence that substance use (including stimulants) disturbs your circadian rhythm. Research also links night owls with a higher risk of being dependent on stimulants like nicotine and caffeine.

Other research shows that caffeine specifically sets your circadian clock back by about 40 minutes. 

Makes it Harder to Get a Restful, Deep Sleep

Research has found that stimulants can lead to light, restless, and disrupted sleep. Even acute caffeine intake can worsen your sleep quality. And drinking coffee close to bedtime can have a negative effect on REM sleep.

Stimulants are designed to make you feel awake and alert, and these effects naturally make it harder to get to sleep and enter a deep sleep state.

Avoiding Sleep Disturbances When Using Stimulants

If caffeine is part of your daily routine or you take prescription stimulants for ADD or ADHD, you may be looking for ways to prevent sleep disturbance.

Take Medications on Time

If you take prescription stimulants, make sure that you’re taking your medication on time. Taking your medication too late in the day can make it very challenging to fall asleep.

If you’re having trouble taking your medication on time, talk to your doctor to see if there are other options.

Create a Healthy Sleep Environment

how stimulants affect sleep close up of a comfy bed perfect for inviting good sleep

Establishing a healthy sleep routine and environment can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Creating a non-stimulating environment is a great place to start.

  • Invest in comfortable blankets and pillows to make your bed more inviting.
  • Minimize furniture and choose non-stimulating colors.
  • Set and stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time.
  • Put away all distractions before bed, including electronics and other stimulating things.

A healthy sleep environment will make it easier to get into a relaxed state and fall asleep.

Try Meditation

Meditation may be difficult if you use stimulants or have ADD/ADHD. However, over time and with practice, meditation can help quiet your mind and allow you to enter a relaxed state for sleep.

Research actually suggests that meditation may benefit people with ADHD, so if you’re taking prescription stimulants, you may be improving your symptoms and reducing your need for medication.

Start with just a few minutes and work up from there. Then, commit to daily meditation to see results.

Use Aromatherapy to Unwind

Aromatherapy can help you unwind and relax, making it easier to fall asleep. In fact, research backs up this claim.

  • One study found that peppermint essential oil had a positive effect on insomnia.
  • Another study found that lavender essential oil improved sleep quality and reduced anxiety in patients with coronary artery disease.

Final Thoughts

Stimulants can have a negative effect on sleep when abused or used improperly. The tips above can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, but some stimulants, like nicotine and illicit drugs, require greater intervention.

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