How Getting Better Sleep Could Help Prevent Relapse

Man sleeping with feet hanging off the bedWhether your drug of choice was a stimulant, a depressant, or some combination of the two, it’s likely your sleep has been out of whack for quite some time prior to recovery. Staying up for days, passing out, nodding off—none of these give the brain the time it needs to reset itself.

While getting a good night’s sleep might not initially rank high on the list of priorities in early sobriety, it is a critical component to relapse prevention.

Is Insomnia Predictor of Potential Drug/Alcohol Relapse?

Studies have shown that insomnia specifically may be a predictor of relapse. Getting both good sleep and enough sleep can help ensure someone new to recovery is better equipped to retain new information, resist triggers and urges, and make better decisions.

Like a cell phone charging at night, our bodies, and more specifically, our brains need that same kind of nightly charge. The brain, which can use nearly a quarter of the body’s total energy each day, needs time to install new software, run new updates, and then power down to refill its battery.

Without that time each night to accomplish those tasks, the brain and body lag, becoming less capable of doing even the most basic tasks. Sleep—good sleep—plays an important role in a person’s day-to-day ability to function well.

What the Brain Does While You Sleep

“A busy brain creates a lot of debris,” says Dr. Jan A. Mayer, a Nashville-based psychiatrist and expert on addiction. “During sleep, that’s cleaned up. If there are toxins, that can be addressed during sleep. It’s like the waste management of the brain. You’re cleaning your brain and charging your brain’s batteries. You’re also consolidating memories.”

While you’re sleeping, the brain takes all the information collected throughout the day and condenses it into the most useful bits. It files the important pieces away and discards the rest. For someone in early recovery, especially someone in treatment who is participating in groups and one-on-ones, the ability to retain the information learned each day is linked to restful sleep.

It’s the opposite of pulling an all-nighter or cramming for a test; the brain needs those uninterrupted hours of sleep to process information and file it away for future use.

Getting enough sleep improves decision-making

As new information about how to live life sober is cataloged in the brain, it can be recalled with greater ease when confronted with a trigger or urge to drink or use. Getting enough sleep prepares the brain to make better decisions. “ your executive functioning doesn’t work as well,” says Dr. Mayer. “In other words, your brakes aren’t as good.” For a newly sober person, good brakes are vital to preventing relapse.

But getting sleep in early sobriety, and thus creating the brain space needed to practice new and better habits, isn’t always easy. Insomnia, anxiety, depression, too much caffeine, new routines, and even boredom can all contribute to a night of tossing and turning. So Dr. Mayer shares with his clients about the importance of good sleep hygiene, the habits practiced to develop more restful sleep.

Tips for getting better sleep

  • Aim for seven or more hours of sleep each night.

“Less than seven is almost never enough,” says Dr. Mayer. “For every unit of energy you use that needs to be made up.” If you’ve fallen behind on your sleep, says Dr. Mayer, the best thing to do is get back on a normal sleep schedule as soon as possible.

  • Wake up and go to bed at the same times.

Yes, even on weekends. Each person’s body is governed by its circadian rhythm, an internal 24-hour body clock that helps regulate sleeping and waking hours. This rhythm functions best when we set and stick to consistent times to rise and to head to bed.

  • Get outdoor light in the morning.

Exposure to sunlight early in the morning helps kickstart the part of the circadian rhythm that alerts the body to a wakeful state. “It’s really important to pay attention to light, getting it in the daytime and protecting yourself at night,” says Dr. Mayer. 

  • Limit electronics in your sleeping area.

All the lights and flashes gadgets emit disrupt the body’s natural 24-hour clock, introducing light during times when there should be none. “You don’t want any electronics in your sleeping area. Television is not as bad as other electronics, but it’s still problematic. All that stuff needs to go in a different room,” advises Dr. Mayer. 

  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.

Good sleep is often a byproduct of having the most sleep-friendly environment possible. This means eliminating unnecessary lights and noise and keeping your bedroom cool. During the deepest sleep, the core body temperature is at its lowest. Dr. Mayer advises keeping the bedroom cool enough to require a cover, helping the body reach its cool core temperature more quickly.

  • Move non-bedroom activities out of the bedroom.

Working, studying, watching TV, even reading can be detrimental to your sleep when you do it in bed. Eliminating non-bedroom activities from your sleeping space helps reduce the risk of the brain associating those tasks with the bedroom.

  • Exercise (but don’t give up sleep to do it).

Not only can exercise make for better sleep at night, it can also help fight boredom in those early days of recovery when new (and better) habits are being formed but routine is still relatively unfamiliar. Dr. Mayer advises, however, that sacrificing sleep to make it to an early morning workout is counterproductive, and both your sleep and your workout could suffer. According to Dr. Mayer, the best time to exercise is between 4 o’clock in the afternoon and 6:30 at night when muscle strength and body temperature are at their highest, blood pressure and heart rate are at their lowest, and reaction time is quickest.


It can take some time, especially in early recovery, to establish a healthy sleep routine. But after a couple of days at Discovery Place’s 30-day program, many guests will find their sleep better than it’s been in years. A consistent wake up time, natural daylight first thing in the morning, a daily schedule, access to exercise equipment, and distraction-free sleeping help our guests find their way to better sleep, one day at a time. And better sleep can help pave the way to better recovery.


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