We’ve all heard that sleep is a vital component to a healthy immune system and proper brain function. Sleep is especially important for those recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction because of its ability to improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk of relapse. But what about withdrawal insomnia?
It’s common for people who are going through detox and early addiction recovery to have trouble sleeping. And dealing with this insomnia can be difficult because, in most cases, prescription sleep aids should be avoided due to their addictive properties and harmful side effects.
So, what can people withdrawing from drugs or alcohol do to get better sleep without turning to prescription medication?
Healthy Sleep Routines
First and foremost, these individuals should be exercising regularly, eating nutritious foods, and practicing good sleep hygiene.
Practicing good “sleep hygiene” means fostering healthy sleeping habits. These include sticking to a sleep schedule and sleeping on supportive, comfortable pillows and mattresses. Engage in a relaxing bedtime ritual and avoid screens (phone, television, computer) right before bed. Keep your bedroom cool and free of both light and noise.
Experts also recommend limiting consumption of food or drinks that contain caffeine and using your bed only for sleep (and sex). This helps your mind build a stronger association between your bed and sleep. If you use your bed for activities that may be stressful, like completing work, it may become more difficult to comfortably sleep there.
If the combination of these healthy routines does not improve sleep quality, it may be helpful to consider trying melatonin.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that can also act as a neurotransmitter. The production and release of melatonin signals to your body that it’s time to sleep or wake up.
Normally, the brain recognizes sunset (darkness) as a cue to release melatonin into your bloodstream. Melatonin then binds to a group of receptors that control or regulate our internal sleep/wake patterns, known as our circadian rhythms. When the sun goes up in the morning, your melatonin levels drop again. Your body clock and the amount of light you get each day determine how much melatonin your body produces.
In addition to being a naturally occurring neurotransmitter, melatonin is also available as an over-the-counter supplement in most natural food stores and pharmacies. People use melatonin supplements to help with insomnia or other sleep disorders. These supplements may also assist people experiencing jet lag or adhering to unusual work schedules.
How can Melatonin Help People Sleep During Detox?
The version of melatonin we create naturally in our bodies helps with sleep function. The version we find in pill form can also be of some help in attaining more restful sleep.
Research on melatonin is mixed, however. Some research suggests that melatonin supplements don’t help at all, while other studies indicate it does help with jet lag and various sleep disorders. It may also help people with insomnia fall asleep faster, leading to more restful sleep (though not necessarily longer sleep).
More research is needed to verify the effectiveness of melatonin, especially because many existing studies involved self-reported levels of improvement. It’s also important to keep in mind that with the pill form, there are some cautions and precautions that should be noted.
Melatonin Vs. Prescription Sleep Aids
All prescription sleep aids come with potential significant side-effects, including addiction and dependency, as well as short-term memory loss, burning or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, or legs, constipation, diarrhea, difficulty keeping balance, dizziness, increased risk of depression, and the list goes on.
Some sleep aids come with a much higher risk than others, but all should be taken only for the very short-term when needed and should be avoided if possible. However, some people’s sleeping patterns are so compromised that sleep aids are required for a few days to allow their body and brain to rest and to heal during the detoxification process.
Melatonin supplements are undeniably safer than these prescriptions. However, severe cases of insomnia may not respond as well to melatonin as they would to prescription medications, because melatonin pills tend to not have as strong an impact on one’s sleep. Melatonin pills also come with some side effects and warnings of their own.
The original intended dosage of melatonin is between .3 and 1 mg, yet most melatonin pills on the market are in considerably higher dosages. Long-term use of melatonin can increase a person’s risk of depression. In the case of individuals who already struggle with depression, melatonin can increase the severity of depression.
Individuals have reported side effects including:
In some elderly adults, additional reported side effects include:
- Skin pigmentation
- Thrombosis (blood clots)
- Restless legs
Melatonin is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, as it can affect the reproductive system.
And, like prescription sleep aids, your body can develop a dependency or tolerance to this supplement. However, melatonin is not clinically addictive.
Lastly, melatonin in pill form typically has about a 2-hour window of effectiveness in the body. So, if you take a pill an hour before bedtime, the effects wear off approximately an hour after going to bed.
Melatonin and Interactions
In addition to pregnant and breast-feeding women, medical professionals caution that others should avoid melatonin as well.
These individuals include:
- People with diabetes, as melatonin may interfere with blood sugar levels
- Individuals with a seizure disorder, which can be worsened with the use of melatonin
- People using ACE inhibitors
- Patients taking medication to moderate blood pressure, lessen bleeding, or prevent blood clotting
- Transplant patients and others taking immunosuppressant drugs, because melatonin impacts the immune system
- Individuals with bleeding disorders like hemophilia, which can be worsened by melatonin
As you might expect, melatonin also increases the drowsiness that accompanies the use of drugs such as alcohol and other medications.
Additionally, one study noted that melatonin can potentially worsen moods in individuals with dementia. And in 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that melatonin has not been deemed a safe food additive. (This was in a statement cautioning a company that sells “relaxation brownies” with melatonin.)
Other Options to Consider for Better Sleep
L-Tryptophan is the amino acid your body uses to manufacture its naturally occurring melatonin. If you believe you require long-term use, L-Tryptophan will be a better option for several reasons.
- You are boosting your body’s naturally occurring version of melatonin.
- By supplying your body with what it needs to make its own melatonin, you can have melatonin release throughout the night, rather than the short window of effectiveness seen with the pill form.
- L-Tryptophan has less dependency risk and less risk of depression than both melatonin and prescription sleep aids.
Melatonin may improve your sleep while withdrawing from drugs or alcohol, but its effectiveness is not guaranteed.
And although it’s a safer alternative to prescription sleep aids, some minor side effects may accompany melatonin use, and it’s not recommended for some individuals. This includes individuals with diabetes, seizure disorders, and bleeding disorders, as well as pregnant and breast-feeding women. Melatonin may also worsen depression.
It’s important to keep in mind that “natural” does not always mean “safe.” Before trying melatonin, make a genuine effort to improve your sleep habits and routines. If this still doesn’t help, consult with your health care provider.
If you do decide that melatonin supplements are right for you, be sure to read and follow all label instructions to ensure safe and responsible use.
Have more questions about melatonin, prescription sleeping pills, or withdrawal insomnia? Get in touch with The Shores Treatment and Recovery for help navigating your long-term sobriety.