Opioids and Their Sleep Effects
Opioids are a type of drug that interact with the opioid receptors in the brain. Due to their ability to promote the release of dopamine (the “happy chemical”), opioids are commonly used to treat chronic pain. However, the effects of opioids on the brain also make them highly addictive, and taking opioid medications can also result in many side effects, such as poor sleep.
How Opioids Affect Sleep
The use of opioids to treat chronic pain is widely studied, but while prescription opioids are believed to improve the quality of life for pain sufferers, they do not come without side effects. Especially in instances of chronic opioid use, taking opioids has been shown to have adverse effects on sleep quality.
A recent study from the NIH found that:
- Opioid use makes a person five times more likely to develop a sleep disorder, including central sleep apnea.
- People taking opioids are 42% more likely to suffer from insomnia, which is characterized by trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.
- According to PubMed, opioids significantly reduce the amount of time spent in the stage of deep sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM).
It is well known that opioids change sleep architecture, which means that even if you sleep for the same amount of time, you’ll spend less time in REM sleep and slow-wave sleep — the deep, restorative phases that help you wake feeling well rested.
Because you’ll spend more time in non-REM (NREM) or “light sleep” when taking opioids, you may be left feeling drowsy.
Types of Sleep Disturbances Caused by Opioids
The most common sleep-related side effect of opioid use disorder is reduced sleep quality. This is a result of reduced sleep efficiency, which means you’ll have to spend more hours sleeping each night in order to wake up feeling rested.
However, people taking opioids may have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, which contributes to daytime sleepiness.
In the short term, even with no differences in total sleep time, taking pain medications can cause:
- Sleep disruption, which can contribute to irritability and stress
- Drowsy, groggy, and tired feelings throughout the day, worsened by the sedative effects of opioids
- Sleep-disordered breathing as a result of the respiratory depression opioids cause
Over time, opioid use could disrupt your sleeping habits to the point that you’re suffering from sleep deprivation.
This is marked by several risk factors, including negative impacts on your mental health, like an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Are Sleeping Problems Caused by Opioids Dangerous?
Opioid use is known to affect sleep, but short-term changes in your sleep patterns may not seem like a big deal. The dangers begin to occur when a person is prescribed long-term opioid therapy or otherwise uses opioids for many weeks or months, as this is when problems begin to compound.
For instance, once someone takes opioids for more than a few weeks, physical tolerance and dependence start to develop.
Tolerance is a natural process that happens when a person takes a drug regularly, but it complicates the sleeping problems caused by opioids because you will need to take a larger dose to experience the same effects.
In higher doses, opioids have an even greater impact on your circadian rhythms (the sleep/wake cycle), so this can worsen the side effects you experience.
In general, the most dangerous sleep-related side effects of opioid use have to do with the development of sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.
Because opioids lead to respiratory depression (which means they slow breathing), they can cause the development and worsening of conditions like sleep apnea, which is characterized by a person’s breathing stopping throughout the night.
If you think you’re suffering from sleep apnea or if you have in the past, it’s important to ask your doctor about opioid use. They can perform a systematic review of your symptoms and medical history to come up with a customized treatment plan.
How to Manage Sleep Disorders Caused by Opioids
If you are suffering from sleep disruptions caused by opioids, you may find yourself turning to sleep aids to help you get a good night’s rest.
However, due to potential contraindications with other medications, you should ask your doctor before combining opioids with any other medications.
Instead of taking additional drugs or supplements, your healthcare provider may suggest other sleep-promoting therapies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have many tips for improving sleep quality, and your doctor may suggest trying some of these coping mechanisms. The tips include:
- Taking naps throughout the day when you feel tired to help you catch up on sleep, but avoiding naps at least four hours before bedtime
- Avoiding caffeine throughout the day and especially in the hours leading up to bedtime
- Participating in physical activity, but making sure you wind down with calming activities in the evening
- Creating a consistent sleep schedule that involves going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, which can help train your body
If you continue to experience severe sleep-related side effects as a result of opioid use or you begin to develop other conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may suggest an alternative solution to pain management.
If you’re currently taking opioids off-label or without a prescription, reaching out to a recovery center that specializes in drug use can help you restore better sleep and a healthy lifestyle.
How Zinnia Health Can Help With Opioid Addiction
Opioids have countless uses, especially when it comes to helping individuals suffering from chronic pain. However, opioids can be addicting, and they can significantly impact sleep patterns and put individuals at a high risk of drug overdose if not managed properly.