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What Substances Are Keeping You Up?

This lesson is a part of an audio course Fixing Your Sleep, Once and For All by Jason Ricci

In this lesson, we're going to talk about a topic that some people are going to resist, but I encourage you to try this even if only for the rest of this course. The topic is about the substances keeping you awake. While I can't cover every single substance out there, I am going to highlight the big ones: alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, marijuana, opiates, and other illicit drugs such as cocaine, meth, and ecstasy. So let's jump right in.


Alcohol is a depressant, and while it does slow down your system, it also interrupts your body's natural sleep cycle. You aren’t actually sleeping soundly. Think of it this way: say you and a friend are at a party, and your friend is getting hammered. Finally, he drinks so much that he passes out. While your friend is certainly unconscious, what he's getting can hardly be referred to as sleep. Sleep, when done properly, is restorative in nature. You recharge your batteries, heal, and prepare for a new day of wakeful activity. Your friend is not awake, but he's not really sleeping either, he's unconscious. When consuming large amounts of alcohol, your body eventually has enough. It knows that consuming too much more could kill you. Instead of letting that happen, your body hits the emergency shutdown button, preventing more alcohol from getting in the body. While you are out, the body works on getting the alcohol out of the body. This is not a restful activity for your body, and prevents restorative sleep. It is advised that you abstain from alcohol at least six to eight hours before bed.


Caffeine is a stimulant. Stimulants increase your heartbeat. This is going to keep you up, even if it has been a few hours since your last serving. Everyone loves that jolt of energy a cup of coffee or a shot of Mountain Dew provides after that lunchtime lull. If you need extra energy at that time of the day, though, might I suggest an apple or other fruit. While you will not get the immediate kick that soda or coffee can offer, you will feel more alert and notice a gradual and sustained amount of energy throughout the rest of the day. Caffeine spikes your system for a short time, then you drop quickly and need more. An apple is more natural to your system. It is advised that you abstain from caffeine at least six to eight hours before bed.


Some argue that slow dragging a cigarette right before bed has a calming, relaxing effect that helps them fall asleep. Sure, initially, but tobacco is still a stimulant and will do what all stimulants do, speed up your heart rate. You might fall asleep quickly, but the quality of your sleep is definitely affected. You'll be sleeping fitfully. Since this will kick in within the first hour of sleep, it is going to interfere with the deepest level of sleep you will get that night. There are also a ton of other reasons why you probably shouldn't be smoking anyway, but that’s somebody else’s course to teach. It's not advised that you use tobacco at all. However, if you insist, then abstain from tobacco at least 6 to 8 hours before bed.


Like tobacco, some people are convinced that smoking before bed will improve their sleep. Again, it may initially relax you and help you fall asleep; however, it most definitely is hurting your sleep. Marijuana use prevents you from entering REM sleep. REM sleep is the restorative stage of sleep. Processing all kinds of psychological influences is something your brain and body does during REM sleep. Marijuana can cause difficulty falling asleep with long-term use. With occasional, short-term, and long-term use, you will ultimately find you are struggling to maintain sleep, you’ll experience nonrestorative sleep, and feel daytime sleepiness. It is not advised that you use marijuana at all as it stays in your bloodstream for up to a month. Even a 12-hour gap between last use and going to bed may not be enough to matter. Abstaining from this drug altogether is the best option for your sleep.


For those of you that don't know, opiates, or opioids, are painkillers, both legal and illegal. This could be morphine, hydrocodone, Oxycontin, and heroin, and many others. Like marijuana, opiates may help with the initial falling asleep, but it does not allow you to get REM sleep. Without this, you will not get the much-needed restorative rest your body requires. This can be a tricky one, though, because if you are in legitimate pain, the pain will also prevent you from sleeping. If you are under the care of a doctor for pain, this is kind of a toss-up; your sleep is going to be rough either way. If you are taking opiates illicitly, then it's more clear-cut: quit. It is not advised to use opiates unless you have a prescription from your doctor who is treating you for pain. If under the care of a doctor, follow his or her advice. If you are not under the care of a doctor, it is not advised that you use opiates at all. Even a 12-hour gap between last use and going to bed may not be enough to matter. Opiates can stay in your system for a couple of weeks.

Other Drugs

Pretty much anything that alters your biological chemistry is going to have a negative impact on your sleep. Cocaine and meth are stimulants like caffeine; they speed up your heart rate. Ecstasy prevents you from entering REM sleep. Most sleeping agents (even over-the-counter) hurt your sleep too. If you think of other drugs I haven't mentioned, shoot me an email at, and I'll respond. Among the many hats I wear, a substance abuse counselor is one of them. It is not advised that you use illegal drugs at all, ever.

The next lesson is entitled, “Cutting Out That Nap…” As I’m sure you can guess, we will be discussing how your mid-day nap may be hurting your sleep. Until then, happy Zzz's.

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Written by

Jason Ricci

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