Are you tired of staring out into the darkness, sleepless night after sleepless night?
In recovery, maintaining sobriety is key to living a good life… but sleep is crucial, too. Since neither heavy pill-popping nor a nightcap are an option for getting in a sleepy mindset, you can try some natural and safe sleep aids and methods for sober folks before accepting the vampiric life.
Falling asleep isn’t easy for a third of American adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, if you have a substance use disorder, you have a higher chance of sleep disturbances, impaired sleep quality, and moderate-to-severe insomnia, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. Researchers also found that the use of sleep aids can lead to relapse. Another NIH study found subjects struggled with insomnia a lot in early recovery and suffered above-average sleep-disordered breathing issues, like sleep apnea.
In recovery, maintaining sobriety is key to living a good life… but sleep is crucial, too.
A 2018 study estimated that 30.6 million American adults use the potentially addictive anti-anxiety medications benzodiazepines, many of whom take them to induce sleep. Others use “Z-drugs” to snooze like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata or over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids like Unisom, ZzzQuil, Tylenol PM, and the antihistamine Benadryl.
Dr. Joji Suzuki, Director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, would not routinely recommend these drugs for those with SUDs. “They are too risky for people in recovery,” she says. “Same goes for medical marijuana — it’s helpful in the short-term to help with sleep onset but can become a problem longer-term.”
How can you get better quality shut-eye without tempting relapse? It may take some work, but there are options. The following are natural and safe sleep aids for sober people.
1. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Aid Sleep:
While not something you can take with a gulp of water, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered an effective treatment for insomnia and the first line of defense in treating it.
The Mayo Clinic’s website notes that it can teach you to “recognize and change beliefs that affect your ability to sleep.” While sleep aids offer immediate relief, this offers longer-term benefits. There are barriers to being treated with CBT, however, like access to a therapist, health insurance, and time to dedicate to healing. While this is ideal, it may not be ideal for everyone.
2. Talk to Your Doctor About Other Psychiatric Conditions:
Treating comorbid psychiatric issues is also key to good sleep. That means that, in addition to a SUD, people may have additional psychiatric conditions like depression or anxiety, which, if untreated, can keep them from sleeping well and increase their chances of relapse. Early diagnosis and treatment will lower that risk and get you better sleep.
If you have a psychiatrist, you can ask them to prescribe common medications for sleep that have a low risk of dependency. Dr. Suzuki notes that there are plenty of options out there but you should always talk to your own doctor before starting a new medication or course of treatment. Most are also treatments for other conditions like bipolar disorder or anxiety. It’s extremely important to take these under the supervision of a physician.
3. There IS an Over-The-Counter Option:
The only OTC medication Dr. Suzuki recommends is melatonin.
It occurs naturally in your body and taking it supplementally doesn’t knock you out, but does encourage sleep. Only take melatonin occasionally and two hours before bedtime. Lean into the sleepy feeling these pills may induce for better effect.
4. You Can Also Try Safer Herbs to Help You Sleep:
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) doesn’t approve of using herbal supplements like valerian root, which can cause liver problems and aren’t proven to work.
However, we spoke with North Carolina-based herbalist, founder of the Charlotte Herbal Accessibility Project, and owner of Atabey Choreto Medicinals, Brandon Ruiz, about herbal options. To start, instead of alcohol-based tinctures, make or buy herbal tinctures with a vegetable glycerin or vinegar base or use a plain tea blend. “More powerful herbs like valerian and passionflower have a more noticeable onset, with drowsiness and relaxation setting in shortly after consumption,” he says. “Herbs like these are best used right before bed, and mixed with milder nervines [herbs that affect the nervous system] can provide a balanced relaxation that nurtures and quietly calms the body and mind.”
Beata Rickhter, a practicing herbalist from Florida, notes that unlike medications for sleep, herbs “aren’t targeted to relieve certain symptoms.” So, you have to be careful about drug interactions and side effects. She suggests staying away from supplements and only purchasing tinctures from reputable sources and doing research. For those in recovery, she suggests carefully taking small doses of tinctures of skullcap, motherwort, and lemon balm from the Lamiaceae or mint family. “They are generally the safest, have the least alkaloids, which can mess with your liver, or interaction with drugs,” she says.
To start, instead of alcohol-based tinctures, make or buy herbal tinctures with a vegetable glycerin or vinegar base or use a plain tea blend.
The powder form of a supplement isn’t ideal for getting any benefit from herbs, Rickhter says. They’re the least regulated, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. Having contact with the herb in a more natural state is key to its efficacy, she says. “Tasting the herb, having it come to your mouth, tells your body to make enzymes to absorb it into your body. It starts in your mouth and continues to your stomach. If you don’t have that ‘step one’ in the digestive process. You’re missing parts of it.”
5. There are Other Types of Therapy to Help Insomnia:
Dr. Suzuki also suggests trying out biofeedback, which involves a therapist hooking your body up to electrical sensors to help you control your body’s functions. There’s also the very popular meditative method, mindfulness, which involves the practice of being mindful and present in the moment to decrease stress. You can download any one of a dozen meditation apps on the market right now to get started on that ancient trend.
There’s also bright light therapy or phototherapy, which uses literally a bright light to treat insomnia by adjusting your circadian rhythm or internal clock.
Acupuncture can also be used to treat anxiety and thus induce sleep. “Acupuncture has a long history of working for insomnia and other issues concerning sleep. Many of our diagnostic methods and treatment protocols revolve around treating disorders of the spirit, which is mostly neglected in conventional medicine,” says acupuncture physician and Doctor of Oriental Medicine Dr. Jonathan M. Fields.
6. Create a Calming Ritual Before Bed:
Treating your body well throughout the day is a good way to encourage sleep, like don’t drink coffee after 2 pm. “Overall, the focus should be on keeping good sleep hygiene — regular sleep and wake times, exposure to sunlight, no napping, relax before bed, and keep the room dark,” Dr. Suzuki suggests.
Ruiz says that taking herbs to help you relax should be done in conjunction with lifestyle changes, “to ensure a dependency does not develop,” he says. “[Herbs] can be aids to obtaining better sleep and relaxation, but ultimately should be combined with a lifestyle rich in physical activity and mental wellbeing that promotes better sleep cycles in its own right.”
Nighttime routines are great, too. Ruiz suggests a sometimes helpful pre-bed tea-making ritual using nourishing nervines like holy basil, skullcap, and milky oats. “Herbs like milky oats are even considered neurotrophorestoratives, an herb that works to restore health and vigor to the nervous system, which helps to repair the damaged nervous system,” he says.
If you can’t make it to an herbalist, a cup or two of Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime Tea (or another “sleepy” tea on the market) each night is a chill way to end the day. Its blend that includes chamomile, spearmint, and linden flowers may not knock you out but, with every sip, it will be a reminder that the day is done and it’s time to wind down. Sometimes these little indicators that rest is near are great for getting your mind and body prepared for some quality zzzs.
At the end of the day, your sobriety is crucial to living a good life but great sleep is important, too. Having a daily routine (such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day… yes, even on weekends) can help tremendously but, if you’re struggling, try one of the remedies above. Make sure you talk to your doctor or therapist about any potential medications or suggestions they may offer as well. And don’t forget the tea.