It is well known that smokers suffer from poor quality sleep compared with non-smokers, but how is this measured? To measure sleep quality requires tightly controlled sleep experiments – in our research we found several, but they were packed with jargon that most of us struggle to understand (without falling asleep!), so we combined the most interesting results and greatly simplify the academic content, to bring you a concise description of smoking insomnia.
Nicotine – The Insomnia Inducing Stimulant
Smoking and sleep problems are very much related because nicotine acts as a stimulant to keep you awake even when you are tired and need sleep. But because of the way we consume cigarettes in social situations, (at least before the health fascists banned us smoking in bars) we tend to think and feel that smoking induces a relaxed state in us – which is a false impression.
Combine cigarettes with alcohol, and the combination is a relaxant, but we also experience increased heart rate and higher blood pressure which makes us feel ‘alive’ and a touch elated – and far from sleep!
What’s worse, nicotine is addictive and so you crave more as you smoke more – and if this craving makes you smoke at night, you will obviously suffer from insomnia induced by nicotine. This can in turn make you irritable and tired, which will probably make you smoke more and make you smoke even more. This is a vicious circle that can be hard to break. This effect means that giving up becomes even harder.
Labored Breathing and Insomnia
The other insomnia inducing effects of smoking include chest conditions such as ‘smoker’s cough’ and difficulty in breathing, both of which disrupt sleep, leading to tiredness and an increased need for cigarettes next day – often along with a strong cup of caffeine-laden coffee which doubles the stimulating effect of nicotine. Most of us are aware that we shouldn’t drink coffee at night if we want a decent night’s sleep, but add a cigarette and insomnia is almost guaranteed.
Research Results on Nicotine and Insomnia
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University have drawn further conclusions about the effects of cigarettes on sleep, and one of the most prominent is the actual withdrawal effects your body suffers at night while trying to sleep. Their experiment involved forty smokers, each of whom smoked at least twenty cigarettes a day, who had no health problems and who were not on medication.
These people volunteered to be attached to an EEG machine at night (it records electrical activity in the brain that most of us call brain-waves). For comparison, forty non-smokers, all in good health, were also hooked up and measured. Each morning, every participant was asked ‘how well they slept’ the previous night. This of course is a subjective insight, but often the most important.
The results showed that poor quality, shallow and restless sleep was much more prevalent among smokers than among non-smokers. In fact, 22.5% of smokers reported poor sleep quality whereas only 5% of non-smokers reported poor sleep quality.
EEG Results on Smokers
EEG results are physical measurement that provide absolute evidence of what your brain is actually doing – not what you think it’s doing – it’s objective evidence and in this case it shows clearly what the effect of nicotine on your sleep patterns are.
The EEG results showed that smoking does have an effect on the way the brain operates during sleep – here are the results, which have since been verified and repeated many time. Before we examine those results, we need to understand the four stages of sleep:
The Four Stages of Sleep
Sleep Stage 1
This is the period of light dozing that exists when you are between being awake and falling asleep. It also covers very light sleep or dozing . In this phase, the dominant signals from your brain are ALPHA WAVES.
Sleep Stage 2
This is the starting period of real sleep, when you stop noticing your surroundings and your body temperature drops; your breathing and heart rate settle down to a regular rhythm and you begin sinking into phase 3. In this phase, the dominant signals from your brain are still ALPHA WAVES.
Sleep Stages 3 and 4
The difference between stages 3 and 4 are only of degree, i.e deep sleep and even deeper sleep! The key characteristics of phases 3 and 4 are:’
- Deepest and most restorative sleep – this is when the melatonin released by your pineal gland does most of its repair work on your damaged body cells and your mind integrates the events of the day in your memory and reasoning centers.
- In addition, your blood pressure drops, your muscles relax and many hormones are released (in addition to melatonin). In these phases, the dominant signals from your brain are DELTA WAVES.
Experimental results show that smokers have a lower level of delta-waves which are an indicator of deep sleep, and a higher level of alpha waves, which indicate light sleep. The analysis also showed that the biggest effect on smokers was during the very early phases of sleep.