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Does Nicotine Keep You Awake? (4 Ways to Get to Sleep)

Stephanie-Abi-Zeid.
  • This article has been written, researched, and medically reviewed by Stephanie Abi Zeid (Embryologist, Andrologist, B.S, MSc) for factual accuracy.

Many people who smoke or vape claim that consuming nicotine before bed helps them relax and get to sleep.

But is this true – or can consuming nicotine keep you awake?

Consuming nicotine either before bed and/or in the day can keep you awake due to the stimulating effect that nicotine has on the nervous system – with night-time waking and daytime tiredness also being likely due to the way in which nicotine disrupts REM sleep and invokes withdrawal symptoms.

So how can you get to sleep if you have consumed nicotine too close to bed time?

To get to sleep after consuming nicotine, consider taking 1 gram of tryptophan in supplement form – but ONLY if your doctor allows it and you’re NOT taking any medications that increase your serotonin levels (since too much serotonin can be dangerous).

The rest of this article details exactly how nicotine consumption can affect your sleep and health, as well as giving you 4 ways to get to sleep after consuming nicotine.

Related: if you’re having trouble falling asleep, then check out these 12 relaxation techniques to help you drift off more easily.

7 Ways Nicotine Affects Sleep

Here are 7 ways that nicotine can affect your sleep:

1: Waking Up During the Night

Consumption of nicotine can cause you to wake up during the night due to short-term withdrawal symptoms.

This is because right after nicotine is consumed through cigarettes or vaping, it binds to receptors found in different areas of the body including the brain, and induces the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine [1].

However, the nicotine levels in your blood, as well as its effect on your brain, dissipate quickly – which causes you to crave more nicotine, which in turn wakes you up and prevents you from falling back asleep.

The dopamine release produces feelings of reward and pleasure, which reinforces the behavior of smoking over and over again.

Repeated use of nicotine increases the risk of addiction.

Which in turn can lead to chronic insomnia and disrupted sleep via the mechanism described above.

The video below explains how nicotine works in the body and how it can lead to withdrawal symptoms (which in turn can affect sleep quality):

2-Minute Neuroscience: Nicotine

2: Daytime Tiredness

Nicotine consumption can result in daytime tiredness due to disruption of your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock) that’s caused through frequent waking during the night due to withdrawal symptoms.

More specifically, as the night evolves, the supply of nicotine in your body depletes and causes withdrawal symptoms – manifested by irritability, cravings, increased appetite, and disturbances in sleep.  

Smoking encourages the brain to switch off its own mechanism for producing dopamine, so in the long run, the supply decreases – which drives people to smoke more. 

Smokers in withdrawal from nicotine are therefore locked in a vicious cycle that disturbs their circadian rhythm and causes difficulty sleeping. 

3: Difficulty Falling Asleep

Nicotine consumption can make it harder to fall asleep due to the stimulating effect that nicotine has on the body’s nervous system.

Many smokers report that nicotine calms their nerves and helps them relax so they smoke in the belief that nicotine reduces stress and anxiety. 

However, this feeling of relaxation is only temporary because nicotine has stimulant properties, which enhances tension and wakefulness. 

Additionally, as nicotine levels drop towards the morning hours, your brain – in withdrawal from nicotine – may wake you up to satisfy your cravings. 

As a result, you might experience feelings of anxiety and sleep disturbances.   

Anxiety, stress, and alertness can cause tossing and turning in bed, which impairs the quantity and quality of your sleep.

4: Makes You More Alert

Nicotine has been found to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which releases chemicals such as adrenaline – which can make you feel more alert and make it harder to get to sleep.   

Furthermore, smoking cigarettes and vaping elevates your blood pressure over time and puts you at higher risk of developing hypertension and cardiovascular diseases in comparison to non-smokers. 

Chronic smoking hardens the arteries, making them less accessible for the blood to circulate through them. 

As a result, your heart works harder at pumping out the blood and distributing it to other organs. 

With too much pressure on your blood vessels, your heart rate will increase, your arteries will be at risk, and the likelihood of having a stroke or any heart condition will be higher.

5: Disrupts the Most Restful Part of Sleep (REM)

Researchers have reported that inhaling nicotine enhances wakefulness and suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – the deepest stage of sleep where your body releases endorphins and hormones to relieve stress and pain. 

They found that smokers have higher levels of adrenaline and stress hormones during sleep time compared to non-smokers, which impairs the function of T-cells (a type of immune cell) in fighting off pathogens [2].

Excessive inflammation and sleep can become a bit of a vicious cycle.

Inflammation increases the levels of stress hormones at night, which makes sleeping more challenging, and poor sleep can lead to more inflammation.

The video below explains how REM sleep works:

Understanding Our Sleep Cycle: REM and Non-REM Sleep

6: Night Time Breathing Difficulties

Inhaling nicotine may cause inflammation in the nose and throat, and can obstruct the airways in the lungs – all of which can contribute to breathing difficulties during sleep.

Here are the respiratory problems responsible for poor quality of sleep in smokers:

6.1: Snoring

Smoking may increase your risk of snoring because of the irritant chemicals present in tobacco products and e-liquids. 

Nicotine, like other pollutants, irritates the membranes in the nose and throat, which can narrow the upper airways. 

Subsequently, the airflow moves more turbulently through the narrowed airways causing the surrounding tissues to vibrate, which makes the unpleasant sound of snoring.

6.2: Sleep Apnea

Smoking or vaping may also contribute to sleep apnea – a sleep breathing disorder that involves recurrent pauses in breathing during sleep.

Studies show that smokers are more likely to experience apnea events and more sleep disruptions compared to non-smokers [3].

During sleep, muscles in your throat such as the soft palate or tongue become more relaxed, which may block the airway, inhibiting breathing and hence lowering the amount of oxygen in your blood.

Subsequently, the brain triggers a physiological reaction to reopen the airway, which may actually wake you up when in the middle of your sleep.

6.3: Asthma

Being exposed to smoke can provoke asthma symptoms. 

Smoke irritates the airways, making them swollen, narrow, and filled with sticky mucus, which makes you more susceptible to colds and allergies. 

As your airways narrow, swell, and produce extra mucus, they make breathing difficult and trigger asthma attacks – manifested by coughing and shortness of breath, both of which contribute to sleep disturbance.

If you have asthma, then in addition to stopping smoking, you might benefit from buying an anti-allergy mattress because the hypoallergenic materials can help to reduce the chance of a reaction being triggered.

6.4: Lung Cancer

Nicotine-infused smoke or vapor, as well as chromium and formaldehyde, are known to be carcinogenic.

They alter the respiratory system through DNA damage and daily inflammation. 

Persistent inflammation in the lungs can break the DNA of the lung cells, causing them to excessively multiply to become cancerous.   

Damaged DNA can usually be repaired.

However, nicotine and other toxic chemicals suppress the immune system, which impairs the function of apoptosis – the process that eliminates pre-cancerous cells [4].    

Studies have reported that there is a DNA change for every 15 cigarettes smoked, which makes the body unable to cope with the harmful effects of nicotine, which allows cancer cells to migrate freely. 

7: Sleep Deprivation

Nicotine also contributes to many other health risks that could lead to sleep deprivation. 

Chronic smoking is not only associated with lung cancer, but is also linked to throat cancer, breast cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and other types of cancer.

Furthermore, nicotine may affect your digestive system, causing peptic ulcer disease (the formation of ulcers in the stomach), and gastroesophageal reflux disease. 

When symptoms become chronic, they can interfere with sleep and other daily functions.

If you have sleep apnea or acid reflex then sleeping on an incline may help to alleviate symptoms – check out my list of adjustable beds to buy here to help you do that effectively.

How to Sleep after Consuming Nicotine (4 Ways)

Try the following 4 ways to help you sleep after consuming nicotine:

1: Ingest Tryptophan

Tryptophan is a sleep-inducing amino acid that cannot be synthesized by the human body, and should be obtained through the diet and/or supplements.

Tryptophan plays a role in the production of serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin – a hormone that helps control your sleep patterns.

Researchers have found that consuming food and drinks that contain L-tryptophan – including milk, cheese, eggs, poultry, fish, seeds, and nuts – have potential benefits in treating sleep disorders and reducing anxiety [5].

Consider taking 1 gram of tryptophan in supplement form 45 minutes before bed to reduce the amount of time it takes to get to sleep [6] (but always consult with your doctor first, especially if you’re taking drugs that increase serotonin levels because this could cause serotonin syndrome).

2: Drink Water

To relax into a high-quality sleep, you need to clean your body from the toxic effects of nicotine. 

Therefore consider drinking plenty of water to easily flush out nicotine from your system.

You can also drink a cup of herbal tea to help you unwind and promote sleep. 

Additionally, since cigarettes block the absorption of essential nutrients – such as calcium, vitamin C, and vitamin D – incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet to restore these nutrients and help maintain your immune system.   

Eating more high-fiber food and decreasing refined sugar in your diet may also help people deal with withdrawal symptoms.

3: Avoid Alcohol

Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed, as both substances enhance the taste of cigarettes, trigger you to crave nicotine, and cause insomnia and withdrawal symptoms similar to nicotine. 

Alcohol suppresses REM sleep, which causes you to spend more time sleeping lightly and less time in deep sleep – so you should not use it to counter the stimulating properties of nicotine.

Caffeine also contributes to sleep problems, as it stimulates the production of adrenaline, which increases your state of wakefulness and prevents you from sleeping.

If you’ve consumed too much caffeine, then take a look at these 6 ways to get to sleep faster.

4: Try Relaxation Strategies

Although many smokers use nicotine as a way of coping with stress, smoking can intensify your focus and alertness.  

Therefore, it’s a good idea to create a nighttime ritual to help you cope with stress and anxiety instead of relying on nicotine. 

Methods that people have found helpful include deep breathing exercises, meditation, and light stretching. 

Talking things through with a friend, a partner, or a relative can also promote relaxation before bed. 

Try these 12 relaxation techniques or have a look at my guide to getting to sleep when you have OCD thoughts.

Avoid Nicotine Before Bed

Nicotine consumed through cigarettes or vaping is a highly addictive chemical that interferes with your sleep patterns. 

It can cause a range of harmful effects on both the mind and body, including addiction, cravings, anxiety, and increased blood pressure, inflammation, respiratory illnesses, and other health issues. 

To sleep after consuming nicotine, you should supplement with 1 gram of tryptophan if your doctor allows it, drink water to flush out the nicotine, avoid stimulants like alcohol and caffeine, and create a nighttime ritual that promotes relaxation and sleep. 

Up next: how to get to sleep with a broken leg.


Sources and References

[1] The NIDA Blog Team. “Why Is Nicotine So Addictive?” 2019, https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/why-nicotine-so-addictive. Accessed 19/2/21.

[2] Pratt, Elizabeth. “How Sleep Strengthens Your Immune System.” Healthline, 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-sleep-bolsters-your-immune-system. Accessed 19/2/21.

[3] Peters, Brandon. “Can Smoking Cigarettes Cause Snoring and Sleep Apnea?” Verywell Health, 2020, https://www.verywellhealth.com/can-smoking-cause-snoring-3014707. Accessed 19/2/21.

[4] Eldridge, Lynne. “Smoking and Lung Cancer.” Verywell Health, 2020, https://www.verywellhealth.com/lung-cancer-smoking-4013436. Accessed 19/2/21.

[5] Friedman, Mendel. “Analysis, Nutrition, and Health Benefits of Tryptophan.” International Journal of Tryptophan Research, vol. 11, 2018. Sage Journals, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1178646918802282. Accessed 19/2/21.

[6] Simon N. Young. “Is Tryptophan a Natural Hypnotic?” NCBI, 2003. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC161739/ Accessed 19/2/21.

Medical Disclaimer

No part of this article or website is intended to provide medical advice – to quit smoking talk to your doctor or a suitably qualified professional.

Image Attribution and Licencing

Main image: ‘Girl Sleeping With Face on Pillow’ by Tommaso79 (Getty Images Pro) – used with permission under the terms of Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement.

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