After a night taking magic truffles in Amsterdam, I lay down in bed and closed my eyes. A neon car with action figures, ladders, guns, and other strange objects hanging off the wheels appeared on the insides of my eyelids. I got lost in the colors as it rolled along and morphed from one object to another. When I looked at the clock to see that it was 8 am, I didn’t know if I’d actually slept or just lay there looking at these weird shapes and patterns.
Psychedelics haven given more people than just me strange as hell post-trip sleep. “Even when I close my eyes and feel like the [acid] trip has run its course, my mind is still operating at an elevated activity level,” says Tom, 29, a PR professional in New York City who prefers to use only his first name so that clients won’t know about his drug use. “However, it's not an anxious state, like when I try falling asleep after too much caffeine. It just takes longer to fall into that deep-sleep state.”
“Sleep was hard to come by,” says Daniel Saynt, 35, an entrepreneur in New York, of the hours right after an acid trip. “I sat in a dark room, but I could still see light. I'd close my eyes and could see flashes of electricity. I felt as if luminescent creatures from the depths of the ocean were swimming along my eyeballs. They were blurred in my vision, but I could see them skirting about in the dark, even with my eyes closed.”
It's due to their effect on the neurotransmitter serotonin that psychedelics tend to disrupt sleep, says W. Christopher Winter, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution. Serotonin is involved in a number of neurochemical reactions that cue your brain to move from one sleep stage to the next, he explains. So, changing your serotonin activity can prevent you from making it into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the deepest sleep stage where dreaming takes place.
Research has shown that people on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), medications used to treat depression and anxiety, spend less time in REM sleep, Winter tells me. These medications can prevent your neurons from reabsorbing serotonin, so it sticks around in your brain longer. Psychedelics can produce the same result by increasing serotonin release, leading to the euphoria many experience on them.
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As a result, many wake up after taking psychedelics feeling like they haven’t slept. “Because the sleep architecture is disrupted, you have slept but not rested,” explains James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. He asserts that this is because the chemical and metabolic functions that sleep usually restores don’t have the chance to be restored without REM sleep.
On top of that, psychedelics’ hallucinatory effects can apparently still be in effect when someone lies down to sleep. “Some people will drift off to sleep and the hallucination will persevere as not a dream but a hallucinatory phenomenon,” Giordano says. “Or it'll go into their dream content because there's such a strong activation of serotonergic mechanisms in the brain processing visual information. Those visual parts remain active, so the visual content tends to be preserved.”
This will often result in dreams that feel like they’re taking place in the room where you fell asleep. Giordano tells me it’s not unusual for someone to say, “I was in a living room watching TV awake; next thing, I'm dreaming I'm in my living room, and now there are penguins coming out of the TV set and elephants talking to me.”
Other times, dreams that feel like they’re taking place in your room are the result of sleep paralysis—where you’re aware of your surroundings but can’t move and may see things that aren’t there. MDMA in particular can induce this, through its interference with the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which are involved in wakefulness, Winter says. If a nightmare is occurring in this state, people may report night terrors, Giordano adds. Norepinephrine discharge, leading to anxiety, increased heart rate, and increased respiration rate, can bring these on.
Sometimes, though, those with strange psychedelic-induced “dreams” are not even dreaming—they’re confusing their hallucinations with a dream. “What many people report is, ‘I had a psychedelic experience that transitioned into my sleep,’” Giordano says. “They may have felt as if they were dreaming, but they were actually not sleeping.”
Theoretically, taking recommended dosages of supplements like melatonin (which your brain releases at night to make you tired), tryptophan (an amino acid involved in melatonin production), or hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP, a precursor to serotonin) should help make your post-psychedelic sleep less tormented, Giordano says. But individual differences make it unpredictable which of these will work best or whether any will work. “It depends on how individuals metabolize that stuff and what the disruption is,” he adds. “Sleep is neurochemically complicated. When you disrupt brain chemistry, it takes a while for things to come back into balance.”
Since serotonin is involved in the production of melatonin, excessive long-term use of psychedelics—especially MDMA—can make it harder to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning, Winter says. “They can start to fool the individual into thinking day is night and night is day.” So, if you’re going to take psychedelics, stick to one low dose at a time and wait at least 10 to 14 days between doses to minimize the negative effects.
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