The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on a Psychedelic Experience

sleep deprivation and psychedelics

‘Set’ – what you as an individual bring to a psychedelic experience – plays a significant role in how a specific trip will turn out. This one half of ‘set and setting’ (the latter encompassing environmental factors) is often framed as your mood and emotional state going into an experience. Do you feel positive and excited, or low and fearful?

Crucially, however, our current physical state is entwined with the mental – and in this vein, we cannot discuss what an ‘ideal set’ for tripping involves without mentioning sleep. How well-rested you are, as we all know, impacts your mood, which will therefore play out in the quality of a psychedelic experience. 

But as with any aspect of set, there is no guarantee that sleep deprivation – like low mood – will always produce negative experiences. In a previous post, I explored what I call the paradox of set: negative frames of mind can be both worsened and alleviated during and after psychedelic journeys. Indeed, while tripping when sleep-deprived should understandably be cautioned against (it’s safer and typically more enjoyable to trip when rested), this physical (and mental) state can sometimes – strangely – benefit a psychedelic experience.

The Risks of Tripping While Sleep-Deprived

Many people have taken psychedelics after one or two nights of insufficient (or disrupted) sleep, or even after no sleep at all, and still nonetheless had enjoyable experiences. However, doing this is risky. If psychedelics can magnify your current state, then feelings of fatigue, lethargy, low mood, and irritability owing to sleep deprivation can become even more noticeable and unpleasant. 

We know from a wealth of research that both acute and chronic sleep deprivation are linked to increases in negative mood and confusion, as well as impaired emotional processing, including frustration tolerance and coping capacities. Sleep deprivation can, therefore, not only worsen your mood and encourage negative thinking but can also make it more difficult to deal with frustrating situations and negative emotions during the day (anyone who struggles with sleep can tell you this).

Tripping while sleep-deprived, then, certainly increases the risk of experiencing negative moments during a trip, as well as having long stretches – or even an entire trip – characterised by physical and mental discomfort. 

While getting a few hours of sleep a night or two may lead to an uncomfortable psychedelic experience, not sleeping at all can be even riskier. Severe sleep loss – going 24 hours or longer without sleep, as some people do at festivals or raves – can result in hallucinations, perceptual (visual, auditory, somatosensory) distortions, anxiety, irritability, depersonalisation, temporal disorientation, and disordered thoughts. Furthermore, the longer you spend going without sleep (48+ hours), the greater the likelihood you have of experiencing the symptoms of psychosis – a disconnection from reality that can present as hallucinations and delusional thinking – as well as anger and hostility. After 72 hours, simple delusions and hallucinations can become more complex and elaborate, and bouts of aggression can manifest.

Psychedelics have the potential to magnify all of these effects. The result then would be a much more intense trip than one anticipated (at best) and, if you haven’t slept for 48+ hours, an escalation of short-term psychosis (at worst). A moderate dose of a psychedelic combined with sleep deprivation could produce an unexpectedly strong experience – visually, emotionally, and somatically. If you aren’t prepared for this possibility and don’t desire it, you may end up feeling overwhelmed and destabilised. 

On the other hand, some users report that being tired means that they have less energy to resist the experience; it becomes easier to just let things happen. This might be true after skipping one night of sleep or not getting enough sleep the night before, but the more you repeat this, the greater the risks involved. Additionally, taking a long-lasting psychedelic – such as mescaline or LSD, which can both last 12+ hours – when you already have a sleep deficit means that you will be extending your wakefulness, possibly not sleeping or not sleeping enough for another night, thereby further increasing the risk of mental distress. You will likely feel more drained than usual at the end of the trip, and the wish to sleep but being unable to can be pretty uncomfortable if you’re already in a state of sleep deficit.

Other Downsides of Tripping While Sleep-Deprived

Besides emotional distress, tripping while sleep-deprived can entail other downsides. Poor sleep impairs a range of cognitive functions, including attention, concentration, memory, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing, and judgement. These negative cognitive effects can diminish the quality of a psychedelic experience. 

If you’re sleep-deprived, it can be harder to pay attention to what is occurring during the trip (which may be highly valuable and memorable), and you may also be more likely to forget what occurred in terms of the visions, thoughts, and insights you had. In this way, you might potentially lose out on some therapeutic benefit, especially since integration – fundamentally – requires that you’re able to consolidate and recall meaningful moments during your trip.

Moreover, there is research suggesting that sleep deprivation increases the formation of false memories. Other studies show that even if you get plenty of total hours of sleep, if that sleep is fragmented (multiple night waking), then this can also impair memory consolidation. So, you can improve your recall (and therefore integration) of psychedelic trips by ensuring you don’t just get enough sleep but that you get quality (uninterrupted) sleep. 

In addition, sleep deprivation can impair cognitive flexibility, which means a reduced ability to adapt and thrive in uncertain or changing circumstances. And isn’t a psychedelic experience precisely this kind of circumstance? This is yet another reason why being well-rested before a trip will benefit you – it will put you in a better position to handle the unpredictable subjective changes that can occur.

A 1970 study on the effect of LSD on sleep-deprived men (who hadn’t slept for one or two nights) found that:

the onset of characteristic LSD behavior and attention impairments was more rapid in those men who received LSD after loss of sleep than in the drug-alone group; the sleep-loss-LSD subjects showed inaccuracies in problem solving and vigilance tests not present in the controls; and the men who received LSD after two nights’ loss of sleep showed increases in pulse rate, pupil size, and 3-hour plasma levels of LSD when compared with those subject groups which received the drug alone and the drug after one night’s sleep loss.

It’s interesting that 3-hour plasma levels of LSD were higher in those subjects who didn’t sleep for two nights: this suggests a pharmacological factor, separate from the subjective effects of sleep deprivation, that contribute to a more intense trip.

How Sleep Deprivation Can Alleviate Depression

While personal experience and research tell us sleep deprivation will worsen our mood, sleep deprivation can also be therapeutically used to treat depression. This is known as wake therapy. Indeed, sometimes you may have an experience of not getting enough sleep yet finding yourself in good spirits and feeling giddy. The mechanisms of the antidepressant effect of wake therapy are largely unknown. However, in 2011, researchers found that pleasure-causing circuitry in the brain gets a big boost after a missed night’s sleep, resulting in short-term euphoria (although these brain changes can potentially also lead to poor judgement and risky behaviour).

Wake therapy can involve partial sleep deprivation (4-6 hours of sleep a night) or total sleep deprivation (staying up for more than 24 consecutive hours, typically about 36 hours). 

So, if after one, two, or more nights of partial sleep deprivation you feel an enhanced mood, then you could end up having a positive psychedelic experience. This doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t be cognitively impaired. That’s worth bearing in mind. Also, while total sleep deprivation could put you in a better frame of mind than you would be if you slept normally, there is still a greater chance of experiencing more intense subjective effects.

You should be careful if you try to self-administer wake therapy, as partial or total sleep deprivation does not guarantee an alleviation of depression. It’s important to maintain self-awareness and understand how you’re feeling on the day you plan to trip. Check in with yourself and, if you’re ‘feeling off’, it may be best to postpone your trip. Also, chronic sleep deprivation is not helpful for depression, and it can increase anxiety and aggression, so you should avoid tripping if you’re currently experiencing that.

More Intense Trips

As we have seen, tripping when you haven’t got enough sleep may increase the intensity of a psychedelic experience. But this isn’t necessarily a negative. If you expect this to occur, or even if you don’t, you may be more likely to experience mystical effects like ego dissolution.

On the other hand, while research has correlated mystical experiences with the positive mental health outcomes of psychedelic therapy, we cannot conclude from this that mystical effects (i.e. ego dissolution, unity, a sense of the divine) cause improvements in mental health. As renowned psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman points out, it may be that it is the intensity of the experience, rather than any specific quality, that is important in terms of recovering from depression or addiction, for instance. Nonetheless, if intensity – be that of a perceptual, emotional, somatic, or cognitive nature – is critical, then sleep deprivation could aid in achieving that.

It’s also possible that if you do struggle with states like fatigue, overwhelm, and negativity during a trip, brought on by sleep deprivation, this may provide a challenge to overcome. And by overcoming it, you might learn a lesson about why it’s better to accept and embrace discomfort, rather than resist it. However, this does not mean you should then purposefully put yourself in a bad mindset before tripping, just because there may be some suffering to deal with; this would be reckless and only increase the chances of having an unnecessarily negative experience, which may also lead to persistent adverse effects when the trip ends. If you want a more intense trip, you’re better off taking a higher dose when rested.

A 2022 study published in Molecular Psychiatry hints at why sleep deprivation may intensify psychedelic experiences. Researchers found that this environmental stressor can significantly increase the levels of 5-HT2A receptors in 6-8 hours in animal models. These are the type of serotonin receptors that classic psychedelics bind to, which mediate the effects of these compounds. If sleep deprivation can result in more 5-HT2A receptors within several hours in humans, then this could be the mechanism by which users get more from their dose than they would if they were well-rested.

What if You Struggle With Insomnia?

When it comes to preparing patients for psychedelic therapy, I’ve sometimes wondered how much attention is paid to how well the participants have slept the night before. Since sleep issues like insomnia (struggling to fall/stay asleep) often feature in depression and anxiety, do many depressed patients, therefore, begin their psychedelic sessions in a less-than-ideal, sleep-deprived state? Since the prospect of a high-dose trip can be daunting (especially for a naïve user), will this disrupt sleep even further?

If you struggle with insomnia but want to trip, this presents a kind of catch-22. A positive psychedelic experience can help alleviate the depression and anxiety causing insomnia, but insomnia may lend itself to a negative psychedelic experience, which carries a risk of worsening one’s mental health. Nonetheless, we have clearly seen from clinical trials that depressed patients experience significant and lasting relief, and some of these patients may have had insomnia as a core symptom of their depression.

Of course, a ‘perfect set’ can never be achieved. And even when you feel at your most prepared and rested, that doesn’t mean that circumstances will align so you can go ahead with a trip (you might be busy on that day or you may not have space for yourself). If you struggle with insomnia and fatigue, you can still be prepared for a psychedelic experience. These issues don’t have to prevent you from tripping. However, for the sake of harm reduction, it’s still crucial that you practise good sleep hygiene and be as rested as possible. You want to feel ready to experience a full range of psychedelic effects, as well as be able to approach the experience with a positive and open attitude (which is still possible even if you struggle with sleep). 

If you wake up feeling particularly groggy and cranky, and these feelings persist throughout the morning, then you might benefit by tripping on another day. This waiting will pay off. Not only can you potentially avoid a difficult psychedelic experience, but when you do have the sort of therapeutic experience you’ve wanted, your mental health (and your sleep) will have a better chance of improving in the long term.

1 Comment

  1. Kesther
    December 14, 2022 / 8:02 pm

    I’ve always wondered what would happen if one took psychedelics when sleep deprived. Interesting.

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