Curious about how drinking alcohol can impact the symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea and other sleep disorders? Do you struggle with insomnia after drinking? Research has shown that alcohol consumption can worsen the impacts of Sleep Apnea and impair your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
We’ll provide tips on how to get a better night’s sleep if you choose to drink, and answer common questions that you may have about how drinking impacts sleep health.
If you suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea, you should know that alcohol and Sleep Apnea do not mix well. Drinking alcohol can actually increase apneic events and their duration, worsening your Sleep Apnea symptoms.
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Apnea?
Alcohol makes your muscles relaxed, including the muscle tissue in your airway. You may recall that Sleep Apnea is a disorder caused by the relaxed muscles of the mouth and throat expanding during sleep. This expansion causes a blockage of the airway that prevents air from reaching the lungs.
This causes the symptoms of Sleep Apnea. When you drink alcohol, your muscles are very relaxed; diminishing your arousal response time.
What is “arousal response”? Arousal response is how your body knows to wake up when you can’t breathe because of a blocked airway1. Drinking diminishes this arousal response, and it means that you won’t wake up as easily when your breathing stops because of Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
Without that response, your body is less likely to interrupt an apneic event naturally. If you stop breathing, it could take longer to wake up, meaning you’ll be without oxygen for an extended period.
Because less air is getting through to your lungs, it means that when you wake up, you’ll experience more fatigue, tiredness, and daytime drowsiness– in addition to a possible hangover.
Does Alcohol Cause Sleep Apnea?
Alcohol doesn’t cause Sleep Apnea, but research shows that among patients who engaged in habitual alcohol use, regular drinking puts you at higher risk for developing Sleep Apnea, and can make current Sleep Apnea episodes worse. The best recommendation for patients that are at risk of developing Sleep Apnea is to abstain from drinking2 as alcohol and Sleep Apnea don’t work well together.
Can Alcohol Keep You Awake?
Contrary to what you may think, drinking alcohol actually keeps you awake, and makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. It also messes with the body’s melatonin levels and makes sleep less productive overall. According to scientists writing for the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
“Such studies indicate that alcohol interacts with sleep deprivation and sleep restriction to exacerbate daytime sleepiness and alcohol-induced performance impairments.3“
This is why, for people that suffer from the effects of Sleep Apnea, it’s best to avoid alcohol if possible to get the best sleep. But if you are in a situation where you know you will be drinking, we’ve compiled some potential tips on how to sleep better after consuming alcohol which we’ll go over in the next section.
How to Sleep Better After Drinking Alcohol
Secret #1: Use an APAP Machine
In most cases, it is best to avoid drinking alcoholic beverages late at night, but sometimes this cannot be avoided. If alcohol is a part of your lifestyle, you should consider using an auto CPAP machine. As your muscle tissue relaxes, an increase in pressure may be needed to keep your airway open.
An auto CPAP machine (APAP machine) can detect and increase air pressure to make sure you get the necessary higher pressure for effective, continuous treatment throughout the night.
These two options for APAP machines are among the most popular, but there are many other models that can be just as effective as those two machines.
Secret #2: Become a Side Sleeper
Side sleeping is another tactic you can put to use immediately that can help you sleep better– whether you’ve imbibed or not. A recent study found that alcohol and Sleep Apnea are a bad combo, as ingestion increases the Obstructive Sleep Apnea symptoms that the CPAP is fighting against, making it harder for air to reach your lungs4.
Side sleeping allows gravity to open a fully relaxed airway and makes the CPAP machine more effective5. Side sleeping can mean the difference between a poor night of sleep and a great one. If you’ve consumed alcohol at all, it’s going to make your apnea symptoms worse, but sleeping on your side can help your CPAP machine work better and may help you get the therapy you need.
There’s one sleep position you’ll want to avoid if you’ve been drinking. Research has shown sleeping on your back is the worst sleep position for Sleep Apnea5. Drinking compounds the problems that you’ll have in this position. Just as gravity helps keep your airway open when you sleep on your side, gravity also works to close your airway when you sleep on your back.
As if alcohol and Sleep Apnea weren’t enough, sleeping on your back causes you relaxed airway to hang down– naturally blocking the airway. Your CPAP or APAP machine will have to work harder and fight gravity in keeping your airway open.
As a person who also suffers from Sleep Apnea, I naturally prefer to sleep on my back first, even though I know I shouldn’t. It was the most comfortable position for me. I find that during the night while sleeping, I’m more likely to naturally drift towards this position.
I’ve had to learn to force myself to sleep on my side. Sleeping on my side has been a new thing for me, and definitely takes some getting used to, but the benefits I’ve noticed are enormous. My AHI is lower, my breathing is better, and I have increased energy– even when I consume alcohol. Try it yourself tonight, and see if it makes a difference.
Secret #3: Watch How Much Alcohol You Consume
It goes without saying, that if you’re concerned about how you sleep, you’ll want to watch the number and alcohol content of the drinks you consume. However, if you choose to drink, opting for drinks that are lower in alcohol content and limiting yourself to a fixed number will help you as you prepare to sleep.
It’s also recommended that you stop drinking altogether at least two hours before you go to bed. This will give the alcohol time to metabolize through your system and make it easier to fall asleep.
Studies have shown that the more you drink, the worse you make your Sleep Apnea symptoms6. Even one drink per day with dinner can have an impact on how you sleep. The scientific evidence shows that limiting the number of drinks you consume before bedtime can make for a better more restful sleep.
Moderate drinking, as opposed to heavy drinking, can make a big difference in the quality of your sleep. Scholarly reports and research suggest eliminating alcohol consumption entirely as the best way to eliminate the effects of alcohol consumption on Sleep Apnea.
Alcohol and Sleep Apnea References:
1. Carole L. Marcus, et. al. Arousal and Ventilatory Responses During Sleep in Children with Obstructive Sleep Apnea Published in the medical journal “Journal of Applied Physiology” on June 1, 1998. Accessed on September 7, 2018.
2. Simou, Evangelia, John Britton, and Jo Leonardi-Bee. Alcohol and the Risk of Sleep Apnoea: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Published in the medical journal Sleep Medicine in 2018. Accessed on September 11, 2018.
3. Roehrs, Timothy Ph.D., and Roth, Thomas Ph.D. Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. Published by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism on its official website. Accessed on September 11, 2018
4. Issa, F G and Sullivan, C E Alcohol, Snoring and Sleep Apnea Published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry in 1982. Accessed September 11, 2018.
5. Menon, Akshay, and Manoj Kumar. Influence of Body Position on Severity of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Systematic Review Published in the medical journal: ISRN Otolaryngology in 2013. Accessed on September 11, 2018.
6. Peppard, Paul E., Diane Austin, and Richard L Brown. Association of Alcohol Consumption and Sleep Disordered Breathing In Men And Women Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 2007. Accessed on September 11, 2018.
David Repasky has been using CPAP treatment since 2017 and has first-hand experience with what it’s like to live with Sleep Apnea. He brings the patient’s perspective to the CPAP.com blog and has received formal training in CPAP machines, masks, and equipment.