Research has shown that alcohol consumption can worsen the symptoms of sleep apnea and impair your ability to get a good night’s sleep. There is also evidence that those with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can struggle with insomnia after drinking. Drinking alcohol in excess can have other side effects aside from disrupting sleep, but if you choose to drink and also need to manage your OSA or other types of sleep apnea, there are certainly ways to do so.
If you are living with OSA, you have either felt by now or have heard that alcohol and sleep apnea do not mix well. Drinking alcohol can actually increase apneic events and their duration, therefore worsening your sleep apnea symptoms.
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a disorder caused by the relaxation of muscles in the mouth and throat. An expansion occurs that causes a blockage of your airway and prevents air from reaching your lungs. Alcohol makes your muscles relaxed, including the muscle tissue in your airway.
It also reduces arousal response, which is how your body knows to wake up when you can’t breathe because of a blocked airway. Drinking diminishes this response, and it means that you won’t wake up as easily when your breathing stops because of OSA. 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 of time.
Since less air is getting through to your lungs, it means that when you wake up, you’ll experience more fatigue, tiredness, and daytime drowsiness—not to mention all the other side effects of excessive alcohol consumption such as dehydration and headaches.
Does Alcohol Cause Sleep Apnea and Sleeplessness?
The relationship between alcohol, sleep apnea, and sleeplessness is as complicated as any other three-sided dynamic. While alcohol may make you feel drowsy and relaxed in the short-term, it actually keeps you awake and makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. It also disrupts your body’s melatonin levels and makes sleep less restful than it normally would.
Alcohol doesn’t cause sleep apnea, but regular drinking puts you at higher risk for developing sleep apnea and can make current sleep apnea episodes worse. If you suffer from the effects of sleep apnea, you should avoid alcohol altogether; but, it’s still possible to enjoy alcohol occasionally in moderation.
The subject has been frequently researched, with some studies as old as nearly forty years old and some as newer as only a few months but they all point to the same conclusion: alcohol causes sleeplessness and makes your sleep apnea worse. In a more recent one study, nearly all participants surveyed experienced drastic changes in their apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) after alcohol consumption versus on a normal night. AHI is a figure used to measure sleep apnea by adding the number of respiratory pauses and shallow breaths you take in at any given hour of sleep. The higher the AHI, the more severe the apnea event and vice-versa.
So, alcohol alone won’t cause sleep apnea, but it will cause sleeplessness and will certainly impact your sleep apnea if you have it.
How to Sleep Better After Drinking Alcohol
You may have realized by now that drinking alcohol and OSA can be a dangerous proposition, but there are ways to still enjoy a fun night out while not compromising sleep.
- Use an APAP Machine. If occasional alcohol is a part of your lifestyle, you should consider using an auto CPAP machine (APAP machine). As the muscle tissue in your throat relaxes, an increase in pressure may be needed to keep your airways open. An auto CPAP machine can detect and increase air pressure to make sure you get the necessary higher pressure for effective, continuous treatment throughout the night.
- Monitor How Much Your Drink. It goes without saying that if you’re concerned about how you sleep, you’ll want to watch how many drinks you have if you plan on drinking. Try to stop drinking 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.
- Try Sleeping on Your Side. Your sleeping position impacts your sleep apnea. The best one for those with OSA is side sleeping, and that’s something you can start immediately, and it doesn’t have to be only when you drink. Side sleeping allows gravity to open a fully relaxed airway and makes your CPAP machine more effective.
- Put on Your Best Face. Facemask, that is. Another factor to consider in sleeping position is what the best type of CPAP mask for your sleeping position is. It can take a couple of tries to find the right one for you. You can buy a couple of them when you first buy your machine and return the one you don’t like.
Other strategies you can try to implement to ensure your sleep after drinking isn’t compromised are likely some of the same you’ve heard of before but are worth repeating:
- Have One Glass of Water for Every Drink
- Drink Plenty of Fluids the Next Day
- Try to Eat Well-Balanced Meals During the Day if You Plan on Drinking
Remember, your sleep apnea is manageable. The better job you do at managing it, the more adept you’ll be at continuing to lead the lifestyle you want without compromising your body’s ability to rest and make you productive the next day.
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.