It’s no secret that alcohol can cause you to stop breathing, but did you know it may also be linked to sleep apnea? When you drink alcohol, it causes your body to release chemicals that inhibit the respiratory centers of your brain. This means that your breathing becomes less controlled and more erratic – which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep and the amount of oxygen that passes through your system while you rest. Let’s learn more about the connection between alcohol consumption and sleep apnea.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common condition that affects millions of people. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of your throat collapses and closes off your airway during sleep. This leads to frequent interruptions in breathing, leading to daytime fatigue, excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, and heart disease over time.
The Connection Between Alcohol and Sleep Apnea
Alcohol may disrupt your sleep patterns and cause you to breathe shallowly or stop breathing altogether. Alcohol causes some people (especially those predisposed) to experience physical changes in their airways during sleep, making them prone to snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). As a result, they might find themselves waking up more frequently than usual.
One study found that OSA patients had difficulty breathing after drinking alcohol; another found that participants who consumed two standard drinks per day were more than twice as likely to experience OSA than those who did not drink.
Research suggests that even moderate consumption may be problematic for some people: One report showed that men who drank two days per week or less had an increased risk for having moderate-to-severe OSA. At the same time, women faced no such risk regardless of how much they drank.
Dangers of Drinking With Sleep Apnea
It’s a common misconception that drinking alcohol can help you sleep better. When it comes to sleep apnea, the opposite is true. When you drink alcohol and fall asleep, your throat muscles relax and allow more air to pass through the mouth. This causes you to breathe through your mouth instead of your nose—a telltale sign of snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. The combination of these two effects can make it difficult for those with OSA to get restful sleep.
The second effect of alcohol on OSA is that it slows down breathing even more than normal. For example, drinking might stop breathing for 5 seconds every minute or so during their REM stage—a cycle that usually lasts only 20 seconds or so in people who don’t have apnea issues.
How to Treat Sleep Apnea
Treatment for sleep apnea includes many different options. CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, uses a steady stream of air through a mask placed over your nose and mouth to keep airways open while asleep. It may take some time to adjust to this treatment, but many people have found its use beneficial.
Lifestyle changes can also help reduce OSA symptoms, such as:
- Avoiding alcohol before bedtime
- Not sleeping on your back
- Choosing a firmer mattress
- Trying to sleep with your mouth closed
- Sleeping with a lightweight blanket
- Focusing on a healthy sleeping habitat
Do You Depend on Alcohol to Fall Asleep?
While low doses of alcohol may help insomnia, it comes with a few risks. One problem with using alcohol as a coping mechanism for insomnia is that its effects may be reduced over time, and tolerance might develop. You’re likely to increase your alcohol consumption to attempt to reap the same benefits when this happens.
Furthermore, any effects of alcohol on sleep aren’t as beneficial when you consider the downsides of heavy alcohol consumption and poor sleep patterns.
Keep in mind that alcohol can trigger sleep apnea and contribute to poor sleeping patterns. However, by taking steps to reduce alcohol intake and avoid other triggers like sleeping on your back, you can help reduce the severity of your symptoms and improve the quality of your sleep.
If you have been diagnosed with OSA or suspect it, speak with your doctor about treatment options. At the same time, examine your alcohol intake habits. If you’re drinking excessively, consider talking to your primary care provider about this. Excessive alcohol consumption might be a sign of a bigger problem.
They might be able to recommend treatment or options for a potential alcohol use disorder. If you’re dealing with challenges in stopping drinking, consider contacting an addiction counselor to learn more about your treatment options and the best way to seek recovery.