Can I Drink Alcohol if I Have Sleep Apnea?
Posted: April 23, 2021
Sleep apnea (SA) is a serious sleep disorder that can lead you to an early grave. If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition, it’s important to work with our providers to help improve your health and manage your condition. One thing that many people ask is whether they can drink alcohol if they’ve been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is a question only you and your doctor can answer, but it’s important to know how alcohol can affect you if you have SA.
How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing while you sleep. When you stop breathing, your body forces you to wake up and take a breath. This can cause low oxygen levels in your body, sleep deprivation, and more. If you think you have SA, take our sleep apnea risk quiz or order a sleep apnea test from our clinic. SA is a serious condition that can increase your risk for serious and even life-threatening conditions.
Drinking alcohol with OSA can be pretty risky. It can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep and can make your SA worse. In fact, heavy drinking is a common risk factor for OSA, and can even cause apnea events in those who don’t have SA.
Therefore, alcohol use may make SA and its effects worse. If you have SA, it’s important to know the risks of drinking alcohol with this serious sleep disorder.
Alcohol Impacts the Sleep Cycle
Did you know alcohol can disrupt your natural sleep cycle? This can happen to anyone, but particularly those with SA, as patients can be more vulnerable to sleep issues and sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a serious issue, as it can increase your risk for potentially life-threatening conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
Alcohol affects melatonin, the body’s primary sleep regulating hormone. Your body usually releases melatonin after dark to help you sleep. However, even moderate amounts of alcohol about an hour before bedtime can lower melatonin levels by about 20%. This may make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Also, alcohol can make REM sleep less effective. It may even make you skip REM cycles as you sleep. REM sleep is mentally restorative, and can help your mind feel fresh and rested. It may help with mood and memory, as well as learning, so disrupting the REM cycle may cause a few different issues for your life and body.
Alcohol Worsens Sleep Apnea Events
Drinking alcohol can also make your sleep apnea worse. Alcohol is a depressant that can make your muscles relax. In the case of your airways, they can relax too much and collapse during sleep. Therefore, if you have OSA, alcohol may increase your risk for apnea events.
Several studies have found that alcohol consumption can make OSA worse. Alcohol may increase the number of times you stop breathing during the night. Essentially, this means your SA is more severe when you drink alcohol. Someone might have mild SA on a normal night, but moderate or even severe SA when they drink based on the number of apnea events they have.
Also, alcohol weakens your body’s response to apnea events. Alcohol makes your breathing slower and shallower. It also makes your arousal response longer. Now, we’re not talking about anything sexy, arousal response actually refers to your body’s natural instinct to wake you up when you stop breathing at night. After a few alcoholic drinks, this could take a lot longer, which means you might stop breathing for longer periods of time.
Therefore, alcohol can make SA worse. It’s important to talk to our provider about your specific situation and strategies to manage SA and alcohol.
Skip the Night Cap
Many people who have trouble sleeping turn to alcohol as a way to help them sleep. However, this might make things worse, whether you have sleep apnea or not! So, consider skipping the night cap and hopping into bed completely sober for a restful night’s sleep. While it’s a common myth that alcohol can help you sleep, science shows otherwise, particularly for those with OSA.
Alcohol Worsens Sleep and Daytime Fatigue
Since alcohol affects your sleep cycle, it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep after a night of heavy drinking. You might feel drowsy or tired in the short-term, but alcohol makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Alcohol can affect REM sleep and your breathing, both of which can contribute to daytime fatigue. REM sleep gives your mind time to rest, so even if you get plenty of sleep, if you skip a few REM cycles, you’re likely going to feel pretty drowsy the next day. Also, alcohol can make you stop breathing more often and for longer periods of time if you have SA. This means you’re probably waking up more often throughout the night after a couple of drinks than you normally do.
Both of these things can combine to make it hard to get enough rest during the night. So, alcohol can increase daytime fatigue the next day, even if you don’t have a hangover. If you already have daytime fatigue because of sleep apnea, alcohol may make it worse.
Remember, fatigue is a common cause of a lot of issues, like poor work performance and accidents, so it’s important to take fatigue seriously.
Drinking Can Make OSA Symptoms Worse
Another issue with drinking alcohol when you have sleep apnea is that it can make your symptoms worse.
We’ve mentioned that alcohol can make your SA more severe. A natural consequence of that is that your symptoms might get worse.
For example, let’s say some symptoms you have that are caused by SA include feeling tired during the day, waking up with dry mouth, and irritability. Drinking alcohol may mean you’re dealing with even more severe symptoms than normal.
Most men would agree that a couple of drinks the night before isn’t worth feeling miserable the next day. However, even if you’re willing to deal with these issues from worsening OSA, consider the other effects of sleep apnea.
Health Effects May get Worse
Symptoms of SA can be awful, but it’s important to remember that they’re not the only issues happening. There are other effects that are less noticeable, but potentially more damaging.
For instance, one 2020 study found that alcohol consumption was associated with some of the lowest oxygen saturation levels in those with sleep apnea. Low oxygen levels in your blood can have dangerous effects, like heart and brain damage.
Therefore, you could be doing more long-term harm to your health by drinking alcohol if you have SA.
What About Alcohol in Moderation?
The general recommendation for alcohol and sleep apnea is to abstain from drinking if possible. This can help reduce the risks of alcohol making your sleep condition worse.
However, many people enjoy an alcoholic beverage every now and again. If this is the case and you don’t want to give up alcohol for good, the key is moderation. Heavy drinking can take a huge toll on your sleep cycle and body.
First, keep in mind that the less often you drink alcohol, the less often you’re risking worse health consequences with your SA. So, it may be a good goal to limit alcohol to just occasional drinking.
Also, try to avoid drinking at least two or three hours before bed (though several hours is typically better). This can help give your body time to metabolize the alcohol before bedtime to help reduce the risk of alcohol affecting your sleep. Keep in mind that even a small amount of alcohol can make OSA worse, so try to time alcohol consumption so that you’re sober when you go to sleep.
Don’t forget to use your sleep apnea treatment, particularly after drinking. CPAP therapy can help keep your airways open during sleep with gentle air pressure. This is particularly important after drinking alcohol, as your airways may relax even more than normal.
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Disclaimer: This article is made available for general, entertainment and educational purposes only. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of Low T Center. You should always seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.