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How Alcohol Affects Sleep Apnea

Disrupted Breathing May Result from Alcohol Use

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Updated June 09, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

How Alcohol Affects Sleep Apnea

Alcohol may affect sleep and impact sleep apnea in multiple ways, but how does this work? Should people with sleep apnea avoid alcohol altogether? The answers may surprise you.

Alcohol's Effect on Nighttime Breathing

In general, alcohol is a substance that may have significant impacts on your health. You may not have realized that it may also affect your sleep, especially if you have sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea.

Alcohol can decrease your drive to breathe, slowing your breathing and making your breaths shallow. In addition, it may relax the muscles of your throat, which may make it more likely for your upper airway to collapse.

The Consequences of Alcohol in Sleep Apnea

As the result of alcohol use, apnea events occur more frequently in someone who is predisposed to them. In addition, the drops in the oxygen levels of the blood (called desaturations) become more severe. This may lead to increased carbon dioxide levels in the body, a condition called hypercapnia. Therefore, the consequences of sleep apnea may become more pronounced with alcohol use.

If You Have Sleep Apnea, Should You Avoid Alcohol?

If you have sleep apnea, the best advice would be to abstain from all alcohol use. At the very least, alcohol should not be used in the several hours prior to bedtime to minimize the effects overnight.

You should also keep in mind that it is important to set up your continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) under typical sleeping conditions. Therefore, if you drink alcohol daily but abstain prior to your titration study, the pressure may not be adequate to maintain your airway when you drink. If you wish to maximize your therapy, consider the role that alcohol use plays in treating your sleep apnea.

Sources:

Scrima, L et al. "Increased severity of obstructive sleep apnea after bedtime alcohol ingestion: diagnostic potential and proposed mechanism of action." Sleep 1982;5:318.

Issa, FG and Sullivan, CE. "Alcohol, snoring, and sleep apnea." J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1982;45:353.

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