Sleep Apnea and Alcohol : A Dangerous Combination

If you’ve ever thought that you might drink a glass of wine to help you sleep at night, you might want to think again. Many people believe that drinking a glass or two of alcohol in the evening can relieve stress and help you sleep better. But the opposite is actually true. Although wine can help you to fall asleep faster, it can ultimately affect the quality of your sleep in a negative manner.

Some people, after drinking alcohol in the evening, wake up the next day feeling more exhausted the next day–as if they didn’t even sleep. Problems with sleeping disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea can often be associated with alcohol use because alcohol may inhibit the body’s ability to sleep as deeply as needed, skipping important rhythms in the sleep cycle.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping condition in which a person stops breathing repeatedly for a few seconds while sleeping, causing a loss of oxygen and increase in carbon dioxide in the body over extended periods of time. Many people who have sleep apnea are not aware that their body is waking up periodically to try to breathe, but their sleep is not restorative and they end up sleep deprived. This may cause difficulty in concentration, memory loss, attention issues and other cognitive problems.

Sleep apnea may be due to the fact that the throat or tongue muscles relax so much that the airways are blocked. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Sometimes waking up to gasping or choking
  • Insomnia (inability to sleep well the whole night through)
  • Sleepiness during the day, even during activity such as driving
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Dry or sore throat upon waking up
  • Irritability, forgetfulness, decreased libido, or mood changes
  • General fatigue
  • Observed breathing pauses that last more than 5 seconds

Some people are more at risk of sleep apnea than others due to a variety of concerns. Here are a few of the risk factors that make it more likely for a person to have obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Obesity or excess weight
  • Large neck circumference (17” in men; 16” in women)
  • Male gender
  • Middle-age or older
  • Recessed chin or lower jaw
  • High blood pressure
  • Family history
  • Use of sedatives of tranquilizers
  • Smoking
  • Nasal congestion, allergies, or tightened airways

Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

A link has been discovered between alcohol use and obstructive sleep apnea, partially due to the fact that alcohol makes the muscles in the throat relax. When the throat and back of the tongue relaxes, it often causes snoring and may have a tendency to close up the airways that allows the body to breathe. According to a study published in 2007 (Clin Sleep Med.), men who consume alcohol habitually (even just moderately) are at a much higher risk of experiencing breathing problems during sleep.

Alcohol, when consumed prior to bedtime, can cause problems with the sleeping rhythms. In fact, drinking alcohol may actually cause some of the sleep stages (REM—Rapid Eye Movement) to be completely skipped. This means that your body may move directly into the deep sleep stages, but not get the needed restorative sleep that comes from experiencing all of the stages.

One study has shown that alcohol consumption may increase the frequency and duration of sleep apnea breathing episodes, creating a stronger likelihood of hypoxia. And some people who do not normally have obstructive sleep apnea may begin developing it as a result of the consumption of alcohol.

Sleep Apnea, Alcohol, and Death

People who have a habit of consuming alcohol are much more likely to be diagnosed with breathing problems during sleep, such as sleep apnea. And people who binge drink may be even more likely to suffer from sleep apnea that can lead to respiratory problems and ultimately even premature death.

People who have sleep apnea and drink alcohol raise their risk of complications related to the disease as the throat muscles loosen and breathing becomes more labored. In addition, a study performed in Minnesota at Mayo Clinic (The New England Journal of Medicine) showed that obstructive sleep apnea patients are more likely to suffer from sudden death due to cardiac causes during the middle of the night. This may be due to the fact that the blood during this time contains too little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide, causing a blood pressure surge, stressed walls of the heart, and disturbed heart rhythms. All of these factors, as well as a tendency toward blood clots, may be the reason that sleep apnea and alcohol combined can put people at an extreme risk.

Truly, the best way to keep alcohol from affecting your health and issues with sleeping problems is to stop drinking alcohol completely—at any time of day. If you usually have a glass of wine in the evening to help you relax, consider a cup of hot, herbal tea (chamomile works well for helping to sleep), or diffusing lavender essential oil into the air for relaxation. Other stress-relieving activities may include exercising earlier in the day to aid with sleep, yoga stretching, and meditation. If you feel compelled that alcohol is the only way to get to sleep at night, it is imperative to speak with your doctor right away to come up with a healthy solution and proper life balance.

You may also read: Can You Die From Sleep Apnea?

Treatments for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a highly treatable condition and people can usually take advantage of non-invasive options for treatment. Your doctor or sleep specialist may recommend losing weight, applying an exercise program and healthy diet, aiming to sleep on your side or stomach instead of the back, using a breathing machine, or a combination of several of these to treat this sleeping condition. CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines are often used to aid the body with breathing during sleep and keep the oxygen flowing as it should.


Alcohol and sleep apnea don’t have to ruin your life. But they also aren’t likely to work very well together to help you live in a healthy manner. If you are concerned that you have sleep apnea, stop drinking alcohol right away and contact your physician or sleep clinic to start the steps toward a diagnosis. There’s hope for you to find restored sleep and a renewed lease on life with just a few minor changes.

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