Alcohol and Sleep Apnea: What’s the Connection?

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Raj Dasgupta, MD

Alcohol and sleep apnea are linked. Drinking alcohol can make snoring worse and raise the risk of sleep apnea. This happens because alcohol affects your airway, sleep duration, and breathing patterns.

This article explores how alcohol impacts your body during sleep and its role in causing sleep apnea and snoring.

The Connection Between Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Drinking alcohol relaxes the muscles in your airway, increasing the risk of sleep apnea—a disorder causing breathing interruptions during sleep, often accompanied by loud snoring and gasping. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and complex.

Alcohol can trigger obstructive sleep apnea by causing the throat’s soft tissues to collapse, obstructing the airway. Even non-sufferers may experience symptoms after drinking. People with alcohol use disorder face a heightened risk, particularly if they snore.

For those with obstructive sleep apnea, alcohol exacerbates the condition by relaxing the airway further and prolonging breathing interruptions. Nasal congestion from alcohol worsens breathing difficulties.

Central sleep apnea, a disorder of the central nervous system, is also worsened by alcohol, which slows brain activity and increases the frequency of breathing pauses.

Does Alcohol Cause Other Sleep Problems?

Alcohol affects sleep by messing with the brain’s normal activity. This can cause problems like:

  • Messed-up sleep cycles
  • Trouble falling asleep (insomnia)
  • Not getting enough sleep

In the US, over 130 million adults drink alcohol monthly, with 23% binge drinking in a month. Binge drinking means having 5 or more drinks (for males) or 4 or more (for females) in one occasion. This can mess up your sleep, especially heavy drinking (5 or more drinks per day, 5 or more days a month). But even moderate drinking now and then can mess with your sleep patterns.

Does Alcohol Cause Snoring?

Yes, alcohol can make you snore more. It reduces your urge to breathe, slows down breathing, and relaxes throat muscles. This can lead to airway collapse and vibrating tissues, causing snoring.

Does Alcohol Cause Insomnia?

Alcohol can cause insomnia, making it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or waking up too early. Even moderate drinking can:

  • Reduce the quality and amount of sleep you get.
  • Decrease REM sleep duration.
  • Increase time spent awake after falling asleep.
  • Take longer to fall asleep.
  • Reduce the percentage of time spent sleeping in bed.

These effects are more significant in older adults. Heavy drinkers over 50 have a 64% higher risk of insomnia, while occasional binge drinkers are 35% more likely to develop insomnia than nondrinkers.

Even small amounts of alcohol can worsen sleep quality, with just one or two drinks causing a decline of up to 9%. Drinking more exacerbates the decline in sleep quality, with two or more drinks causing up to a 39% decrease.

Should You Avoid Alcohol if You Have Sleep Apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, it’s best to avoid alcohol, especially before bedtime. Drinking can make breathing difficulties worse during sleep, especially the more you drink.

Using a CPAP machine can help counteract the effects of alcohol on sleep apnea, but consistent use is key. People who drink alcohol often may struggle with CPAP compliance.

Make sure your CPAP machine is set up correctly, especially if your alcohol consumption varies.

Consider discussing an autoCPAP machine with your healthcare provider, as it can adjust pressures throughout the night to better manage your condition, especially if you drink frequently.

Can CPAP Therapy Reduce the Effects of Alcohol on Sleep Apnea?

CPAP therapy is the top treatment for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and mild to moderate central sleep apnea. It involves delivering pressurized air into the airway to keep it open during sleep. It’s effective for OSA by preventing airway collapse and for central sleep apnea by helping lungs fill with air despite lacking muscle control.

Although few studies directly address the impact of CPAP on alcohol’s effects, experts generally endorse CPAP as the go-to for managing alcohol’s impact on sleep apnea.

Studies suggest that alcohol doesn’t reduce CPAP’s effectiveness on sleep apnea itself. In some cases, higher air pressure may be needed to address snoring in those with no other signs of OSA.

For mild cases of sleep apnea, you may consider using some anti-snoring devices or anti-snoring mouthpieces.

Tips for People Living With Sleep Apnea

For those with sleep apnea, experts advise minimizing alcohol intake, especially before bedtime. If cutting out alcohol entirely isn’t feasible, reducing consumption and avoiding drinking close to bedtime can be helpful. Regardless of alcohol use, individuals with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can benefit from:

  1. Sticking to their treatment plan: Consistent use of CPAP or similar devices is crucial. This can also mitigate the effects of alcohol on OSA. Any concerns about comfort or usage should be discussed with a doctor or sleep specialist.

  2. Considering lifestyle changes: Weight loss, regular exercise, and avoiding sleeping on the back can often lessen OSA severity.

  3. Practicing good sleep hygiene: Establishing healthy sleep habits and creating a sleep-friendly environment can help prevent disturbances during the night.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience any of the following, it’s essential to see a doctor or sleep specialist:

  • Gasping for air or choking during sleep
  • Loud and frequent snoring
  • Abnormal breathing patterns while asleep
  • Feeling extremely sleepy during the day
  • Regular morning headaches
  • Difficulty focusing or staying alert during the day

Talking to a bed partner or roommate about snoring and breathing issues during sleep can be helpful. If you have these symptoms, a doctor can assess your situation and recommend sleep apnea testing if needed for a diagnosis.

If you’ve already been diagnosed with sleep apnea but your symptoms persist despite treatment, talk to your doctor. They can discuss lifestyle factors like alcohol consumption and suggest ways to improve treatment effectiveness.

Seek professional help if you show signs of alcohol abuse, such as interference with work, school, or relationships. This could indicate unhealthy drinking habits.


1. Can I Drink Alcohol if I Have Sleep Apnea?

Most experts advise against alcohol for those with sleep apnea. If you choose to drink, keep it to one drink and stop at least 3-4 hours before bed.

2. Can You Drink Alcohol While Using a CPAP Machine?

Your healthcare provider may recommend limiting alcohol, but if you drink, it’s important to stick to your CPAP routine. There’s no evidence alcohol affects CPAP effectiveness.

3. Does Drinking Alcohol Lower Oxygen Levels?

Yes, alcohol can lower oxygen levels, especially during sleep, as it slows breathing and impairs oxygen intake.

4. Will My Sleep Apnea Go Away if I Quit Drinking?

Quitting alcohol alone may not fully reverse sleep apnea. It’s part of a larger treatment plan that includes lifestyle changes.

Need professional help to diagnose and address your sleep problems? Schedule an online consultation with sleep specialist Dr. Owen Napleton.

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