Alcohol and Sleep Apnea - The Sleep Institute

Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

Most people don’t realize that Alcohol and Sleep Apnea share a direct relationship. Sleep Apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. It can lead to fragmented sleep and excessive daytime drowsiness, impacting overall health and quality of life. While there are various factors that can contribute to the development and severity of Sleep Apnea, one often overlooked aspect is alcohol consumption, which will probably have you wondering, “If I stop drinking alcohol will my Sleep Apnea go away?”. In this article we’ll explain the alcohol Sleep Apnea relationship so you’re equipped with the information you need about the potential risk factors. 


How Can Alcohol Cause Sleep Apnea?

Alcohol itself does not directly cause Sleep Apnea, but it can exacerbate the condition and increase the frequency and severity of apnea episodes in individuals who already have Sleep Apnea. Alcohol consumption can lead to muscle relaxation, including the muscles in the throat and airway, which can increase the likelihood of airway obstruction during sleep. This obstruction can result in episodes of apnea or hypopnea (shallow breathing), characteristic of Sleep Apnea. So does alcohol cause Sleep Apnea? Not exactly but it can exacerbate the symptoms of Sleep Apnea to a greater extent. 

Sleep Apnea and Alcohol: Disruption of Sleep Architecture

How else does alcohol make Sleep Apnea worse? One of the primary ways alcohol affects sleep is by disrupting the normal architecture of sleep. It can interfere with the balance between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages. REM sleep, crucial for cognitive function and emotional regulation, is particularly affected. Alcohol consumption often leads to a reduction in REM sleep duration and disruptions in REM sleep cycling. Disruptions in REM sleep, as part of sleep architecture, can exacerbate sleep apnea by affecting breathing patterns, and cognitive function, thereby increasing the severity and frequency of apnea episodes. How else does alcohol affect Sleep Apnea? Continue reading to learn more.

Muscle Relaxation and Airway Obstruction

Another way which drinking and Sleep Apnea are linked is muscle relaxation and subsequent airway obstruction. In individuals with Alcohol induced Sleep Apnea, alcohol exacerbates the condition by causing increased muscle relaxation, including the muscles in the throat and airway. As these muscles relax, they are more prone to collapsing and obstructing the airway during sleep, leading to episodes of apnea or hypopnea (shallow breathing). This effect between Sleep Apnea and drinking leads to the exacerbation of airway obstruction and can result in more severe and frequent apnea events throughout the night.

Increased Arousal Threshold

Alcohol consumption also raises the arousal threshold, meaning that individuals are less likely to wake up in response to breathing disturbances during sleep. While this may sound like a positive effect, as it could lead to fewer awakenings throughout the night, it can actually be dangerous for individuals with Sleep Apnea. By blunting the body's ability to respond to breathing interruptions, alcohol can prolong apnea episodes, leading to prolonged periods of oxygen deprivation and potentially worsening daytime symptoms.

Tips for Managing Alcohol and Sleep Apnea

For individuals with Sleep Apnea, managing alcohol consumption is essential for improving sleep quality and reducing the severity of symptoms. Here are some tips:

Limit Alcohol Intake: Reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime.

Create a Healthy Sleep Environment: Establish a consistent sleep schedule, optimize your sleep environment, and practice relaxation techniques to promote better sleep quality.

Seek Treatment: If you suspect you have Sleep Apnea or if your symptoms persist despite lifestyle changes, consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment options. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is often recommended as a highly effective treatment for Sleep Apnea.


While alcohol may initially seem like a remedy for sleep difficulties, its effects on sleep architecture and airway function can exacerbate Sleep Apnea symptoms. By understanding the relationship between alcohol and Sleep Apnea and making informed lifestyle choices, individuals can take steps to improve their sleep quality and overall well-being.

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