Relationship of Sleep Apnea and Alcohol
This post was originally posted on October 13,2021, and updated on January 19, 2022.
While alcohol seems like an ideal aid for falling asleep, it actually inhibits healthy sleep and may induce sleep disorders like sleep apnea. The different stages of sleep are important for getting the rest you need to recharge your mind and body. These phases of sleep can be disrupted by alcohol use. Alcohol can also affect normal breathing while asleep. If you drink alcohol on a regular basis, it’s best to understand the impact it may be having on your sleep patterns.
Low Doses of Alcohol Helps Sleep
Some studies have found that low quantities of alcohol may help some people fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply for a while. However, the full cycle of healthy sleep is still disrupted. Alcohol prevents the deepest level of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM). REM is essential for a more restful and rejuvenating sleep. The more alcohol you drink, the more REM is disrupted.
Effects of Alcohol on the Four Different Stages of Sleep
To better understand how alcohol affects sleep, we need to look at the four different stages of non-REM or quiet sleep. Each stage takes you deeper into sleep and alcohol influences how well you move through each stage during the night toward the deepest stage, which is REM sleep.
Stage 1 (NREM)
Stage 1 transitions you from wakefulness to sleep and lasts around 5 to 10 minutes. Alcohol can induce Stage 1 more quickly.
Stage 2 (NREM)
In Stage 2, the body temperature drops, and the heart rate slows, which lasts about 20 minutes. Alcohol can prolong Stage 2.
Stage 3 (NREM)
In Stage 3, muscles become fully relaxed and breathing rates and blood pressure rates drop as the body moves into REM sleep. Alcohol can prolong Stage 3.
During REM sleep, your brain becomes more active, your body more relaxed and your eyes move rapidly. It is at this stage of sleep that dreams occur. While alcohol helps achieve NREM sleep faster and sustains these early stages, it disrupts critical REM sleep, the deepest level needed. In essence, alcohol keeps you in a state of sedation that is not quite sleep. Never achieving REM on a nightly basis has long-term effects on health.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on Sleep
Regular alcohol use before bedtime can have lasting effects on your sleep health. You may find yourself drowsy during the day, even after a long period of sleep. You may experience poor concentration during the day as the brain has never fully recharged and you become sleep deprived.
Do Low Doses of Alcohol Help with Insomnia?
Those suffering from insomnia may think a nightcap can help. But while alcohol gets you to sleep faster, the effects of alcohol are more likely to wake you up in the middle of the night. Alcohol may help overcome the initial difficulty of falling asleep, but those with insomnia will still experience sleep deprivation and sleeplessness by never getting the REM sleep they need.
Direct Effects of Alcohol on Sleep Apnea
If you have sleep apnea, drinking alcohol before bedtime will only make it worse. Alcohol relaxes the throat muscles which can increase the frequency of apneas. If you are using CPAP therapy for your sleep apnea, you are working against the health benefits of therapy by reaching for a drink.
How are Alcohol and Sleep Deprivation Related?
Excessive alcohol consumption never allows your brain to achieve the necessary REM sleep stage for healthy rejuvenation and recharge that we need as humans. NREM sleep alone is not healthy sleep. Over the long term, you begin to lose sleep and start to feel the ill effects of sleep deprivation.
Alcohol and Insomnia
Because alcohol disrupts natural deep REM sleep, it can lead to erratic sleep patterns. Insomnia can be made worse as alcohol allows for short periods of NREM sleep, that leave you awake for extended periods, often at night.
Alcohol and Daytime Fatigue
Without REM sleep, you may begin to experience daytime fatigue. Drowsiness during the day after what is perceived to be a period of sleep can affect concentration, memory, and mood. Daytime fatigue may also lead to daytime napping, to make up for lost sleep, which can cause insomnia at night.
Alcohol Moderation for Sleep Apnea
If you are currently managing sleep apnea or have been recently diagnosed, you do not have to give up on alcohol entirely. Use alcohol in moderation and be sure not to drink several hours before your bedtime. These best practices allow you to enjoy a drink or two and still successfully achieve a good night’s rest.
For more information on sleep apnea, including best practices and sleep apnea equipment needs, speak to our knowledgeable staff at The CPAP Shop. We offer CPAP machines from leading manufacturers and can help you make the best equipment purchase.