You might think that a ‘nightcap’ will help you sleep. If you knew what it could do to your sleep, though, you might reconsider. Alcohol lowers your sleep quality and makes you more likely to snore. It can even cause you to have breathing difficulties at night. Obstructive Sleep Apnea creates a number of potential problems for your life that you can often avoid. Here are a few reasons to think about changing your drinking habits and getting your OSA under control.
The Relationship Between Alcohol and Snoring
Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, which relaxes your muscles. To some degree, this includes your airways. Airways that open and close or become increasingly constricted at night can make air harder to pass through. That creates the snoring sounds. Although your body tends to relax during sleep regardless, drinking a few hours before sleep can increase this effect.
Snoring and Sleep Architecture
Sleep experts have a specific term for the way that people sleep at night. It’s called “sleep architecture.” Although most people go through similar cycles of sleep at night, there are many factors that influence the way your sleep architecture looks. You typically go through 3-4 stages of sleep in a period that lasts 90-120 minutes on average:
- Light sleep
- Moderate sleep characterized by a slowing of brain waves
- Deep sleep
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep
Researchers have identified the stages in which different types of snoring are more likely to happen. For example, conventional snoring (i.e. snoring not related to OSA) could happen at any stage, but more likely in deep sleep. Snoring as a result of OSA is most likely during REM sleep.
This information is important to know because everyone has a different experience with these stages. Absent any other factors, you might spend more or less time in REM sleep than other people. As one of those factors, alcohol can change your sleep architecture. Keeping you in a certain stage longer could prolong snoring or make it worse.
Understanding Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Knowing when you are more likely to snore can help you determine if you are at risk for developing OSA. Sleep apnea is a common cause of snoring, and about half of snorers are likely to have OSA. This condition means that your airway is partially or fully blocked at certain points during the night.
OSA is a serious condition that needs treatment for several reasons. The first is sleep quality. When your sleep is severely truncated throughout the night, you are more likely to be tired during the day. This can lead to bad decision-making or force you to rely on stimulants that are not an effective replacement for good rest.
OSA also puts you at risk for developing other health problems, like a heart attack. If you don’t treat it, the symptoms can increase over time. It can even be fatal, although the cause of death tends to be something related indirectly to the apnea, like a stroke or drowsy driving. Most people can effectively manage OSA once they get a diagnosis, and controlling alcohol consumption is a part of that.
How Alcohol Can Cause Sleep Apnea or Make It Worse
There are several risk factors for OSA, and alcohol poses a direct risk. Because it relaxes the upper airway muscles, alcohol may create apnea events in people who do not have OSA. Alcohol can cause the airways to close in part or completely. The depressant effects may lead the tongue or lower palate to fall against the throat, contributing to airway constriction. Heavier drinking tends to make this problem worse.
If you have OSA, alcohol usually aggravates it. Apnea episodes can occur hundreds of times every night – after about 10 seconds of poor or no breathing, your brain is alerted to wake you up to breathe. As a sedative, alcohol will make it harder for you to wake up. This can increase the effects of OSA because your body is going without oxygen for longer periods.
Alcohol also changes the way your body progresses through sleep stages. Since you’re more likely to deal with apnea during REM and heavy sleep, prolonging sleep in these stages could aggravate OSA. Alcohol usually cuts REM short, but can make the heavy sleep stages longer.
Limiting Alcohol Consumption to Reduce Snoring and Improve Sleep
How alcohol affects your sleep at night depends on a few factors. If you do not have OSA, you have fewer limitations on when and how much you can drink without affecting your sleep as much. Generally, you should consider following these tips:
- Give your body at least a few hours to metabolize the alcohol before you hit the sack
- Cut back on how much or how often you drink
- Avoid using alcohol or sedatives to help you settle for sleep
- Improve your sleep hygiene to make sleep easier
- Assess your personal risk of developing OSA
Studies indicate that frequency and volume make a significant difference. People who drink daily are more likely to have breathing problems while sleeping, especially if they do it in the evening. Those who consume the equivalent of several alcoholic drinks before bed have a higher occurrence of sleep-related breathing disorders.
Adding OSA to the equation requires a more-controlled approach. Evidence suggests that patients with OSA who drink regularly often experience negative effects no matter what time of day they drink. As such, if you drink on a regular basis and are at risk for OSA, you may need to quit drinking or at least cut back on your consumption. Talk to your doctor about how you can manage your condition.
Managing OSA and Drinking
If you suspect that you may have OSA, the best thing you can do is to treat it proactively. Many people with OSA aren’t diagnosed, and this can trigger long-term health problems that are harder to manage or impossible to cure. Since alcohol directly affects your airways as you sleep, the way you deal with OSA is going to depend on your alcohol consumption. If you use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, be sure to discuss alcohol use with the clinic titrating the pressure. Alcohol consumption could make the machine work less effectively if it is not set correctly.
If you are not diagnosed with OSA but you have problems with snoring, you can try other methods to decrease the snoring and increase your ability to breathe at night. Some people use a device that they place in the mouth to hold the jaw forward and keep the tongue away from the throat. This mouthpiece promotes a more open airway, which often results in less snoring and better sleep. When used in conjunction with regular health care and a reasonable approach to alcohol consumption, it could be an effective tool to manage snoring and sleep.
Lots of people drink alcohol to help them sleep, but that does not mean it’s a practical choice. In fact, alcohol tends to hinder sleep quality and even increases risk for sleep apnea. To learn more about how alcohol and obstructive sleep apnea could be ruining your night, talk to a dental sleep medicine expert at Premier Sleep Associates. Request an appointment online or call us at (425) 698-1732.