Alcohol and Sleep Apnea: A Dangerous Cocktail

Florence Cardinal Health Guide April 21, 2007
  • As I've mentioned before, my husband, Norman, suffered from sleep apnea. He also had other cards stacked against him. He was diabetic and obese. He was an alcoholic. He'd tried to quit drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and he did manage to quit for short periods of time, but never for the long haul.

    His bouts with sleep apnea seemed to worsen when he was drinking. His snoring grew worse. He'd awaken more frequently, frightening me with his gasping for breath. He'd get up, disoriented, not knowing where he was or who I was. I dreaded those nights and often took the kids and stayed at a hotel or with a friend.

     

    But when I left him on his own, I couldn't help but worry. What if he did something to harm himself? What if he stopped breathing altogether?

     

    One of the hallmarks of Norman's illness was his excuse that a drink before bedtime made him sleep better. In truth, this is a fallacy. A nightcap might send you into dreamland faster, but alcohol disrupts your sleep patterns later in the night, which is probably why he had his bad spells in the early morning hours.

     

    Recent research reveals that I was right to be concerned. Dr. Paul Peppard and a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison did a study that showed that the number of alcoholic drinks imbibed, not just at bedtime, but over the course of the day, increases the risk of shallow breathing or a stoppage of breathing altogether.

     

    In some cases, alcohol actually seems to cause sleep disorders. If snoring disrupts your sleep, the malady becomes worse when you drink. If you don't snore, you may start after a drink or two. If you normally snore, drinking can augment the problem into sleep apnea.

     

    One of the reasons that sleep apnea becomes worse after drinking is that when throat muscles relax and cause a cessation of breathing, you ordinarily gasp for breath and startle yourself awake. If you have been drinking, you are more relaxed, and may be unable to awaken and start breathing again. Alcoholics are at a higher risk of getting sleep apnea, other sleep disorders and sleep disruptions.

     

    I know that when Norman did manage to stop drinking for a few weeks, there was a noticeable improvement in his sleep. He suffered fewer apneas his snoring became less intrusive. Early morning sleep disruptions became less frequent and often vanished entirely.

     

    Unfortunately, it never lasted. Although he admitted that he felt better and was more alert during the day, he eventually returned to his old habits. One reason, I suppose, is that he wasn't aware of many his sleep problems. Although he'd stop breathing many times in the night, he didn't know it. He never heard himself snore, and the early morning confusion faded from his mind like a bad dream.

     

    If you suffer from sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, you would be wise to avoid alcohol. Never use alcohol as a nightcap and be very careful of mixing sleeping pills with an evening drink - a mistake that can turn deadly.