Alcohol and Sleep Apnea: A Dangerous Cocktail

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My husband, Norman, suffered from sleep apnea. He had other cards stacked against him, too. He was diabetic and obese. He was also an alcoholic. He’d tried to quit drinking, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and managed 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.

Research reveals that I was right to be concerned. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine linked increased alcohol consumption to an increased risk of mild or worse sleep disordered breathing.

A more recent study was published in the journal Sleep Medicine in 2018. It examined 30 years of published research and concluded that alcohol consumption increased the risk of sleep apnea by 25 percent. The authors of that study urged health care providers to consider advising against bedtime alcohol consumption among people who have, or are at risk of, obstructive sleep apnea.

In some cases, alcohol may even 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 may increase sleep apnea risk.

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 sleep apnea and other sleep disorders such as insomnia.

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 and 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 his sleep problems. Although he would 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 never mix sleeping pills with alcohol.

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