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How alcohol affects sleep and causes snoring

What is sleep?

sleepingBefore discussing how alcohol causes snoring, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what sleep is and how consuming alcohol affects sleep.

Sleep is a normal, cyclical state of unconsciousness from which a person can be quickly awakened. It is as fundamental to life as food and water. Sleep experts theorize that sleep is essential for the renewal of the nervous system, temperature regulation, memory and information processing and energy conservation.

The sleep process consists of a normal cycle between two types of sleep; rapid eye movement, or REM sleep and non-rapid eye movement, or NREM sleep. NREM sleep slows down brain activity, but the body moves. Vital signs such as blood pressure, respiration and pulse rates are reduced and steady. REM sleep is actually a deeper sleep and looks like an active brain when monitored by an EEG scan. Voluntary muscle movement is minimal, despite the eyes darting back and forth which gives this sleep cycle its name. REM sleep is when dreaming occurs and is thought to be a part of the brain’s information processing function.

Alcohol’s Effect on Sleep

alcohol sleepOne of the most pervasive myths regarding sleeplessness is that alcohol induces a good night’s sleep. Alcohol does help people relax and fall asleep faster, but it also gives rise to low sleep quality and decreased time in REM sleep.

Drinking before bed has several side effects including a lighter sleep marked by repeated awakenings throughout the night. Some individuals report night sweats and vivid dreams. REM sleep, which is a necessary factor in the restorative process of sleep, is decreased early in the night. However, REM sleep does rebound in the second half. Any loss of REM sleep, however, is detrimental.

While alcohol causes people to fall asleep quickly, the NREM portion of the sleep cycle (dreamless sleep) is deeper and longer. Without adequate REM sleep, people wake up feeling fatigued. The greater the amount of alcohol consumed, the longer the period of NREM sleep. Additionally, alcohol consumption causes more awakenings as the night progresses further, diminishing sleep quality.

There are several ways in which alcohol affects sleep including snoring, disruption of REM sleep, insomnia, worsening of sleep apnea and the effect of a hangover on the body. Each of these contribute to poor sleep quality and can lead to health problems.

Alcohol Use and Snoring

heavy snoringAlcohol is classified as a depressant. Like sedatives, it travels throughout the body and slows the brain’s ability to respond to stimuli. Its sedative effect causes a deeper relaxation of muscles than normal sleep. As a result the oropharynx (the back of the throat) folds faster when compared to that of a sober individual. The collapse of the oropharynx is one of the prime reasons for snoring.

While snoring is annoying to bed mates and causes disruption, some people are affected with sleep apnea after drinking. Sleep apnea occurs when an individual temporarily stops breathing during sleep. The body’s response is to gasp for air to obtain oxygen. The resulting gasp resembles a loud snore.

While this differs from a clinical diagnosis of sleep apnea, it is still cause for concern particularly if the individual drinks alcohol frequently before bed. People affected by this temporary sleep apnea often find they awaken feeling short of breath or extremely fatigued the next day.

Alcohol and Sleep Issues

remsleepAside from temporary sleep apnea, fragmented sleep (defined as frequent awakenings throughout the night) and difficulty maintaining sleep (DIS) are common problems for those who drink before bed. For those who use alcohol to fall asleep, they may find that stopping this practice results in insomnia.

No matter how much or how little alcohol is consumed, it causes shorter sleep cycles for the first half of the night, followed by increased disruptions in the second half. The more alcohol consumed, the longer individuals remain in NREM sleep. While NREM does promote rest in the body, it increases the potential for sleep apnea and sleepwalking.

REM sleep, as previously mentioned, is vital for the brain to process information and memory. A lack of REM can significantly reduce one’s ability to concentrate and well as reduce motor skills and memory. Since REM sleep accounts for 20 to 25 percent of total sleep time, inadequate REM sleep has a significant impact on conscious cognitive abilities.

The delay in REM sleep occurs even if little alcohol is consumed. This delay means a decrease in the restorative aspects of sleep. This delay is the same type that is exhibited in individuals under an excessive amount of stress or who are suffering from depression. Experts believe that the impact of alcohol on REM sleep explains the improvement in mood and decrease in anxiety that is associated with alcohol use.

The Hangover Effect

hangoverResearchers have found a connection between obstructive sleep apnea and alcohol. Since alcohol suppresses breathing, it affects the breathing center in the brain by masking decreased oxygen levels in the body, creating the possibility of tissue damage.

As previously noted, usually non-snoring individuals can succumb to snoring after drinking. Alcohol is metabolized quickly by the liver dropping the level of alcohol in the system to near zero midway through the night. The byproducts, or metabolites, remain in the bloodstream and the effects of alcohol on the body are still present. These metabolites are what cause the hangover. Some hangover symptoms can be attributed to breathing difficulties while sleeping.

Despite its sedative effect on the body, alcohol does not produce a good night’s sleep. While it can help individuals fall asleep quickly, the quality of sleep is compromised since it increases the number of times people awaken during the second half of the night.

Alcohol’s sedative effect makes muscle relaxation more pronounced, particularly around the breathing structures. Snoring is the body’s way of counteracting this relaxation in an effort to pull more oxygen into the system. Some individuals may experience temporary sleep apnea causing them to stop breathing and have their oxygen levels drop repeatedly throughout the night. For those individuals with a diagnosed case of sleep apnea, alcohol can exacerbate symptoms creating increased breathing difficulties.

5 Ways to Reduce the Effects of Alcohol on Snoring

The best way to eliminate the effects of alcohol on snoring is obviously to avoid the use of alcohol all together. However, if you do decide to drink alcoholic beverages, there are a few ways that you can reduce the effects on snoring.

  1. Drink in Moderation – For those under the age of 65, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that men keep their drinking to 2 drinks per day while women should limit it to 1 per day. Men over the age of 65 should not consume more than one drink per day. If you decided to have more than the recommended amount, space each beverage out an hour from each other. Drinking a glass of water in between helps to space drinks out while keeping you hydrated. Wait 3 or more hours between your last drink and going to bed.
  2. Eat a Meal Beforehand – It’s always important to eat a meal before you begin to consume any beverages. Food helps to absorb the alcohol so that it does not have such an immediate dramatic effect on your body. Plan your evening to include food and if possible, allow your meal to digest for a several minutes before drinking to avoid bloating and discomfort.
  3. Avoid Eating Food Before Bed – While eating is an important consideration before drinking, eating before bed (especially large quantities of food) can exacerbate snoring caused by the consumption of alcohol. It can also cause indigestion, including acid reflex.
  4. Sleep on Your Side – A surprising number of people are actually positional snorers, meaning that they snore only in certain positions. This is especially true for those who snore only after consuming alcohol. After having a few drinks, try sleeping on your side to reduce the sound of snoring caused by alcohol consumption. Try using a tennis ball to help keep your body into position.
  5. Use a Snoring Mouthpiece – The Mandibular Advancement Device, also known as a “Snoring Mouthpiece” help to silence snoring by holding the jaw forward as you sleep which opens the airway. Alcohol is a sedative that relaxes airway muscles. Loose airway tissues tend to flap against each other, causing the sound of snoring. A snoring mouthpiece has been proven to tighten the airway and can help to eliminate the sound of snoring.  A comprehensive list of snoring mouthpieces that I have personally tested and reviewed can be found here.
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