Last Updated on October 5, 2021
Alcohol has a number of effects on the human body, many of which are well-known and often-discussed. But one topic often flies under the radar: Can alcohol affect your oxygen levels?
The importance of oxygen to our well-being is no mystery—all you have to do is hold your breath for 30 seconds for a good reminder! The oxygen we breathe travels through our bloodstream to nourish every part of our body. Oxygen is essential for life, and low oxygen levels therefore have a significant impact on health.
Below, we’ll discuss whether the amount of alcohol you drink can impact your oxygen levels, the consequences, and what you can do to manage the problem.
Can Alcohol Affect Your Oxygen Levels?
While studies are currently limited, there are several ways that alcohol might impact your body’s oxygen level:
- Disrupted breathing during sleep: Alcohol is shown to worsen problems like sleep apnea1, and to cause breathing disruptions as you rest. This can reduce the amount of oxygen you take in during the night, and cause your blood oxygen saturation to dip below normal levels.
- Reduced oxygen saturation in blood: Some research suggests that alcohol can disrupt the absorption of oxygen by hemoglobin in the bloodstream2. Hemoglobin is a protein found in red blood cells that transports oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and organs.
- Agglutination of blood cells: Excess alcohol use can also cause agglutination, or clumping, of red blood cells3. Agglutination may interfere with the distribution of oxygen to tissues, cells, and organs.
With all this said, it’s not completely clear how big an impact alcohol will have on an individual’s oxygen levels. For some, especially those who already struggle with low oxygen saturation, heavy drinking might worsen the problem. But there are many factors at play, and more research is still needed.
What Are the Consequences of Low Oxygen Levels?
In minor cases, low oxygen levels can cause headaches and shortness of breath4. In more extreme cases, insufficient oxygen can damage essential organs like the heart and the brain. Long-term, chronic low oxygen levels can put stress on your internal organs, increasing the risk of failure, and generally contribute to fatigue and lower functioning in daily life.
While it’s unclear if drinking alcohol can cause more than a minor reduction in oxygen, it may worsen the impact of conditions like sleep apnea or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)5, which already impact breathing. If you’re at risk for the consequences of low oxygen levels, it might be a good idea to limit alcohol.
How Can You Manage the Problem?
If you want to increase your oxygen levels, there are several healthy strategies that can help:
- Exercise regularly. Exercise makes your heart stronger and your muscles more efficient, meaning they will use less oxygen to move6. It also improves circulation. (People with lung conditions or COPD should get guidance from a doctor or physical therapist before exercising.)
- Hydrate. Water doesn’t directly increase your oxygen levels. However, staying hydrated keeps your body functioning optimally. It makes it easier for your heart to pump blood and for oxygen to travel throughout the body. Plus, hydration helps reduce some of the negative effects of alcohol7.
- Practice breathing exercises. Breathing exercises are often recommended for people with conditions like COPD8. Many athletes also receive respiratory training to work on their breathing. Try breathing exercises like deep belly breaths or “pursed lip breathing” to relax your airways and improve airflow9.
- Quit or limit drinking. Limiting drinking or abstaining from alcohol is the most effective way to combat alcohol’s effect on oxygen levels. Individuals with conditions like sleep apnea and COPD may particularly benefit from reducing their alcohol consumption.
Of course, the impact of alcohol on your oxygen level depends on several factors, including your overall health, and how much you drink. If you’re concerned that your drinking is impacting your health, and you’re wondering if you may need to cut back, take our alcohol use survey to learn where you stand.