March 24, 2009
Anthony Burgess, the novelist, once said: "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you snore alone". Suffice it to say, there’s nothing worse than trying to sleep next to someone who snores. Snoring is also a common reason why many married couples sleep apart. Besides the whole host of health problems that snoring is associated with, like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, snoring is even linked to erectile dysfunction in men (see our feature article: What the Makers of Viagra Missed). Fortunately, snoring is something you can get rid of. The problem is in knowing how.
Snoring is probably one of the most frustrating conditions not only for the snorer, but for spouses and bed-partners as well. It’s also one of the least understood medical conditions by most doctors. One of the main reasons for this is that there are a lot of myths perpetuated both by the media and pop culture about snoring. It’s oftentimes seen as something of a farce. The truth is, however, snoring is a sign that the person who snores is most likely struggling to breathe at night, and therefore, is at a much higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Moreover, textbooks and internet resources further mislead people to think that snoring originates at the soft palate, since that’s where most of the vibrations occur. However, the soft palate doesn’t flutter all by itself: the nose as well as the tongue can be involved. Even most doctors focus way too much attention on the soft palate.
The challenging part of eliminating snoring is in figuring out what’s actually causing the snoring. The vibrations of the soft palate is only the end result and not, as many people think, the thing that causes the snoring. Imagine your upper airway as a long, thin tube that has three main areas that can either narrow or collapse when a slight vacuum pressure is applied. Like a flimsy straw that would collapse in the middle if you pinch the tip, or would collapse at one end if you pinched the middle, your airway is also affected by how well you can breathe through your nose not to mention how tone or relaxed your muscles become as you drift off in to deep sleep. Gravity can also play a part in obstructing your airway, since your tongue, as well as the excess tissues around the back of your throat can naturally fall back partially obstructing the airway, as you lie down on your back to go to sleep.
It’s All In Your Jaw Size
Another major factor that determines how well you breathe at night, or how susceptible you are to snoring, is the size of your jaws. It’s been shown that modern human’s jaws are slightly smaller than what we had hundreds of years ago. Various reasons are proposed, but one major reason is thought to be due to a major change in our diets. (For a more complete description of this process, take a look at my book, Sleep, Interrupted: A physician reveals the #1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired.) If your jaw is slightly smaller, then your tongue which grows to its’ normal size, takes up too much space, sitting higher and more backwards in your throat. As a result, when you lay flat on your back, due to gravity, your tongue will fall back partially, and when you breathe in, a mild vacuum effect is created upstream at the palatal level, which constricts the soft palate closed, which then causes the free edge of the soft palate to flutter and vibrate causing the snoring noise. On the other hand, if your nose is stuffy for any reason, then a vacuum effect is created downstream, which forces the palate and the tongue to slide backwards towards the airway making it narrower and therefore creating sounds we call snoring when the air seeps through the small opening. So this is how a simple cold or an allergy attack can aggravate temporary snoring.
Furthermore, if your muscles relax more than usual (like after alcohol ingestion), then you may even stop breathing altogether. In this circumstance, if these breathing pauses last longer than 10 seconds, then it’s called an apnea (or loss of breath). In those people who have 5 or more of these apneas every hour on average, then are diagnosed with a serious sleep breathing condition called obstructive sleep apnea. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can then lead to depression, anxiety, weight gain, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
The really bad news for snorers is that a significant number of heavy snorers have obstructive sleep apnea (about 30-40%, and much higher as you get older or heavier). It’s true that not all snorers have sleep apnea, and not all people with sleep apnea snore. However, if you’re not snoring, then you may also not be breathing. It’s also been shown that neither you nor your bed-partner can tell if you stop breathing—it can just be silent pauses, without any audible gasping, coking or snorting. When some people say, I used to snore a lot, and now I don’t anymore, but I’m still tired, then there’s cause for alarm since even those that state with certainty, "I know I don’t have sleep apnea" are more often than not, wrong.
What Can I Do To Stop The Snoring?
So, once you’ve found out where the snoring is coming from, the next step to solving your snoring problem is to find the right solutions. Of course you can start by doing the most obvious like:
• lose weight
• don’t drink alcohol before bedtime
• don’t take any medications that are sedating or relaxing
• sleep on your side
• sew a sock stuffed with a tennis ball to behind your back to prevent sleeping on your back.
• use nasal dilator strips.
Sometimes, any of these options may work to various degrees, but for most, the problem will usually come back. The most important issue here, however, is that if you snore heavily, you have to find out if you have obstructive sleep apnea. Even if you are successful in covering up your snoring, you could still have untreated obstructive sleep apnea. And if this is the case, you’re putting yourself at serious risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. The best thing to do to avoid this from happening is to see a sleep doctor and undergo an overnight sleep study if you snore.
If you are found to have obstructive sleep apnea, then treating this condition definitively should take care of your snoring. Not only will your snoring improve, you’ll also feel much better in the morning, and have much more energy during the day. In addition, your increased risk for many chronic health problems mentioned above will be improved as well. You may also lose weight. (you may even feel like having sex again-see What the Makers of Viagra Missed).
So lets say that you don’t officially have sleep apnea. What can you do? Before I go into this discussion, sleep apnea is not something that you either have or don’t have. Everyone is on a continuum. As mentioned before, if your AHI is 5.1, you’re told you have it, whereas if your score is 4.9, do don’t have it, and because you don’t officially meet the formal criteria, it’s not a good enough to cause to ignore your snoring. It’s still a problem that should be addressed as it can make you lose sleep, not to mention put a damper on your love life in more ways than one.
All Those Snoring Treatments
There are over 300 patented devices and gadgets for snoring (refer to ). Sometimes they work, but with a few exceptions, most of these devices either cover up your snoring without getting to the root cause of your condition, or keeps you awake so that you don’t snore. Three popular anti-snore aids were recently tested for effectiveness in a prospective study: a throat spray, nasal dilator strips and a pillow. None of these three were found significantly better than controls when tested prospectively. There are even devices that wake you up as you enter deeper levels of sleep to prevent muscle relaxation. Regardless of what treatment options you choose, it’s imperative that you first get a proper evaluation from a sleep specialist or a medical professional about your snoring. Doing so could not only help with the snoring, it can help you foster a healthy relationship with your loved ones.