If sawing logs is part of your sleep routine, you’re in good company. Nearly half (45 percent) of U.S. adults admit to snoring occasionally, Johns Hopkins Medicine estimates, while about 25 percent are regular snorers. But just because snoring is common doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Those nighttime purrs, snorts and grumbles could be a sign of a bigger health issue.
Snoring happens when air pushes past soft tissues that line the airway in the mouth and throat, explains Melissa Lipford, M.D., a neurologist in the sleep medicine group at the Mayo Clinic. “As we sleep at night, these soft tissues relax, just like our body relaxes,” she says. And when you breathe in and out, “they start to vibrate, and that vibratory sound is actually what snoring is.”
Sounds innocent enough, right? It can be. “Sometimes snoring is just snoring,” Lipford says, and something as simple as changing your position — try sleeping on your side instead of your back, for example — can put a stop to it.
“But one of the things we worry about the most is it can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea. And basically that’s when those soft tissues relax so much that they actually obstruct the airway,” Lipford says.
Is your snoring due to sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a relatively common disorder, especially among older adults, that causes a person to stop breathing in their sleep — sometimes up to 30 times every hour. Because the brain is constantly waking the body up to take a breath, “the sleep of someone with obstructive sleep apnea is peppered with all of these wake-ups,” Lipford says. “These patients really aren't able to get into those deeper, more consolidated stages of sleep.”
The consequences of a shattered sleep cycle are serious, says Marishka K. Brown, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, which oversees the National Institutes of Health Sleep Research Plan. Poor sleep is linked to cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with obesity, diabetes and dementia.
It’s no surprise then, that researchers at Johns Hopkins found that severe sleep apnea in middle or old age can increase risk of premature death by up to 46 percent.
“Sleep is like air and water, you need it. And if you don't get enough of it, if it is not refreshing and restoring and if you are not sleeping on a regular schedule, it really has an impact on your health,” Brown says.
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There is no hard-and-fast way to tell if your snoring is due to sleep apnea — a health care provider typically performs a sleep study to make the diagnosis. But a few patterns can point to the disorder, which research shows affects about 20 percent of U.S. adults, of whom 90 percent are undiagnosed.
Pauses in your breathing throughout the night is a big one — this is something your partner may notice, or you may find yourself waking up gasping for air. Excessive daytime sleepiness is another. Loud snoring often goes hand in hand with sleep apnea, “but it's also important to know that not everyone with obstructive sleep apnea has loud snoring,” Lipford says. Some may not snore at all. Women, for example, can have sleep apnea without snoring due to differences in their anatomy.
“So the bottom line is: Whether you snore or not, if you're not rested by your sleep, if you don't wake up feeling refreshed, if you have trouble maintaining sleep — all of those things are a sign that something could be wrong,” and you should talk to your doctor, Lipford says.
Treatments for sleep apnea range from lifestyle changes to surgery. The most common method to treat it, however, is with a device that delivers air pressure through a mask while you sleep, known as a CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machine.
Other underlying issues behind your snoring
Snoring could point to a few other health issues, like a deviated septum (which can be corrected with surgery), allergies or chronic nasal congestion. If a stuffy nose is to blame, try using nasal strips before bed. These can be purchased without a prescription and help to open up the nasal passages “so that you get less tension as you breathe,” Lipford says. A nasal saline rinse or spray can also help relieve snoring due to allergies or congestion, she adds.
Common Causes of Snoring
While not an exhaustive list, here are six causes of snoring.
- Sleep apnea
- Deviated septum
- Allergies/chronic nasal congestion
- Alcohol before bedtime
Another culprit: obesity, since fat along the neck can “cause some external compression on the airway,” Lipford says. “It just narrows that airway tube and can cause more snoring because those tissues are closer together.” Losing weight can often help put an end to snoring caused by excess weight. One study found that men who lost about 7 pounds saw a significant reduction in their snoring; those who lost 17 or more pounds practically eliminated it.
Snoring can also be a result of smoking — it causes inflammation in the tissues that line the airway — or drinking alcohol before bedtime, since alcohol increases relaxation of the muscles in the mouth and throat, closing the upper airway.
What’s critical, experts say, is to talk to your doctor if your snoring is disturbing your sleep or the sleep of your partner, “because it really could be indicative of something underlying,” Brown says. And don’t forget: The loss of sleep could be harmful on its own.
“I really want to reiterate that sleep is a biological necessity; it's a necessary requirement for overall health and well-being … and is equally important as nutrition and physical activity when it comes to disease prevention,” says Brown, who adds that adults should be aiming for at least seven hours of good-quality z’s each night. “So if someone is snoring and they get up the next day and they do not feel refreshed and their daytime sleepiness is interfering with their quality of life, then they should really discuss that with their health care provider.”