Why snoring is a health concern and what you can do about it

A worthy read for snorers (and snorees)

A worthy read for snorers (and snorees)

(Credit: iStock)

This article was originally published February 6, 2018.

It's the stuff of cartoonish comedy. Entire houses rumbling as some character snores so violently that other sleep accommodations are being sought by all under the same roof even as ears are being stopped with index fingers.

More than just a comical nuisance, the ills that snoring visits on the human body are more than enough to rattle the smile off your face. Turns out, snoring can be pretty bad for you (and anyone you share a mattress with).  

Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Paul G. Mathew confirms that snoring at its worst, often diagnosed as Obstructive Sleep Apnea, causes distinct interruptions in breathing. Mathew explains that the sleep shattering-snorts in sufferers are often symptomatic of them "gasping for air" in an attempt to clamour for more oxygen. "The brain," says Mathew of someone with sleep apnea, "undergoes repeated moments of suffocating" every night. Acute snoring = suffocation, got it.

Unsurprisingly, he also asserts that sleep apnea "interrupts sleep for both the sleeper and their bed partner".  That's a major problem for partners looking to manage insomnia and studies have proven it. Mathew, reminds us that "sleep allows both the body and brain to rest and recover from the stress of daily life." Fatigue offers no boon to human health - you need sleep.

We're quite careful with the sleeping habits of children, but as we age, our brains and bodies become less resilient so we actually require more consistent sleep cycles to function optimally. Matthew likens it to drinking: a six-pack in our twenties may cost us a morning, but the same amount of alcohol thirty years later will likely put us in convalescence for a week. Same holds for a sleepless night – an adult brain will find itself off kilter for days. Or worse. Sleep dysfunction aggravates everything from headaches to moods to energy to wakefulness to memory and cognition. Those cognitive effects may be even harsher for women. A recent study showed that a single sleepless night more significantly impaired working memory in women than in men.

Proper sleep is a growing problem. Consider that sound sleep cycles in our young and old are being challenged by the numerous screen devices found in every household. Blue light baffles our circadian rhythms and poor sleep hygiene has been linked to weight gain, viral infections, diabetes, and low sex drive. Lack of sleep is indeed rough on the body and experts maintain it'll pose a serious health issue affecting some 14,400,000 Canadians if not addressed.

Snoring is one of the most notorious nighttime culprits threatening healthy, restful nights. Left untreated, says Mathew, "sleep apnea leads to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and dementia." A 2008 study backs him up with findings of significant correlations between heavy snoring and carotid atherosclerosis, a build up in arterial walls that increases stroke risk.

Here, then, are some reliable tips to keep both your oxygen and sleep cycles at optimal levels – be you snorer or snoree.

Maintain a healthy weight

Heavier set people are more at risk for snoring because of excess fatty tissue around the neck, chin and chest can restrict breathing, particularly at night when we're all tucked in with heads propped at various angles on pillows. One study showed that Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) was relieved when obese sufferers lost weight. An earlier one showed that a 3KG drop of surplus weight yielded a 45% improvement in snoring while a loss of 7.6KG resulted in the "virtual elimination of snoring". Here, and in general, managing one's weight remains healthy. Still, dropping a few is not a categorical snoring cure all. Dr Daniel Slaughter, an otolaryngologist and snoring expert at Capital Otolaryngology in Austin, Texas, is clear: "thin people snore, too."

Get a tongue workout

A 2015 study showed that oropharyngeal (that's mouth and throat) exercises were effective in reducing snoring frequency. Make a bit of time during your morning commute for some proven mouth muscle exercises: pushing the tip of the tongue against the roof of your mouth then sliding it back (imagine miming "come here" but with your tongue), opening up and saying ahhh (you know how that one goes), the tongue smoosh (flattening the tongue against your hard palate), and the tongue carpet (laying it flat like a pancake on your bottom teeth) can all tone mouth and throat muscles. Repeat each of these 20 times for superior tone. Then get yourself some much deserved water. Bonus: hydration helps guard against snoring too - by keeping the mucous membranes in your airways moist (read optimal for unobstructed breathing).  

Position yourself accordingly

Ideally, you want to avoid sleeping on your back as that'll compress airways creating prime conditions for a perfect snore. Should you wish to avoid a night of elbow nudges from any sleep buddies, consider the pricey NightShift neckwear ($399 USD). It vibrates when you loll onto your back at night. Maybe try a body pillow first if a vibrating collar seems like too big a commitment. Program director for Clinical Neurophysiology and Sleep Medicine at JFK Medical Center in New Jersey, Dr Sudhansu Chokroverty offers the lowest of low-tech alternatives: duct tape a tennis ball to the back of your PJs. He also suggests sleeping upright on an angle with your "head up and extended, which opens up nasal airway passages." Think hospital bed. If snoring continues regardless of positioning, you may have snoring's more serious cousin, sleep apnea, warns Chokroverty. If collars, taped tennis balls and body pillows offer no reprieve, seeking medical guidance is favoured.  

No booze before bed

Thanks to its awesome ability to boost the calming neurotransmitter Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (or GABA), alcohol makes your muscles relax more than usual once you drift off. While that may sound like a lovely benefit, the muscle flabbiness can exacerbate snoring. You want to retain some tone and tightness, which explains the tongue aerobics. Even "people who don't normally snore will snore after drinking alcohol," confirms Chokroverty. He suggests putting your very last glass of wine down at least "four to five hours" before sliding into bed for the night. Check out any medicine you're taking too - anything that makes muscle tone softer while sleeping will up your chances of snoring yourself, and anyone within earshot, awake.   

Get to bed on time, often

As covered, good sleep hygiene is crucial to good health for a host of reasons. If every time you hit the hay you are literally crashing into your bed half comatose before your body smacks the mattress, you're entering snore country. Dr Slaughter confirms that going to bed overtired is similar to drinking in that your exhausted body and brain go into relaxation overdrive once you slip into sleep. "You sleep hard and deep, and the muscles become floppier, which creates snoring," says Slaughter. Again, you're looking to sleep tight, quite literally. Set a nightly alarm on your phone to remind you it's time to shut off that Netflix show you're bingeing or close the laptop and revisit your work (or those cat vids) in the morning. Again, the blue light emitted by our numerous devices aren't helping - maybe implement a household phone curfew to better manage sound sleep for all (may the gods favour you in that fight).

Do pass this along to any relevant bedfellows who may benefit and may all your nights be sans snore.

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.