People who snore may think that their partners or roommates are the ones most affected by their nightly symphonies — after all, they’re the ones who are kept awake while the noise-maker remains, for the most part, blissfully unaware.
But snoring can be more than just an annoyance to anyone else in the room; it can also be a symptom of a serious health condition, and has been linked to dangers like heart disease and falling asleep behind the wheel.
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Of course, there are many reasons why people snore and not all of them are chronic or hazardous to your health. If you sleep alone, you may not even be aware that you’re “sawing logs” on a regular basis. Here’s how to know if you or a loved one is at risk for snoring-related health problems and what you can do about it.
Why We Snore
Between 5 and 15 percent of middle-aged adults probably suffer from sleep apnea, although it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
Middle-of-the-night wheezing, snorting and snuffling can happen for a variety of reasons, but they all have to do with obstruction of a person’s airways. Most often, muscles in the roof of the mouth (known as the soft palate) or the back of the throat relax and partially block the flow of air.
“If you blow air through a floppy tube, it’s going to vibrate and make noise,” explains Michael Grandner, PhD, professor of psychiatry and a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “And at night, for a lot of people, your airways become a floppy tube.”
This can occur when people sleep on their backs instead of their sides, when they’ve had a few drinks before bed (because alcohol relaxes muscles) or when they have nasal congestion due to allergies or a cold. In fact, about half of adults snore at least some of the time, says Grandner, and it’s usually not dangerous. “Most of the time, we can still get enough air to keep things functioning normally.”
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But other snoring triggers can be harder to fix. For example, having an enlarged uvula (that ball of tissue hanging in the back of your mouth), a large tongue, or being overweight — especially for men, since they tend to gain weight around their necks — all raise your risk for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the heart isn’t able to get enough oxygen to function properly.
Spotting the Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Between five and 15 percent of middle-aged adults probably suffer from sleep apnea, Grandner says, although it often goes undiagnosed and untreated. And that’s bad news, since studies have shown strong associations between sleep apnea and high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions.
For people with sleep apnea, airway obstruction is so severe that breathing slows to a trickle. It may even stop for seconds at a time. These episodes are called apneas, at which point the brain sends alert signals to the body, forcing a gasp, a gag or an extra powerful snore.
“A lot of people think sleep apnea will cause them to suffocate, but it won’t,” says Grandner. “You’re still getting enough air to breathe — and if not, your brain will wake you up.” (Note though that according to the Mayo Clinic, for those with underlying heart disease, sleep apnea can lead to sudden death due to cardiac arrest.) The bigger risk, he says, is the long-term damage it can do.
Fluctuating oxygen levels throughout the night causes stress and oxidative damage to cells within your body. They also force the brain to be on high-alert all night and to deliver a shot of adrenaline to the heart every time an apnea occurs, when the body and brain are ideally supposed to be resting and recovering.
“It’s much more of a cardiovascular problem than a respiratory one,” he says. “People with untreated sleep apnea tend to develop these conditions years before they normally would.”
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When to Take Snoring Seriously
So how do you know whether you have run-of-the-mill snoring or a more serious problem? If someone hears you sleep on a regular basis and notices that you periodically stop breathing for several seconds at a time, that’s a red flag.
So is the volume of your snoring. “If you can hear it pretty clearly through a closed door, that’s a sign that your body is probably working too hard to get sufficient oxygen,” says Grandner.
If you don’t have a live-in partner or roommate, you can still watch out for daytime symptoms. Because the condition doesn’t allow people to get the deep sleep they need, about two thirds of people with sleep apnea experience excessive daytime sleepiness. “If you can stop whatever you doing, just about any place and any time of day, and sit down and immediately fall asleep, that’s a problem,” says Grandner.
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Waking up feeling exhausted is also a sign, especially if that feeling doesn’t go away within 10 to 15 minutes of getting out of bed. People with untreated sleep apnea may also have trouble getting high blood pressure under control, even with the help of medication.
How to Treat Sleep Apnea
The good news is that sleep apnea is very treatable and easily diagnosed through an overnight sleep study done either in your own home or at a sleep clinic.
Lifestyle changes, like losing weight or not sleeping on your back, may help some people. And if not, almost all cases can be treated by using a device called a continuous positive-air pressure, or CPAP, machine. The device sends air through a tube and a mask, into a patient’s nose and mouth while they sleep, keeping the airway open.
“It may take a few weeks of getting used to, but once they get over that hurdle most patients say it literally changes their life,” says Grandner. “It gives them more energy during the day, so a lot of them are finally able to exercise, eat better, and really get healthier overall.”