It is bad for your sleep quality, it is annoying for your partner and it is almost certainly affecting your health, but you already know you shouldn’t browse Twitter before bed. What about snoring? It is tempting to write it off as a problem you can’t do anything about or an entertaining quirk, but does it signify anything about your health? And can you stop doing it?
Certain health problems will manifest through snoring, but that doesn’t mean that snoring is always a cause for concern. Fundamentally, it’s an indication that your airways aren’t functioning properly – over either the short term or the long term – as the blood vessels inside your nose fill up when you lie down.
We all snore occasionally: colds can further obstruct our nasal passages, and one too many drinks before bed will relax the muscles of the tongue and throat, both of which lead to noisier slumber than usual. Smoking is also a common cause of snoring, as it results in inflammation in the tissues of the upper airway. But what if you snore all the time?
Dr Shereen Lim, a dental specialist in airway health and author of Breathe, Sleep, Thrive, says: “Most simply, snoring can fragment sleep, robbing us of its full restorative benefits. But it’s the most common symptom of a common yet widely undiagnosed condition called obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).”
OSA is when the airway collapses momentarily due to weak, heavy or relaxed soft tissues, and it happens persistently for more than 10 seconds at a time. It means your body stops breathing temporarily, which isn’t ideal. “OSA has been linked to disturbed sleep, chronic stress and inflammation,” says Lim. “But it’s also linked to an increased risk of virtually every chronic health condition, from high blood pressure, heart disease and depression to metabolic disease, memory loss, cancer and more.”
In terms of warning sounds, a loud snore may indicate greater resistance to airflow, but it does not necessarily say much about how disrupted your sleep is likely to be. More concerning are signs and symptoms including choking or gasping while you’re asleep, waking up unexpectedly, or just feeling unrefreshed during the rest of your day.
So what can you do about it? The simplest answer is to stop snoring before it starts. “Modern healthcare focuses on diagnosing and treating OSA, the most severe end of the spectrum of sleep breathing disturbances, but that’s like treating coronary artery disease rather than focusing on prevention and promoting health,” says Lim. “Snoring is a symptom of poor airway structure and function. It plays out during sleep because our muscles are more relaxed, we are lying down, and reflexes that normally keep our airway open during the day are not active during sleep.” It is a condition that tends to worsen with age “due to factors including hormonal changes, weight gain and reduced muscle tone”.
If you already snore occasionally, switching from sleeping on your back to sleeping on your side can help. Taping a tennis ball to the back of your sleepwear may sound like dad science, but the NHS endorses it, although pillows and bed wedges may feel a bit more dignified. Some people find nasal sprays and strips help, although evidence of their efficacy is mixed.
If problems persist or get worse, myofunctional therapy – exercises that train the muscles around the face, mouth and tongue – can help in mild cases, or work alongside treatments for more severe ones. They can even be fun: “Didgeridoo playing has been shown to reduce snoring, as well as obstructive sleep apnoea and its symptoms,” says Lim.
Moderate and severe cases may call for dental devices that hold the lower jaw in a position that discourages snoring. For more severe problems, surgery offers an array of options that target a person’s individual risk factors and help restore airway structure and function, but there is some disagreement over its long-term effectiveness.
You may have seen mention on social media about the benefits of taping your mouth closed, but most doctors agree that it is dangerous, especially if you already have sleep apnoea, while one small study suggests that mouth-tapers just switch to “mouth puffing”, meaning it doesn’t work anyway.
The best solution is probably preventive: maintaining a healthy weight, as well as keeping the muscles of your core in shape, can help, as can eating well and reducing your alcohol intake.
Staying off Twitter while you are in bed probably won’t make a difference, but you should do that anyway.