A leather mask that clamps the mouth shut. A cannonball sewn into a soldier’s uniform. And a machine that delivers sudden electrical pulses. These old items were all intended treatments for a problem that has haunted humanity for millennia: snoring.
It might seem harmless, but snoring can be a sign of something more dangerous. So, what exactly causes snoring? And when does it become a problem?
A snore’s quality can range from a gentle mew to a stuttering chainsaw but all snores originate from the respiratory tract, which is lined with soft tissues.
During sleep, the muscles around these tissues relax, narrowing the airway. Many factors, including congestion, anatomical features, and the position you’re sleeping in, can further constrict this passage and lead to or exacerbate snoring. The narrower the respiratory tract is, the stronger the airflow, and the more those relaxed tissues may vibrate, producing sound.
Most of us will snore at some point in our lives. But loud, chronic snoring is one sign of a sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea. It affects about a quarter of all adults, but it’s estimated that around 80% of people who suffer from it aren’t aware they have it.
This is especially troublesome because it can lead to serious cardiovascular issues. Obstructive sleep apnea is usually caused by blockages in the airway and is mainly characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.
There's one other kind of sleep apnea called central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain temporarily fails to regulate the body's breathing. This condition isn't as common, and snoring is usually a less prominent feature though you can have both. If you’re experiencing obstructive sleep apnea, you might stop breathing for 10 or more seconds before waking, sometimes without realizing it, to catch your breath.
In doing so, you might make a snorting or a choking sound. This may happen five times an hour, though in severe cases, it could occur more than 30. And it's a problem because your tissues are getting less oxygen.
As you experience periods of low oxygen intake, your body releases stress hormones. And your blood vessels constrict to get oxygenated blood to your vital organs. This increases your blood pressure and puts additional stress on your heart.
And this is why obstructive sleep apnea can be linked to hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. Your difficulty breathing and poor-quality rest may also lead to headaches, decreased concentration, and chronic fatigue. So what puts someone at risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea?
Features like larger tongues, thicker necks, and smaller jaws can make people more susceptible. Older people are more at risk because, as we age, our soft tissues loosen, further narrowing our airways.
Drinking alcohol before going to sleep can cause excessive relaxation of our throat and jaw muscles. And one of the main contributors to obstructive sleep apnea is weight gain because more tissue around the neck can constrict the airway.
Many researchers see weight loss as a solution to obstructive sleep apnea. Certain behavioral shifts, like limiting your alcohol consumption before bed, elevating your head, and avoiding sleeping on your back may also help.
For people who have a milder condition, mouth and throat exercises have been shown to alleviate obstructive sleep apnea in some preliminary trials. But these approaches, and devices like oral appliances, may not always be sufficient.
Sleep apnea can be reliably treated using CPAP machines, which keep the airway open by delivering a constant stream of pressurized air.
Doctors will usually aim to remedy sleep apnea with non-invasive treatments like these first, but if they don’t work, they may consider surgery Snores can be silly. But intense ones are well-worth investigating with a doctor. After all, everyone needs a chance to catch their breath— and some z’s.