What is Snoring?
Snoring may be a favourite subject of stand-up comedians. But if you’re directly affected by it, it’s no laughing matter.
If you snore it can lead to sleepiness and poor concentration during the daytime, both of which can cause serious problems if you drive or if you use machinery at work (one in five road accidents are caused by excessive sleepiness, says the Department for Transport).
It may harm your health in other ways too, claims the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association (BSSAA), which suggests regular snorers are five times more likely to develop high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol than occasional snorers.
Meanwhile if your partner snores it can keep you awake on a regular basis – which can make you tired and unable to concentrate during the daytime too, and cause relationships problems and arguments at home (one survey by the BSSAA found more than a third of couples admit they have relationship problems caused by snoring).
Unfortunately, snoring is a common problem. There are an estimated 15 million snorers in the UK, including 41.5 per cent of the UK adult population (snoring can affect people of all ages, even children). And when you take into account the number of snorers who may have partners, the real number of people affected by snoring is much higher.
One of the problems with snoring is it isn’t often taken seriously, which means you may suffer in silence for years before doing anything about it. Indeed, the BSSAA claims snorers take an average of 18 years to tackle their problem.
What causes it?
The familiar snorting and rattling sound of snoring is caused by turbulence vibrating the soft palate, uvula (the fleshy bit hanging from the back of the soft palate above the throat) and other tissues in your mouth, nose and throat (your upper airway). These vibrations can be caused by a partial blockage anywhere from the tip of your nose to your vocal chords.
There are several reasons why you may have a partial blockage, including the following:
Being overweight and having fat deposits around your neck
Small or collapsing nostrils
A deviated septum
An enlarged tongue or uvula
A receding chin
Nasal congestion and catarrh (when you have a cold or allergy symptoms, for example).
Other things that can make you more likely to snore include drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking, sleeping on your back and your age (according to the NHS snoring is more common in people aged between 40 and 60, with middle-aged men the biggest sufferers). Women – who are half as likely as men to snore – tend to be more affected during and after the menopause, adds the NHS.
Snoring and sleep apnoea
Snoring can also be a symptom of a more serious condition called obstructive sleep apnoea, which is where your upper airways collapse while you’re asleep, making your breathing stop for about 10 seconds throughout the night (if you wake up gasping or choking, it could be a sign of sleep apnoea). Around four per cent of middle-aged men and two per cent of middle-aged women are thought to be affected.
Like snoring, sleep apnoea can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, lack of concentration and reduced energy levels. If left untreated, it may increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
What’s making you snore?
Here are some of the common things that make people snore – and why – in more detail:
If you breathe through your mouth while you're asleep, the air you inhale hits the back of your throat and can make the soft tissue vibrate (breathing through your nose, on the other hand, usually makes the air pass over the curved part of the soft palate and into the throat without causing any turbulence).
If you can’t breathe very well through your nose when your mouth is closed, you may be suffering from an allergy that's causing nasal stuffiness or congestion such as allergic rhinitis. There’s evidence to suggest that people with nasal congestion are twice as likely to have moderate to severe sleep disordered breathing than non-congested people, says the BSSAA.
Tongue base snoring
If the base of your tongue tends to vibrate while you’re sleeping, you’re a tongue base snorer. In sleep apnoea, the tongue may also partially or completely block your airway and stop you from breathing.
Small or collapsing nostrils
Both of these things cause nasal resistance, says the BSSAA, which means you may find it difficult to breathe through your nose when you’re asleep. When that happens, your body automatically forces you to breathe through your mouth.
Lack of muscle tone
Excess fat around the throat means you may not have sufficient muscle tone to keep your airway open enough for normal breathing to take place, making the airway more likely to vibrate. Men are more likely to snore as a result of having excess neck fat than pre-menopausal women (after the menopause, however, women can become more likely to snore if their muscle mass decreases and they gain more fat).
According to the BSSAA, people who have a receding chin (retrognathia) tend to snore when they sleep on their back because their jaw pushes the upper airway towards the back of the throat. Indeed, sleep position is important for many snorers, since gravity makes the tongue and soft palate fall backwards into the throat when you lie on your back, causing an obstruction in your airway.
Drinking too much can lead to snoring because alcohol makes the muscles around the upper throat relax more than usual, which can make the airways too narrow and the soft tissue vibrate. Sedative medicines – such as sleeping pills – can have a similar effect.
This is thought to be a major contributor to snoring, even if you’re an ex-smoker or a non-smoker who lives with someone who smokes (children whose parents smoke are thought to be more likely to snore than those of non-smoking parents). Cigarette smoke irritates the lining of the nasal cavity and throat, which can cause swelling and congestion, making your airways narrower. Click here to read our article about how to stop smoking.
Treatments for snoring
If you visit your GP because of snoring, chances are they’ll advise you to make one or more lifestyle changes that might help. If you’re overweight, your GP may offer help with losing those excess pounds. And if you smoke, they may give you information on quitting, including how you could use stop smoking devices such as patches, gum and lozenges to help prevent nicotine cravings.
It’s also a good idea to avoid drinking alcohol before going to bed, and to stay as physically active as possible. Regular exercise may not only help you keep your weight down, but it may also help strengthen the muscles in your neck (which may stop your airways narrowing).
Stop snoring devices
There are also lots of stop snoring products available over the counter that may be useful. The NHS recommends a number of them, including nasal devices such as strips that help you breathe more easily through your nose, and nasal dilators (little devices that go inside your nose and help keep your nostrils open when you sleep). All of these may help if you suffer from nasal congestion or if your nostrils collapse while you’re sleeping.
If you tend to breathe through your mouth during the night, oral devices such as chin strips and vestibular shields may be worth a try. Chin strips stop your mouth opening when you’re asleep, while vestibular shields fit inside your mouth (much like a gumshield), and stops you from breathing through your mouth.
Meanwhile, if you snore because your tongue vibrates (tongue base snoring), you may benefit from using a mandibular advancement device. This also fits inside your mouth, but unlike a vestibular shield it pushes your jaw and tongue forward, making more space at the back of your throat and keeping your airway open. However, these can be expensive – especially if you get one specially made (they’re not available on the NHS).
Meanwhile, if you snore because you have nasal congestion (caused by allergies, for instance), treating the underlying cause can be useful. Click here to find out how to treat nasal congestion caused by hay fever.
According to the NHS, surgery isn’t suitable for most cases of snoring and, if offered, is always a last resort. But if it’s clear that snoring is having a negative effect on your quality of life and none of the other treatments has worked for you, you may be considered for an operation.
The surgical treatments used for snoring include implants to harden the soft palate (which makes it less likely to vibrate); a procedure called radiofrequency ablation, where high-energy radio waves make the soft palate harder; uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, surgery to remove sections of soft tissue from the mouth and throat; and uvulopalatoplasty, which also removes sections of soft tissue using lasers or radio waves.
Meanwhile, if you have enlarged tonsils that are causing snoring, you may be advised to have them removed. Or if you have an obstruction in your nasal passages you may need nasal surgery.
Some of the things you may think you know about snoring aren’t facts at all, but myths, including the following:
Only men snore
BSSAA figures suggest there are 10.4 million male snorers in the UK, but there are also 4.5 million female snorers (a ratio of 2.3 men to every woman). Men, however, are thought to snore more loudly than women (the level of noise caused by snoring can be anything from 50 - 100 decibels, the loudest being the equivalent of a pneumatic drill).
You can’t snore if you’re not overweight
It’s a fact that being overweight or obese increases your risk of snoring. Having a neck circumference of more than 43cm (17in) means you may snore a lot, says the NHS. That’s because the extra fat around your neck makes your throat narrower inside. However, many people who aren’t overweight snore.
People only snore when they sleep on their back
You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tales about sewing tennis balls into the back of pyjama tops to stop you snoring (the idea of the balls is that they make it more difficult for you to roll onto your back). But while sleeping on your back can be a factor in whether or not you snore, it doesn’t mean everyone who sleeps on their backs snores or that you can’t snore if you sleep on your front or your side.
Snoring means you’re sleeping deeply
If your snoring doesn’t wake you up, you may be forgiven for thinking you’re having a really deep sleep. However, experts believe snoring leads to an overall deterioration in sleep quality, which could explain why you may feel tired and unable to focus during the daytime after a night of snorting and rattling.
Sleep apnoea is just loud snoring
Snoring is a symptom of sleep apnoea, but sleep apnoea isn’t just snoring. Obstructive sleep apnoea can have a negative impact on your quality of life and can increase your risk of some serious illnesses. If you think you may be affected by sleep apnoea, see your GP.
Natural ways to treat snoring
Making sure you follow a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight are essential if you want to stop (or reduce) snoring and sleep more peacefully. Using drug-free stop snoring devices can help too, with many people finding nasal strips, sprays and other products useful.
Where natural supplements are concerned, there are some that may help relieve your snoring if it’s the result of an underlying problem – such as allergies or nasal congestion, for instance.
Quercetin is a substance that’s thought to act as a natural antihistamine (i), which may help reduce the symptoms of allergies such as hay fever. Found in small amounts in red wine, grapefruit, apples, onions, black tea and green leafy vegetables, quercetin is an antioxidant belonging to the flavonoid family, and is also available in supplement form.
Click here to read about other natural remedies for hay fever.
Aromatherapy oils such as eucalyptus may also be useful to relieve cold symptoms such as nasal stuffiness. Often used in cold treatments such as lozenges, syrups and vapour rubs, eucalyptus is widely used in inhalation therapy (steam therapy). Its active ingredient is cineole, which is thought to act as an expectorant (that is, it helps clear mucus from the airways and lungs). Try adding a few drops on a hankerchief and inhaling when needed, or put up to 15 drops in a bowl of steaming hot water and breathe in the vapours until your congestion clears.
Meanwhile, if you snore because you’re overweight, there’s lots of advice on natural weight loss supplements here.
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Pokan. R, Hofmann. P, von Duvillard. SP, et al. Oral magnesium therapy, exercise heart rate, exercise tolerance, and myocardial function in coronary artery disease patients. Prog Clin Biol Res. 1986 ;213:493-506.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best The Pharmacy is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.