Snoring is a symptom of a sleeping disorder. It results when the relaxed structures surrounding the upper airway start to vibrate and produce a sound. The vibration usually occurs during inhalation and affects any membranous tissue of the airway that does not have support from cartilage, including the soft palate, the tongue, and the pharyngeal walls, among others. Our muscles lose tone when we’re asleep and when this happens to the muscles in the upper airway, the size of the airway decreases causing decreased airflow and turbulence. This turbulent airflow through the relaxed airway structures leads to a raucous sound known as snoring.
Many people think of snoring as an illness in itself. However, snoring is merely a symptom of sleeping disorders, particularly sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder typified by obstructive, labored breathing patterns and snoring. The obstructive breathing is repetitive and usually includes pauses of up to ten seconds. The pauses result from partial or complete blockage of the airway and can lead to decreased oxygen levels. Normally, the obstruction is ended when the person abruptly wakes up, which leads to disrupted sleep. Inevitably, this condition can cause excessive daytime fatigue and sleepiness, decreased energy levels, and poor concentration.
If snoring happens in the absence of the aforementioned causes, it may be a risk factor for other health issues such as hypertension and behavioral issues such as poor concentration during daytime. That said, it is still a mystery how snoring alone can lead to problems.
Snoring is a problem that is mostly observed in men. However, women also do snore and, in fact, the complications that can result from snoring tend to be more severe in women than in men. But generally, people tend to snore as they age, and it becomes worse above the age of 65.
The reason why some people snore is not entirely known. However, certain factors are known to increase the chances of snoring.
Sleeping on the back – When you sleep on your back, the tongue and the jaw are pulled backwards due to gravity. Consequently, the mouth will open and the tongue will drop further backwards into the airway, partially blocking it.
Smoking – Smoking can lead to the lining of the throat getting inflamed, causing it to swell. When this happens, the throat narrows and causes partial blockage of the airway when the structures surrounding it are relaxed during sleep. In addition, the increased mucous and nasal congestion also leads to blockage during sleep.
Family history – Studies have shown that snoring tends to run in families. So if you have a history of snoring in the family, you’re at increased risk of developing the condition.
Eating heavy meals right before bed – When you sleep on a full stomach, it may press forward on the diaphragm and this can lead to partial blockage of the airway. Thus, breathing during sleep becomes a labored affair.
Breathing through the mouth – Again, this is connected to factors that cause the mouth to open during sleep. When air is inhaled through the mouth, it hits the back of the throat directly. Firstly, this causes the throat to dry up and become irritated. Also, it leads to increased turbulence and the air will whip around in all directions inside the flabby tissues of the throat. This causes the tissues to vibrate. However, when you breathe through the nose, the inhaled air enters in parallel to the throat.
Difficulty with nasal breathing – If there are some blockages in the nose such as mucous caused by a cold, broken nose, problems with the nasal septum, or irritants (allergies), then snoring can occur. Typically, when you sleep with a nasal blockage, it may force you to partially breathe through the mouth, which leads to snoring. Any factor that causes the nasal passage to narrow will increase air turbulence in the airway due to increased resistance. The turbulence causes vibration of the nasal tissues and eventually snoring.
Obesity – Snoring is very prevalent in people with obesity and overweight issues. This is because the excess weight puts more pressure on the throat when one sleeps, causing it to narrow. In other words, the extra fat in the throat and tissues surrounding the airway puts pressure on it, thus making it easier for the airway to narrow as the tissues become relaxed during sleep. Thus, in this case, losing weight can go a long way to eliminating the snoring problem.
Medication – Medication such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, and tranquilizers typically lead to the relaxation of the throat muscles and the soft palate tissues during sleep. This causes the airway to narrow and turbulence results. The more relaxed those tissues become, the more turbulence results, leading to vibration and, thus, snoring.
There are a number of ways to minimize or treat snoring. Most non-invasive methods aim at correcting the resting position of the head so that the mouth can close during sleep.
These include specially designed pillows (sleep apnea pillows and wedge/snore-less pillows), snoring chin straps, lifestyle changes, among others. When the snoring is severe or caused by other complicated health issues, medical attention may be necessary.