We all know how annoying snoring is (particularly if you share a room with a snorer) but what is snoring and is there anything we can do to stop it?
What causes snoring?
Snoring may sound like a tractor, a strangled cat or foghorn, but is simply the sound made by the vibration of soft tissue as air is forced through a narrowing in the upper airways. This usually happens when the muscles in your tongue or soft palate collapse towards the back wall of your throat, making the space smaller. Congestion in the nasal passages can also cause snoring.
How common is snoring?
According to a recent survey, 38% of men and 30% of women in the UK say that they snore at night (Lechner 2019). This may be an underestimate, since it’s often only a bed partner who complains about snoring. Snoring is more common in those who are overweight, and as we get older.
Why do we only snore at night?
During the day, we have plenty of tone in our muscles, but during sleep, the muscles deeply relax. When we lie flat, gravity encourages the soft tissues to fall back on the airway.
Is snoring bad for you?
Snoring itself is usually harmless but can cause serious problems for a partner’s sleep, and put relationships under strain. If you wake up with a dry mouth, or headaches, this can also be a sign that you are breathing through your mouth during sleep, rather than your nose, which is a less efficient way to breathe, and may be associated with fatigue.
Around 1 in 8 snorers also suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), where the airways temporarily become blocked, and this causes frequent pauses in breathing during sleep. OSA interferes with deep sleep, and can therefore cause extreme sleepiness during the day, as well as increasing the risks of emotional problems and chronic illness. If you or your partner are concerned about OSA, speak to you doctor about it.
What makes snoring worse?
Anything which increases the pressure on the upper airways, such as weight gain, can make snoring worse. Too much sitting and lack of exercise have also been linked to fluid retention and less muscular tone. Pregnant women often suffer from snoring as they get closer to term. A blocked nose (from a cold, or allergies) can make people more likely to breathe through their mouth; an open jaw tends to fall backwards and compress the airway, and make snoring worse. Similarly, lying on your back tends to promote snoring, compared with side sleeping. Alcohol and sedatives relax the tone of the muscles in the back of the throat, which can make the airway more likely to collapse.
What can you do to reduce snoring?
1. Lose weight
If you’ve gained weight and your snoring has got worse, losing weight is likely to be the most effective strategy.
2. Take regular physical activity
Even if you’re already slim, regular exercise can improve circulation and overall muscular tone, which can reduce fluid retention, strengthen the muscles around the airways, and help prevent collapse during sleep.
3. Avoid sleeping on your back
If your snoring is worse when you lie on your back, try using a line of pillows to stop you from rolling onto your back, or use a wedge pillow designed to help you sleep on your side. A more extreme solution is to sew a tennis ball to the back of your pyjamas to prevent rolling onto your back!
4. Limit your alcohol intake
Go easy on alcohol - this will also help your sleep quality; if you are going to drink, try and stop a few hours before bed.
5. Look for alternatives to sedatives
Speak to your doctor about reducing sleeping pills if you’re taking them; there are more effective non-drug solutions for poor sleep, and they may be making your snoring worse.
6. Prevent the jaw from moving backwards
One of the best ways to prevent the tongue from collapsing backwards is to ensure that the jaw, or mandible, stays forward. You can wear a device that looks like a gumshield, called a ‘mandibular advancement device’ which helps to keep the airway open. These devices have been shown to reduce snoring, and may also reduce OSA for some patients. These can feel uncomfortable to begin with, so it’s worth asking your dentist to fit a device to you.
7. Improve airflow through your nose
If you know that you suffer from nasal congestion, using an adhesive nasal dilator strip can help you improve the airflow through your nose. Some people also find decongestants or antihistamines helpful.
A warm bath or shower before bed can also help clear your nostrils and get the body ready for sleep.
8. Prevent excessive mouth breathing
If you snore and wake up with a dry mouth, you might be breathing through your mouth, rather than your nose. This makes breathing less efficient, and is often associated with fatigue.
Practice breathing more through your mouth during the day. Some people find a small piece of micropore tape on the lips helpful to remind them to breathe through the nose, which can also be worn at night.
9. Use exercises to strengthen the tongue and soft palate
Recently a few small trials have shown that practicing exercises for your tongue can help to strengthen the muscles and prevent airway collapse. These are called oropharyngeal and tongue exercises, or myofunctional therapy. For example, according to Leto and colleagues (2019) volunteers who used exercises like these 3 times a day for 3 months, had a marked improvement in snoring:
- Push the tip of the tongue up against the hard palate and slide the tongue backwards, 20 times.
- Suck the tongue upwards so it presses all against the palate, 20 times.
- Force the back of the tongue against the floor of the mouth while keeping the tip of the tongue in contact with the front incisor teeth, 20 times.
- Elevate the soft palate while saying the vowel “A”, 20 times.
10. Avoid getting overtired
If you’re exhausted your muscles are more likely to get into a state of deep relaxation which can have the same effects as alcohol
11. Speak to a specialist
If none of these methods work, speak with your GP, who might refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist.
What if my partner is the snorer?
- Reduce the noise by wearing earplugs, or using white noise or a fan to mask sudden sounds
- Remind yourself that snoring isn’t on purpose, or even conscious.
- Think of 3 things you’re grateful to your partner for.. gratitude is a good antidote for frustration.
- Speak to your partner if their snoring means you’re struggling to sleep. It might be that separate beds, or the occasional sleep holiday in another room will be better for your relationship in the long term.