What’s making you snore?
A sleep doctor identifies possible causes and remedies to help you get the Zzz's you need.
Is snoring keeping you or your bed partner from getting a restful night’s sleep?
If so, you’re not alone.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 90 million American adults snore—37 million on a regular basis.
In fact, about 80% of the patients who visit the Spectrum Health Sleep Medicine & Disorders Centers come because of snoring or abnormal breathing at night, according to Wael Berjaoui, MD, a Spectrum Health pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist.
Snorers shouldn’t feel alone—and they shouldn’t be afraid to seek help.
“We can recommend some simple measures to try at home first,” Dr. Berjaoui said. “And if those don’t work, then we can determine if further evaluation is required.”
Snoring can be a sign of something more serious, like sleep apnea—a condition in which a person briefly stops breathing while sleeping.
But just because you snore doesn’t mean you have sleep apnea. A sleep specialist can help determine that, Dr. Berjaoui said.
“Snoring by itself is not a medical condition that needs to be treated,” he said. “But when snoring is associated with other findings, most importantly post-sleep quality—waking up feeling not rested, despite getting enough hours of sleep—that’s a concerning sign that there is what we call sleep-disordered breathing.”
So what are the factors that could make you snore—and what can you do about them?
Dr. Berjaoui highlighted some possible causes:
Nasal congestion or obstruction
“Snoring by itself is really just a sign that there’s some turbulence in air flow when you’re sleeping,” Dr. Berjaoui said.
One cause could be allergies or nasal congestion from the common cold. Medications or other treatments could help open nasal passages. An allergy pill, nasal spray or even a simple saltwater spray could do the trick.
The most common cause of snoring in people younger than 18 are enlarged tonsils and adenoids. The treatment—a tonsillectomy to remove the tonsils—can stop the snoring, Dr. Berjaoui said.
Since tonsils tend to shrink as we age, they do not cause snoring in many adults. For about 10% of adults, however, tonsils may still play a role.
Sleeping on your back
If your bed partner asks you to roll on your side to stop your snoring, it could be a sign you’re a back snorer.
“It’s the gravity effect that causes obstruction in the upper airway when you’re on your back, causing snoring,” Dr. Berjaoui said.
A treatment called positional therapy could help. The old trick of sewing two or three tennis balls to the back of your sleep shirt is one form of that.
“Now you can find online special devices that you wear that make it uncomfortable to turn on your back,” Dr. Berjaoui said.
Another option is a band that uses a vibrating disc on your back. When you flip on your back, it will vibrate—faint enough that you don’t even recall feeling it, but strong enough that it tells your brain you should turn on your side.
Mouth shape and position
If the shape of your mouth is causing your snoring, a dental appliance could do the trick. The most effective ones, mandibular advancement devices, are customized by an orthodontist. They work by pushing the lower jaw forward, Dr. Berjaoui said.
Losing a few pounds is all the treatment some patients need to stop snoring.
“Weight is a very important risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea,” Dr. Berjaoui said. “If you snore and you’re obese, it’s very likely you have sleep apnea.”
This happens because extra accumulation of soft tissue around the upper airway can lead to collapse of the airway.
Getting older makes us more likely to snore. Quite simply, we experience a loosening of muscle tone in the neck.
Alcohol before bed
If you’re in the habit of having a nightcap before bed, it might be a culprit in your snoring.
“One thing that can clearly help is avoiding alcohol within two hours of bedtime,” Dr. Berjaoui said.
Alcohol acts as a muscle relaxant, thus contributing to snoring.
Sorry gentlemen, but it seems you’re more likely to snore than women—at least earlier in life.
“Rates of sleep apnea are higher in men than in women,” Dr. Berjaoui said. “And more sleep apnea means more snoring.”
Estrogen helps protect pre-menopausal women from snoring, but after menopause they lose that advantage.
Regardless of the cause, there’s always help available if snoring is disrupting the sleep routines in your home.
If you notice symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea—loud snoring with possible pauses in breathing, feeling tired despite a full night’s sleep, or waking up gasping for air—it’s time to visit a sleep doctor.
A CPAP machine is a common treatment for sleep apnea but it’s not the only solution out there, Dr. Berjaoui said. Many new devices and techniques could be right for you.
“Patients should seek expert advice before just giving up on it,” he said.