When I tell people that snoring can be a sign of a serious health problem, they typically act surprised because snoring is so common. In other words, how can it be so serious if it’s so universal?
Approximately 90 million American adults snore, and of those 37 million snore on a regular basis. It’s a problem among all ages and both genders, but it seems to affect men more than women, and it can worsen with age.
Snoring is a turbulence problem. Air rushes down a tube that causes a vibration in the tissue, which causes a cadence and then a snore. This can cause frequent disruptions in a person’s sleep (not to mention the other person trying to sleep in the same bed). Snorers generally don’t wake up feeling as refreshed as they should.
So, what makes this so dangerous?
It can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a common sleep disorder I’ve blogged about several times. People with OSA briefly stop breathing multiple times during the night when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep their airway open. This results in fragmented, poor sleep, as well as low blood oxygen levels. OSA has been associated with an increased risk for myriad health problems, including hypertension, heart disease, mood and memory problems.
Not everyone who snores has OSA, but the link between the two is well documented, and research showing the strong association between snoring and cardiovascular problems continues to come out. The good news is treating OSA is pretty simple these days thanks to the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine, or CPAP.
This nifty device, which forces the airway to stay open so breathing is possible, is the best we have right now for treating sleep apnea. Sleep becomes much more restful and solid; it also shuts up the snoring that frequently accompanies that apnea. People who sleep with a snorer often rejoice, as data shows that sleeping with a snorer can steal about 1 hour of sleep. CPAP has others ways of saving lives; check out my previous post here.
Is there a way to nix the OSA and the snoring altogether? Yes, but the cure isn’t necessarily the easiest to achieve. Of all the risk factors for OSA, weight and physical activity factor heavily in that risk. People who have thick necks are more likely to experience OSA due to the extra fat they have at the back of their throats, which can be an underlying cause to the blocked airway. Studies also have shown that OSA wanes among people who begin exercise programs, regardless of weight loss. Losing weight and boosting exercise both require lifestyle shifts that aren’t always easy. The benefits are huge, though, and extend beyond the issue of OSA and snoring. Many people do not know it, but being sleep deprived, like having undiagnosed apnea, can prevent you from losing weight; it's a vicious cycle, as described in my previous blog post on weight loss and sleep loss.
The bottom line is clear: preventing OSA is largely about maintaining a healthier, more active lifestyle. If you do suffer from OSA, treating it with a CPAP will help support sound sleep, which can then foster a healthier, more efficient body. And a more efficient body will shed those extra pounds more easily, as well as energize you in ways you never thought possible before.
I’ve always said that the bedroom should be saved for sleep and sex only. The time has come to put snoring in its place. It’s not a harmless habit. It’s a health hazard, and a wake up call to action.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor