Partner’s Snoring Driving You Nuts? Here’s What Causes Snoring and How You Can Stop It
Snoring is a fact of life for one-third of Canadian couples. Here’s what causes the disturbance, how to fix it and when you might need to discuss it with your doctor.
One Third of Canadian Couples Struggle with Snoring
My husband’s snoring has been known to startle him out of a deep sleep on nights when he’s had a few too many drinks with his buddies. More often, the bed-shaking vibration rouses me and I nudge him, ever so gently (okay, sometimes it’s a shove), so he rolls onto his side and resumes a blessedly silent intake of breath.
Our solution is to plan ahead: I tell him to sleep in the basement if he’s going to stay out late. And in case he forgets the basement plan, I increase my chances of getting a good night’s sleep by jamming in foam earplugs.
Sexy, it isn’t. But for us, snoring is a fact of life—as it is for more than one-third of Canadian couples—so we do what we can to minimize its impact. The Canadian Sleep Review 2016, conducted by a division of Angus Reid, polled adults across the country on their sleep habits and found that 67 per cent of Canadians wish they could get better-quality sleep most nights. Silencing the log sawing would help.
“Snoring is an extremely common problem,” says Brian Rotenberg, an associate professor in the department of otolaryngology and director of the sleep surgery program at Western University, in London, Ont. “About half of adult men and about one-third of adult women snore at night, and the condition ranges in severity from just a little rumble to a freight train coming down the tracks.”
Even gentle snoring can disrupt slumber and lead to chronic sleep deprivation for both snorers and their significant others. In fact, the bed partner of a snuffling sleeper can lose up to one hour of shut-eye each night from being woken by noise, a side effect known as spousal arousal syndrome.
“Snoring can lead to significant disruptions in relationships and intimacy, so it’s a concern, especially when it’s disrupting a partner’s sleep,” says Anu Tandon, an assistant professor in the department of respiratory and sleep medicine at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. Pop culture has long played up snoring as a kind of running gag that tests a couple’s commitment, but it can have more serious ramifications in real life.
Looking to get more shut eye? Here are 7 Surprising Ways to Get More Sleep.
What Causes Snoring?
When we sleep, our muscles relax. This happens in the throat, too, which narrows and becomes floppy. When snorers inhale, their uvulas and the walls of their throats begin to vibrate, which is what leads to that snoring noise—the narrower the throat passage, the louder the sound.
Due to physiology, more men snore than women. A larger number of men are overweight or obese, which is the top cause of snoring because extra weight exerts more pressure on the upper airway. Making matters worse: men usually have wider necks than women, and that girth weighs down on their throats during sleep. They also tend to have longer palates and larger noses; together, the long palate deepens the sound of snoring, and the nose amplifies it. So, yes, men are also louder snorers than women.
But women shouldn’t gloat about their good fortune just yet. As they move into menopause, their likelihood of developing snoring increases.
“Pre-menopause, it has been shown that the hormones estrogen and progesterone can actually protect your airway,” says Tandon. “Those levels change after menopause, so men will still have more sleep apnea and snore more than women, but the gap shrinks.”
What Makes Snoring Worse?
It’s not my imagination: those extra alcoholic beverages do aggravate my husband’s snoring. In fact, depressants—from scotch to sleep aids to certain prescription pills—promote snoring because they further relax muscles in the upper airway.
Another culprit is weight gain, which can turn a quiet sleeper into a bona fide log sawer. This is why doctors routinely suggest that overweight snorers drop the extra kilos to reduce the rumbling—or even eliminate it altogether.
Back sleeping can also worsen nocturnal snorts because this position causes the tongue and palate to fall back, creating a blockage in the airway. Some people find relief by taping a tennis ball to their back to prevent them from rolling into that position while they sleep, but Rotenberg notes that true snorers—and those with sleep apnea—will snore no matter what their position.
When Is It a Health Problem?
Snoring can be a symptom of a very serious health condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is when the airway closes during sleep and breathing arrests for several seconds, or even minutes, before starting again (a stoppage of breathing for a minimum of 10 seconds is considered abnormal).
Between 20 and 25 per cent of snorers may have a degree of sleep apnea. Typically, someone with obstructive apnea will present with more symptoms than just snoring, says Tandon. The hallmark signs of OSA are choking or gasping during sleep—often noted by the bed partner—and regular snoring that suddenly stops and is followed by a gasp or sharp intake of breath moments later. Other signs include morning headaches and constant daytime fatigue.
“Sleep apnea should be investigated and treated because of its associated risks,” says Rotenberg.
People with OSA are more likely to have a heart attack because of the stress placed on the heart from lower oxygen levels and the disruption in breathing. OSA sufferers also have a greater risk of developing hypertension, because poor oxygenation causes the body to release the stress hormone epinephrine, which shrinks blood vessels.
The first stop is the family physician, who will order a sleep study to be conducted at a clinic or at home. This process screens for apnea by tracking sleep, breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels through the night. If the condition is present, expect a referral to a respirologist or surgeon for treatment.
Doctors are also starting to look at non-apnea snoring as a health problem. There’s emerging evidence that vibrations from snoring can be a cause of carotid artery blockage in the neck.
“It’s causing micro-trauma in the arteries,” says Rotenberg. “It’s shaking them so much that they get cracks and become scarred, so sleep apnea in itself can be a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. When you think about what’s happening physiologically, it’s downright scary.”
What Are the Treatment Options?
If someone’s snoring is caused by OSA, treatments may include lifestyle modifications in combination with therapies like a custom dental appliance, which pulls the jaw forward to open the airway, or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which delivers pressurized air to the throat via a mask and hose to keep the airway open during sleep. A sleep specialist or respirologist may recommend a CPAP as a treatment option after sleep apnea has been diagnosed. Unfortunately, because the device can be uncomfortable to wear, fewer than half of people will continue to use it after it has been prescribed, says Rotenberg.
Surgery is a possibility if there is a contributing structural problem, such as large tonsils, a deviated septum or sleep apnea. Less invasive treatment options include lifestyle changes such as side sleeping, curbing alcohol consumption and avoiding sleep aids. For the bed partner, earplugs can make a big difference.
While Rotenberg says that drugstore remedies, like nasal strips, aren’t proven, hopefully I can continue to count on my foam earplugs for a sound defence. Either that or I’m going to tape a tennis ball to my husband’s back when he comes home from a night of carousing.
Looking for more tips? Stop Snoring with these 8 Easy Steps.