Science

Why do people snore?

You know the scenario. You’re in a deep sleep until you hear this irritating noise. It sounds like someone’s sawing wood — right next to your ears! You didn’t fall asleep in a logging community; you’re sharing a room with a snorer. And if you’re the culprit, you know how frustrating it is when you get banished to the couch. Whether it’s your significant other, relative, or a roommate, we’ve all been there. But what causes snoring, and what can be done to stop it?

Why do we snore?

The short answer is that snoring is the noise we hear when air passes over the tissues in your throat. But it’s more complex than that because you might be asking, why does it only happen when people sleep? And why doesn’t it happen to everyone? You normally don’t hear snoring when someone is awake because their tissues aren’t relaxed. This means they’re less likely to vibrate. When you sleep, however, your body relaxes.

While dozing, the tissues in your throat become very relaxed. In some cases, they can even partially close your airway. This means that air continues to flow, but not at full capacity. The sound of air trying to move through a restricted airway leads to that raspy (and noisy) sound we associate with snoring. But snoring is more than just a harmless annoyance for many people.

The dangers of snoring

View of top of white bed with pillows from above
Credit: New Africa/ Shutterstock

For some people, snoring is a sign of a bigger issue that could even be fatal. Like we mentioned, snoring is directly related to restricted airflow. In severe cases, this means that not enough air is reaching the lungs. In the best scenario, your brain triggers the body to wake up to improve oxygen intake. However, this isn’t ideal because constantly waking up throughout the night interrupts your sleep cycle and means you’re not getting the full recuperative sleep that you need to function properly throughout the day. However, in the worst-case scenario, a severe lack of oxygen in your sleep can lead to death.

Snoring and sleep apnea

One of the most severe conditions related to snoring is obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the airways are completely blocked. When the airways are completely blocked, a person stops breathing for 10 seconds or longer. This can happen once or multiple times while a person is sleeping, which increases the danger associated with snoring. In addition to causing lowered blood oxygen levels during sleep, sleep apnea can create a host of other health concerns that you wouldn’t expect. Left untreated, it can encourage the development of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes and also impact mood and memory. However, most people can counteract this condition by using common remedies like dental devices, avoiding alcohol, or a CPAP machine to keep airways open while they sleep.

Are some people predisposed to snoring?

Person sleeping on stomach on big, white bed
Credit: Siriluk ok/ Shutterstock

The answer is yes. Typically there’s a direct correlation between specific physical features and a predisposition to snoring. Those with enlarged tonsils and tongues or people who have excess weight around their neck are more likely to snore than those who don’t. But when we look at severe cases such as sleep apnea, additional factors come into play. Specifically, behavior, age, and ethnicity can contribute to your likelihood of being diagnosed with sleep apnea. If you frequently drink or smoke, are over the age of 40, are African-American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander, or have a family history of sleep apnea, your risk to develop the disorder is higher.

Can you prevent snoring?

If you or someone you live with snores, it's just an unfortunate reality, but there are some things you can do to curb snoring.

  • Lose weight. A common contributor to snoring is carrying excess weight around your neck.
  • Become a side sleeper. This will help keep airways open and reduce the chance of snoring.
  • Keep your head elevated. Whether you invest in better pillows or an adjustable bed, this can help keep airways open.
  • Cut down on drinking alcohol and stop smoking. Both of these stimuli can encourage snoring.
  • Seek professional help. A physician can determine if your snoring is severe enough to warrant getting a dental device or a CPAP machine.
  • Undergo medical treatment. If your snoring is severe and it’s impacting your health, medical interventions such as surgery or radiofrequency treatments can help to strengthen the tissues in your airway and prevent or reduce snoring.