We all know someone who snores like a low-flying jet, and we all know someone who sleeps silently. But the fact is, almost half the adult population snores at least occasionally, raising the question: Why do only some people snore?
According to Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator and author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed, it’s all to do with our inner airways.
“Snoring is the sound from the vibration of respiratory structures when the flow of air through the nose and mouth is obstructed during sleep,” Cralle explains. “It’s the result of tissues in the upper airway relaxing enough that they partially block the airway.”
But what, exactly, causes these tissues to bar our breath-pipes? According to Cralle, it’s a combination of things:
- Anatomy: People who snore often are usually born with too much throat and nasal tissue, which vibrates during sleep.
- Sex: Men are approximately twice a likely to snore due to their narrower air passages. (Though, as Cralle points out, postmenopausal women are more likely to snore than premenopausal women—thanks to hormonal changes that affect sleeping—so that ratio diminishes somewhat as age increases).
- Weight: People who are overweight typically have extra tissue in the back of their throats, which may narrow their airways.
- Alcohol: Booze relaxes the throat muscles and decreases our natural defenses (like actually being able to wake up) against airway blockage.
- Sleep Position: Sleeping on our backs allows gravity to pull the jaw and tongue backward, which shrinks the airway.
- Age: Part of the aging process is experiencing relaxation of the throat muscles, which results in snoring.
Unfortunately for heavy snorers, their late-night roaring is more than just annoying—it’s downright dangerous. “Heavy snoring is associated with obstructive sleep apnea [that’s when the muscles that support the soft tissues in your throat temporarily relax],” Cralles warns. “This is a serious sleep disorder and a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, acid reflux, depression, and in children, ADHD and behavior problems.”
Snoring also negatively affects our bedpartners, for obvious reasons. A 1999 study found that spouses of snorers wake up an average of 21 times an hour, leading them to lose an average of one hour of sleep per night, which is why “sleep divorces” have become more and more popular as of late.
Cralle, meanwhile, provides her own thoughts on snoring bedmates: “Why do black widow spiders kill the males after mating? To stop the snoring before it starts.”
If you’re freaking out about your snoring habit, let’s discuss some fixes. First, the obvious: Losing weight, avoiding alcohol and not sleeping on your back. If none of those work, Cralle recommends looking into dental appliances that work by moving the lower jaw forward, which increases the space at the back of the tongue. It may take a few nights to get used to, but it’s worth it to not sound like you’re on set for The Exorcist every night.