This Is What Causes Snoring—and What You Can Do About It
Millions of people snore regularly and lose out on sound sleep. Michael J. Breus, PhD—aka The Sleep Doctor—explains why, and what you can do.
Snoring is more than annoying
Newsflash: Snoring is disruptive to sleep—both for snorers themselves and especially for bed partners. (Check out these other bed partner pet peeves.) But snoring is more than a noisy nuisance: It’s a form of sleep-disordered breathing that can interfere with high-quality rest and put you at higher risk for health problems, including depression and heart disease. Most people know that being overweight, and sleeping on your back, can cause you to snore. There are many other factors in everyday life that trigger noisy nighttime breathing— let’s take a look at those.
Some people are designed to snore
Why do people snore? During sleep, the muscles of the throat and mouth relax. This relaxation narrows the trachea—that’s the “windpipe” that carries air to and from the lungs. Within the narrowed airway, the tissues of the soft palate and uvula shake and vibrate. This vibration causes noise. Some people have anatomical characteristics—a thick soft palate, more tissue in the back of the throat—that make them more likely to snore. (Wondering what type of snorer you are? Take this quiz to find out.) Using nasal dilators (I like Theravent and Mute) or mouth guards (I prefer Zyppah) can help. Check with your dentist before starting to use a mouth guard, to make sure it’s appropriate for you to use and won’t aggravate jaw pain or tooth movement.
Your pillow could be the problem
Are you craning your neck during sleep, because your pillow is too flat or too full? This can make sleep uncomfortable and less restful, and it can also be what causes snoring. You might not think much about your sleep posture, but it matters a lot when it comes to resting well. Keeping your head, neck, and spine aligned helps to keep your airway open during sleep, allowing full, natural and quiet breathing. Invest in a pillow that supports your neck and shoulders, but doesn’t cause twisting, craning or crunching. Take a look at these pillow options for different types of sleepers.
You’re too tired
Not getting enough sleep is one reason why people snore. When you’re finally getting some rest after being sleep deprived, the muscles throughout your body—including in your mouth, nose, and throat, can relax excessively. This leads to a more narrowed airway, and noisy, disrupted breathing. Maintaining a strong, consistent sleep routine that gets you sufficient rest every night can help you avoid a snore situation. If you’re struggling with insomnia, here are 10 bedtime routines to try.
That drink may feel relaxing, but it’s not great for sleep. And too much alcohol close to bedtime will make you snore. That’s because alcohol causes an exaggerated relaxation in the muscles of the airway, narrowing and even temporarily obstructing the passage of air. Keep your alcohol consumption light, and you’ll sleep more soundly—and quietly. Read about these other so-called sleep aids that actually interfere with sleep.
Need another reason not to smoke? Here you go. Smoking irritates and inflames the tissues of the mouth, nose, and throat. Both irritation and inflammation of these sensitive tissues can cause you to snore. I don’t have to tell you that smoking is dangerous for your health. If you snore, your health can also be at risk—especially when it’s chronic. Some people who snore actually have obstructive sleep apnea, a more serious form of sleep-disordered breathing. Scientific research shows snoring and sleep apnea raise risks for heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, and accidental injury. Find out what daily habit can raise your risk for sleep apnea.
A too-dry bedroom
A very dry climate in your sleeping space can irritate the tissues of your airway, making you more likely to snore. Running a humidifier in your bedroom can help restore moisture to your sleep environment and soothe disruptive breathing during sleep. Take a look at these ways to improve your bedroom and become a “clean sleeper.”
Sniffling, sneezing, congestion: The uncomfortable symptoms of allergies make it harder to breathe freely at night. Most people naturally breathe through their nose while sleeping. Allergy symptoms often cause people to breathe through their mouths during sleep, which makes them more likely to snore. Allergies also lead to swelling and irritation of airway tissues, causing noisy breathing during sleep. Tending to your allergy symptoms—especially with natural remedies that are less likely to cause sleep issues themselves—can help you keep snoring in check. Take a look at these 12 natural remedies for allergies.
Similar to allergies, sinus infections and colds can cause complications for nighttime breathing—congestion, swelling, coughing, and runny nose. But any illness that increases inflammation or irritation in the throat, mouth, and nose may be what causes you to snore. A throat that’s sore from a virus or irritated from a stomach bug, may impair quiet, restful breathing at night. Check out these immune-boosting foods that can help when you have a cold or flu.
You can’t win: Being sick or having allergies can trigger disrupted breathing during sleep—and so can many of the medications you use to treat these conditions. Antihistamines, for example, can encourage snoring; so can muscle relaxants and the medications you take for sleep—they relax airway muscles. If your prescription is causing you to put on pounds, it could be adding to your snoring woes: Being overweight is one of the most common reasons why people snore. Drugs linked to weight gain include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, steroids, and beta blockers. (These medications can also disrupt sleep cycles and cause other sleep problems, beyond disrupted, noisy breathing.) Check out these six common medications that can cause weight gain.
About 90 million adults in the United States snore at least occasionally, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And 37 million of them snore chronically. Some of those people come to their sleep-disrupted breathing through their genes. Research shows there’s a genetic component to snoring—one that studies have found is independent of a genetic predisposition to obesity. Do your parents and siblings snore? If you know you have a family history, you can be on alert for your own sleep-disrupted breathing.
Being short on fluids will leave your mouth dry and can lead to a thicker, more sticky form of mucus in your nose and throat. An airway that’s dry and sticky is one that’s more likely to experience the vibrations that create a snore. If you already snore or have sleep apnea, or breathe through your mouth at night, you’re losing more fluid from your body during sleep, making you more vulnerable to dehydration. Your best bet? Stay hydrated throughout the day. Don’t drink too much right before bed, or you’ll be disrupting your sleep to use the bathroom. Watch for the signs of dehydration you might not recognize.
You’re eating too much at night
A big meal close to bedtime can cause you to snore—even if you’re not a snorer. Part of the body’s digestive process involves relaxation of muscles in the throat and mouth. Too much airway muscle relaxation can lead to noisy, disordered breathing during sleep. Food substances coating the throat can also impede the airway. Avoiding heavy meals at will help you sleep—and maintain a healthy weight. Curb nighttime eating with these strategies.
What you’re eating at night
Eating close to bedtime is an issue, and what you eat can make snoring worse. Dairy products can thicken mucus and coat the throat. Spicy foods may irritate and inflame mouth and throat tissues. If you want a bedtime snack, choose something small—around 200 calories—that combines complex carbohydrates with protein. I usually recommend nut butter spread on a piece of toast or a banana, or a small bowl of whole-grain cereal with almond milk or coconut milk. Here are some other great suggestions for bedtime snacks that won’t disrupt your sleep.
You’re not getting enough exercise
A 2014 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that low levels of physical activity increase the risk for snoring in women—and that getting more exercise activity can lower that risk. Exercise improves all-around muscle tone—including the muscles in your face, neck, and throat, which help to keep your airway open while you sleep. Regular exercise delivers a wealth of benefits for sleep: You’ll snooze sounder and longer. Don’t miss these other tips for better sleep from sleep doctors.