Some years ago, I discovered that I snored.
I also learned that this affliction is an unusual problem because, even though I am the one who snores, it is my wife trying to sleep next to me who is really suffering, struggling to survive the nightly nightmare of noise that sounds something like a garbage disposal and a chain saw mating. My wife and I are not alone. According to the 2005 Sleep in America poll released in March by the National Sleep Foundation, 41 percent of those surveyed snore. And for nearly every snorer, there's a "snoree." In the poll, 67 percent of the respondents reported that their partners snored, which was by far the largest single complaint.
Five years ago, to save our relationship, I began a quest to stop snoring. I read nearly every book, visited nearly every website, and went to the best sleep and snoring specialists I could find in Denver. I followed everyone's advice and lost weight, stopped drinking at night, quit smoking (before I even started), changed pillows and altered my sleeping position.
During an all-night visit to the Swedish Sleep Disorders Center at Swedish Medical Center, white-clad staffers wired me with a dozen electrodes to measure the type and frequency of my involuntary symphonies. (Like the band Spinal Tap, I was an eleven on a sound scale of ten.) Strips, straps, sprays and any device I could find on the Internet became part of my arsenal. Even nasal steroids were factored in. I was "juiced," but unlike Jose Canseco, my production of snoring, not home runs, increased. I had several operations, including one in which the back of my mouth was reshaped with lasers and my nasal passages enlarged with acid. My otolaryngologist (commonly called an ear, nose and throat doc) fixed my deviated septum, and when that didn't work, removed my uvula before I even knew where it was. In all, I've probably spent $5,000 trying to mitigate the problem (which doesn't include the cost of flowers or hotel rooms with an extra bed designed to get me back in my wife's good graces).
Trying these cures led me to write a book, Snore No More! Remedies and Relief for Snorers and Snorees Everywhere (Andrews McMeel Publishing, www.snorebook.com), one of the first to address the concerns of both members of a snoring couple. My search has taught me more about my nose and its sonic capacity than I ever imagined. Here is what I've learned.
Snoring Nation: It's a Big Problem
Roughly 90 million Americans snore every night, according to sleep researchers. In Colorado, an estimated 1.4 million people saw logs. They snore in Denver, Grand Junction and Pueblo. And it's not just an American thing: In all likelihood, much of the adult population snores, so that means there are almost two billion snorers around the world. A sample of foreign words related to snoring reveals that they often have an onomatopoeic quality:
Dutch snurken, snorken, knorren, ronken, geronk, gesnurk
Pig Latin oringsnay
Real Latin stertere
Why should we care? First, because snoring can be a symptom of something more serious and potentially life-threatening -- sleep apnea -- during which you actually stop breathing for a few seconds hundreds of times during the night. Sleep apnea is dangerous because over time, the build-up of breath-shortages can lead to oxygen deprivation and things like strokes and heart attacks. Signs of sleep apnea include being woken by your own cacophony, the sensation of gagging while sleeping and daily fatigue or unexpected dozing during the day.
Second, even benign non-apnea snoring can cause sleep deprivation. Sleep loss can lead to headaches, anger, irritability, forgetfulness and loss of sex drive and motor skills. This is not just a minor inconvenience. Sleep deprivation causes more than $100 billion in lost productivity, car accidents, medical expenses, sick leave and property damage every year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit National Sleep Foundation. Disasters such as the Challenger space shuttle crash and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl had roots in exhaustion.
Finally, midnight wheezing damages relationships. People break up, fight, divorce -- even murder -- when there is snoring. Children and pets snore, too. When children snore, it's usually a sign that their tonsils or adenoids are enlarged; they often outgrow this or have the stuff taken out. When pets snore, it's typically because they are overweight -- too much processed Alpo or Kitty Gourmet and not enough exercise. (If your tropical fish snore, then get out of the house. You have the wrong kind of fish.)
Why People Snore
People snore because they can't help themselves.
Snoring is caused when the soft tissues in the back of the mouth and nose relax during sleep, and then, with every incoming breath through the mouth, flap like a sail in the wind. In musical terms, these soft tissues act like the reed of an oboe -- only instead of creating harmony, they create noise. The resulting noise can be loud. An average snore, as measured in decibels, is as loud as a truck in heavy traffic; an above-average snore is equal to a New York City subway; the world's loudest snore is noisier than a 747 jet taking off.
The part of the mouth causing this ruckus is known as the soft palate. It's the archway at the back of the throat where the tonsils, pharynx and uvula -- the little boxing bag of flesh that dangles from the roof of your mouth -- hang out. Anything that restricts breathing at night, even a little -- or relaxes the soft palate and makes it more flappable -- will lead to snoring. Causes of this disruption can be:
Sleeping on your back
Using the wrong pillow -- i.e., one that is too large and forces you to sleep with a crimped neck
Drinking alcohol (a relaxant) before you sleep
Taking cold pills, sleeping medicine or sedatives
Being overweight or eating before bedtime
That's why snoring has been called the disease of living well: too much food, too much wine, too much tobacco and not enough exercise.
Studies have shown that gender and age have a lot to do with it, too. Snoring is twice as common in men as it is in women because men are more likely to have bulky soft palates -- fat necks, fat tongues and fat throats. And men are more likely to load themselves up with snore-inducing habits such as drinking, overeating and not exercising. After menopause, women catch up to the guys and begin snoring because they have less estrogen in their bodies (estrogen stimulates breathing at night and thus reduces snoring). As people age, they are more likely to snore because they gain weight and lose muscle tone, two prime conditions for snoring.
How to Stop (Maybe)
People often ask me: Now that you have tried all these cures, do you still snore? Which remedy works best? Before I answer that, let me give you some advice. Most important, be cautious of anything that makes this claim: "Finally -- A Cure For Snoring That Really Works!" There are too many variables. But you'll need to reduce several factors that lead to snoring and try some more serious interventions until you find a combination that works.
First, start with the easy stuff, such as lifestyle changes. One of the easiest ways to stop snoring is to place a tennis ball in the chest pocket of a T-shirt, then wear the T-shirt backwards, so that if you roll over onto your back, the tennis ball will wake you up. During the Civil War, small cannonballs were sewn into the backs of uniforms to keep soldiers from snoring and alerting the enemy.
Second, after you have tried the lifestyle changes, you can invest a little bit of money in some devices that may help you stop snoring. If your room is dry, get a humidifier. If you have allergies, buy an air cleaner or have one of those duct-cleaning companies sweep your air vents. You can buy an orthopedic anti-snoring pillow that keeps your head and neck properly aligned while promoting side sleeping. Many people report that wearing a nasal strip or even a chin-up adhesive strip at night promotes better breathing. Others routinely rinse their sinus passages with a saline solution. Additionally, there are many herbal sprays that you can buy over the Internet that claim to stop snoring by coating the throat with snore-inhibiting gunk or numbing the soft palate.
If none of these cures works, then you can move to the third level of seriousness. You can have a custom-fit oral mouthpiece made by your dentist that helps you breathe better through your nose and mouth. You can have your tonsils and uvula removed. If your septum is deviated -- as mine was by a basketball injury during my teens -- you can have it fixed. You can have your soft palate widened, usually with a laser. You can have your nasal passages enlarged. And in some cases, if the back of your tongue is fat, you can have it reduced. All of these operations can be extremely painful and have a wide range of success -- anywhere from 50 to 90 percent.
One device that works nearly 100 percent of the time is called a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. Consisting of a pump that sits by your bed, a flexible tube and a mask that fits over your nose, the CPAP forces just enough air into your nasal passageways to keep them open all night while you sleep. You look and sound like a fighter pilot or a patient in a hospital ward, but at least you don't snore. (In my case, it proved too intrusive).
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There also are a slew of new and often wacky cures. One company has patented anti-snoring implants: three plastic strips that are inserted into the roof of the soft palate. Other remedies include anti-snoring hypnosis tapes; devices that use radio frequency waves to stiffen upper airway soft tissue and thus reduce snoring; and nose clips inserted inside the nostrils, stimulating them with magnets. Not everything is obvious. Another retailer sells an acupressure ring for your left pinky that "rechannels your snoring energy." Then there are CDs that claim to teach sufferers how to sing and exercise the throat to stop snoring. Not surprisingly, there's a Hannibal Lecter-like chin strap that fits over the head and Velcros the mouth shut.
Anti-snoring inventions are nothing new. Thousands of gizmos are registered with the United States Patent Office. One of the first appeared in 1900, when Jacob Baughman of Iowa received a patent for his "head-bandage," which forces the mouth closed during sleep. Gertrude Thomas followed in 1909 with her "chin mask." And ever since, like the quest for the 100-mile-per-gallon carburetor, the perpetual light bulb or the miracle anti-cellulite cream, Yankee ingenuity has continued to hunt for, and to profit from, a cure for snoring.
As to whether I still snore, the answer is yes, I do, but now I sound more like a content kitten than the roaring lion of yore. Or so I like to think. And the device that works the best? A pair of airport-rated earplugs made by Israelis. For my wife.
Rob Simon co-founded Westword in 1977, and was known for his ability to nap.