Snoring. It’s the sore spot of many otherwise great relationships.
But when your bed partner sounds like a rusty muffler at 3 a.m. and regularly awakens you from a sound sleep, snoring becomes more than just an annoyance. It can signal persistent health problems, and maybe even make you rethink the benefits of living as a couple.
So what can you, and your partner, do about it—short of divorce?
First, recognize that it’s a physical problem, not something your partner does on purpose. Almost everyone snores occasionally, and about a third of us do so regularly.
It happens when the tissues in our upper airway vibrate. When we sleep, the muscles and soft tissue in the back of the throat relax, and the airway can become obstructed. The vibration is what causes the noise, according to Harly Greenberg, a pulmonologist and medical director of the Northwell Health Sleep Disorders Center in Manhasset, New York.
Snoring generally worsens with age, and men generally snore more than women, at least until women reach menopause. Then, it happens about equally, Greenberg says. It’s also more common if you’re overweight, because a larger neck circumference means narrower airways. Fat also settles on the back of the tongue and can make airway obstruction worse. Snoring can also be caused by other physical conditions, like asthma, a deviated septum, a cold, or sinusitis.
It could signal a more serious issue
“If there’s non-restorative sleep, daytime sleepiness, and pauses in breathing that are observed, that’s when you need to be a little more concerned that it’s not just simply snoring,” said Greenberg, who also heads Northwell’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.
Persistent snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a serious condition affecting as many as 1 in 15 adults. Researchers estimate that 9% of middle-aged women and 25% of middle-aged men suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. Left untreated, OSA can increase risk of heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure, depression, or even premature death.
Regardless of the reason, being woken up during the night by your partner’s snoring affects everything from intimacy to brain health, say sleep experts.
“During deep sleep, the brain clears itself of toxins that could contribute to long term risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Greenberg says. “So insufficient sleep time and insufficient sleep quality may ultimately be risk factors for these neurodegenerative conditions that affect people later in life.”
Sleeping partners of snorers get an hour less sleep each night than sleeping partners of non-snorers, according to the Snoring Center in Dallas.
If you’re on the receiving end, you may have resorted to the spare bedroom or living room couch, in search of a decent night’s sleep. But that’s not helping your relationship. Many sleep-deprived couples report ongoing irritability, stress, depression, burnout, and generally feeling miserable.
These strategies may help you both get a more restful night’s sleep:
1. Change your sleeping position
Once sleep apnea has been ruled out, the first thing a snorer should try is not sleeping on their back. Devices like a wedge pillow alter sleep position, and can be quite helpful to keep you off your back, according to Greenberg. Adjustable beds may also help. “Sleeping with the head of the bed elevated can also be beneficial.” Greenberg says.
For a lower-tech solution, “put on a pocket tee-shirt backwards and a tennis ball in the pocket, they’ll never lay on their back,” suggests Gloria Young, an elementary school teacher from Port Washington, New York.
2. Choose products wisely
There are a slew of commercially marketed anti-snoring devices on the market. The Smart Nora, for example, listens for early sounds of snoring throughout the night and changes the person’s head position before the snoring becomes loud enough to wake the sleeping partner.
Unfortunately, most of these devices are not clinically proven to work, says Greenberg. Carolyn Jones, a photographer and documentary filmmaker in Brooklyn found this out the hard way.
“I love my husband but I have bought so much crap that is supposed to stop snoring and truly none of it really works. We have tried everything,” she says.
3. Try a mouth guard
One devices that does seem to help: A mandibular advancement oral appliance, a type of mouth guard device that moves the jaw forward. Greenberg thinks it’s the most effective treatment for mild sleep disordered breathing. They’re available over-the-counter or can be customized by a dental specialist. Some devices may be covered by insurance, but check with your plan, since customized devices can be expensive.
4. Clear your sinuses
If your partner suffers from a cold, allergies, or other sinus condition, “try deep cleaning out the sinuses before going to sleep,” says Young, who has “tried it all” over the years to quiet her husband’s snoring.
Neti pots, which irrigate the nasal passages, decongestant sprays, or sinus medications may work for some snorers. Nasal strips can also be quite effective for some people, since they reflexively stimulate the muscle in the back of the airway and decrease nasal pressure, according to Greenberg. Allergies can be tackled with antihistamines as well as holistic approaches, like removing carpeting or banishing pets from the bedroom.
5. Avoid food and alcohol near bedtime
Greenberg suggests no eating or drinking alcohol for at least an hour before bedtime. Alcohol, in particular, can worsen sleep disordered breathing.
6. Quit Smoking
If you smoke, try to quit. In addition to all of smoking’s other ill effects, it causes nasal and lung congestion, leading to…more snoring.
7. Lose weight
It’s a Catch22—obesity can cause snoring and snoring can cause obesity, according to SnoreLab, makers of a snoring analysis app for smartphones. Dropping a few pounds can drastically reduce both normal snoring and sleep apnea.
While weight loss may not help all snorers, studies show that sleep disordered breathing was significantly lower in people whose body mass index was in the normal range (25 or lower), compared to those considered pre obese or obese (BMI >26).
8. Use noise for the noise
A white noise machine can muffle sounds of snoring and help the non-snoring partner fall asleep faster.
9. Try earplugs
Soft earplugs are another trick to help block noise and get a deeper, more restful sleep. “One of the best things I did was use wax, moldable ear plugs,” says Holly Bander, a lawyer and benefits consultant in Reading, Massachusetts. “They are much better at blocking sound than the typical rubber or foam ones.” Additionally, she said going to bed and falling asleep before her husband did also helped.
10. Keep trying
Ultimately it may take a combination of strategies to alleviate the snoring problem. If you can’t solve it on your own, talk to a health professional about available treatment options. You and your partner will not only enjoy more restful sleep, but will function better during the day. And it beats sleeping on the couch.