She punched me!
It was about 2 AM on a recent evening. My significant other reached across the bed and, doing her best Roman Reigns impression, walloped me so hard in the arm that I immediately jolted awake. I’m pretty sure I grumbled “what the f--k” (I’m pretty much always grumbling something), but I instinctively knew what was up.
“You’re snoring again,” she sniped. “Please stop or go on the couch.”
This wasn’t the first time I had been handed just such an ultimatum. And truth be told, I often chose to go on the couch, mainly out of guilt. But this time was different. This time I decided to stand my ground and fight.
So I rolled over to my side. You see, I’m a terrible snorer—but only while lying on my back.
Personally, I won’t be dramatic and say that snoring is destroying my relationship; it’s more of an occasional annoyance. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a real problem for many people. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 90 million Americans snore, with 37 million of these people snoring regularly. Not only does snoring interrupt the sleep of one’s partner, of course, but the National Sleep Foundation notes that it also decreases the quality of one’s own sleep, potentially leading to other health problems like heart disease.
For all these reasons I decided to pick up the phone and speak to a couple of experts to help figure out what’s causing my little problem, and to better understand what, if anything, can be done about it.
Andrew Varga is an assistant professor of sleep medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Hospital. If there’s anyone who could help me better understand exactly what’s going on when I’m making those ungodly noises, it’s him.
“Snoring itself is just vibration of your upper airway,” Varga explained to me over the phone. “That in and of itself can be benign from a health-consequences perspective, even if it’s not benign from a social perspective.” (Ergo my many nights on the couch.) And as for why my snoring problem only seems to flare up while I’m on my back, Varga offered a simple answer.
“It has everything to do with physics and gravity,” he said, matter of factly. “You know, when you’re lying on your back, your uvula and other soft tissues just flop back and rest in the upper airways, making it that much more crowded. Now you have a much more narrow opening, making it that much easier to vibrate.”
At this point, Varga puts me further at ease, explaining that so long as the snoring is not associated with apnea, a sleeping disorder in which a person literally stops breathing while asleep (often waking up struggling to catch their breath), snoring in and of itself isn’t a cause for immediate, get-thee-to-the-hospital concern.
I’m lucky enough to have never experienced such an episode, firmly putting my snoring into the “socially annoying but not health threatening” category. So the question becomes what, if anything, I can do to help alleviate my partner’s suffering.
There are plenty of products that are available right now to help people who snore. The cheapest and easiest to use are products like Breathe Right strips, which resemble a Band Aid worn on top of one’s nose that lifts the nasal passages open. I’ve used these in the past, but never had any great success with them: My snoring persisted, and they’re kinda hard to remove (that adhesive doesn’t mess around).
Then there are more complex devices like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks. These work by pushing warm, moist air down the wearer’s throat while they sleep, thereby preventing it from closing. These masks, Mt. Sinai’s Varga told me, are “remarkably effective.”
“They’re basically 100 percent effective is you actually use it,” he said. “Their success rate is really only limited by people’s acceptance and compliance with the treatment.”
Therein lies the rub, however: while the masks are pretty much foolproof, who wants to wear something so cumbersome while trying to sleep?
Mark Aloia senior director of health research at Philips, which manufactures these masks. He told me in a recent phone interview that companies like his own are aware that consistently wearing these masks may prove challenging for people, which is why they’re working closely with apnea patients to develop masks that are less of a hassle to wear.
“We’ve sat with patients very very closely to try to understand the problems and pain points that they have,” he told me, “and to then co-design new masks with them.” Aloia then pointed to Philips’ DreamWear line of masks (above), which, while I’ve never used one, effectively flips the entire apparatus upside down to be less cumbersome for the wearer: The air tube tucks behind the wearer instead of running down in front of him like a World War I era gas mask.
“Look, it’s still a mask, but it’s a mask that’s more usable and it’s a mask that resonates with more users,” Aloia said.
Aloia stressed that making these masks as user-friendly as possible is the only way to ensure that that they’re actually used consistently. And while that may not be a huge concern for mere snorers like me, it’s vital for the wellbeing of people with sleep apnea.
“If we don’t change behavior,” he said, “we don’t change population health.”
As for me, I’ve basically resigned myself snoring on occasion, and then having to spend the odd night on the couch. As Mt. Sinai’s Andrew Varga reasoned, snoring for me is less of a dramatic health concern and more of a social bump in the road: I’ve not noticed any ill health effects, so I’m in no rush to strap a mask to my face.
Sorry, dear. You have my permission to throw me off the bed whenever I get loud. Winston’s cuter anyway.