This Extremely Common Sleeping Behavior Is Never Normal

As much as 40 percent of adults snore, but when does a common behavior signal a problem?

Handsome young man sleeping in the bed at night in his bedroom. Snoring and having breathing problem...
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Everyone knows the pain and annoyance that snoring can bring. A loud snorer can jolt a sleeping partner awake or prevent them from ever entering a deep slumber. But this common nuisance can also be an insidious sign of a larger problem. So when does snoring turn from a pesky aggravation to a larger issue? A sleep researcher says there are subtle but real clues.

How common is snoring, really?

Snoring is incredibly common. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of adults in the United States snore. Age, weight gain, and alcohol consumption can all increase the risk of snoring.

Snoring isn’t optimal, “but it's a common situation that's intrinsically linked to the way we're designed,” says Vishesh Kapur, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

He likens this change to driving an older car that rattles. It’s not optimal, but it’s also not unexpected, nor is it definitely a sign of a problem.

“Things become looser as you age,” Kapur says. Snoring “could just be a sign that you've lived a lot.”

Is snoring actually dangerous?

Snoring alone isn’t necessarily a problem unless it's tied to other issues like excessive sleepiness, repeated awakenings, or even if it disrupts someone else’s sleep, says Kapur.

Most of the time, Kapur says, you or your partner can tell when snoring exceeds the realm of normalcy. When snoring gets too loud, you might notice other signs like gasping, breathing pauses, and frequent awakenings to the point of unrestful sleep. These signs, in addition to snoring, make it more likely that you have another condition called obstructive sleep apnea.

This condition, which is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder, occurs when the throat muscles relax and block the airway, temporarily halting air from entering the lungs. Some people snore right through their sleep apnea, but Kapur says this only happens occasionally.

Snoring doesn’t always implicate sleep apnea, however, Kapur says, and there might be other issues at play. There’s some evidence that snoring’s vibrations may cause some damage in the neck. A 2011 paper in the journal Sleep observed the effects of 6 hours of snoring in sleeping rabbits on their carotid arteries, which funnels oxygen to the brain. They found that the continuous vibrations showed signs of atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque along the artery walls, which can disrupt circulation. By establishing this potential link between snoring’s vibrations and atherosclerosis, this study suggests how continuous snoring could cause long-term damage to the human body. Raising the risk of atherosclerosis even increases the risk of events like stroke.

While Kapur says that there’s no need to mitigate snoring if it’s not causing a problem, he also notes that interfering could serve as a “preventative” measure to lower the possible risk of atherosclerosis and obstructive sleep apnea. Drinking alcohol is strongly linked with heavy snoring, so cutting back on drinking is one way to lighten your snores. Vigorous aerobic exercise also lessens snoring, as does weight loss. He also recommends addressing seasonal allergy symptoms, as they can also make a sleeping person snore.

Snoring may not be an optimal behavior, but it’s common enough that most of the time, there’s nothing to worry about. If something is wrong, your body will probably let you know.

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