Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Matthew Rozsa

Is it OK to snore? Experts: Not really

Dr. Colin Sullivan is a prominent sleep expert. He invented the continuous positive airway pressure machine, better known as the CPAP, which helps the millions of patients who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA) get a decent night's sleep. So when Sullivan shared his views about snoring with Salon during an interview last year, it was worthy of attention.

Many people may still regard snoring as a harmless element of the sleeping process — if frequently exasperating to spouses, partners and roommates — a distinctive buzzing, rattling sound often regarded cute in old people, babies and dogs while depicted with a string of comical Z's by cartoonists.

Sullivan, however, said there is no such thing as "harmless" snoring. Sleep apnea, or related conditions in which a person temporarily stops breathing for 10 seconds or more while asleep, exists on a spectrum, he continued. When a person snores, that's a red flag that they're on this spectrum. It's not healthy, and it's not good news.

"Snoring is a forerunner of such disorders for so many people, probably the majority," Sullivan said. With many patients he has seen, he continued, "it's a typical story that they were OK and they started snoring at 30 or 35 or whatever, and then it kept going, and then they developed apnea after nine or 10 years. And I think snoring isn't good for you. It damages the airway, it interrupts your sleep, just like sleep apnea does."

To understand why this is the case, we first have to understand the mechanics of snoring. When a human being or another mammal snores, it's because air is flowing past the soft tissues in the pharyngeal airway, such as the tongue, soft palette and throat muscles. Instead of smoothly flowing into the subject's lungs, air is passing through a number of impediments along the way, leading to an array of unpleasant rattling, rasping, hacking, wheezing and honking noises typically associated with snoring.

Because snoring has likely been around throughout humanity's existence, it is tempting to dismiss these sounds as mere annoyances. But it only takes a few anatomical quirks for the cacophony of snoring to lead to extended periods when the sleeping person  stops breathing — in other words, to full-fledged sleep apnea.

“Most simply, snoring can fragment sleep, robbing us of its full restorative benefits," Dr Shereen Lim, a dental specialist in airway health and author of Breathe, Sleep, Thrive, told The Guardian last year. Lim added that snoring is also the most common symptom of OSA, observing that it is generally a sign of underlying health problems, and should not be dismissed or ignored

While modern health care "focuses on diagnosing and treating OSA," Lim said, that's akin to "treating coronary artery disease rather than focusing on prevention and promoting health. Snoring is a symptom of poor airway structure and function. It plays out during sleep because our muscles are more relaxed, we are lying down, and reflexes that normally keep our airway open during the day are not active during sleep.”

Furthermore, there are potentially serious health consequences along the snoring-sleep apnea spectrum. People with these sleep disorders are at a much higher risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and a number of mental illnesses, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. They are more likely to feel tired and listless during the day and to struggle with concentration and memory skills. Sleep apnea is also linked to various other maladies ranging from headaches and dry mouth to weight gain. In fact, there are so many physical and mental health problems linked with sleep apnea that it's surprising more doctors don't routinely ask patients about their sleeping habits.

"I think snoring and sleep apnea put you at risk of getting a number of diseases," Sullivan told Salon. "I am astounded when I see patients with various cardiac conditions and no one's even asked them about what happens to them at nighttime in terms of sleep."

Perhaps snoring is often overlooked because we tend to assume that our bodies are intrinsically designed to perform optimally. We can understand health conditions that occur because a body is infected or damaged, but snoring results from flaws in our evolutionary design. As Allen J. Moses, Elizabeth T. Kalliath and Gloria Pacini wrote in the journal Dental Sleep Practice in 2022, humans experienced significant trade-offs in order to have large heads balance atop relatively narrow necks as we walk upright. Those same necks need not only to enable swallowing and breathing, but also the complex vocalizations necessary for speech. As a result, the authors wrote, humans are left with a "flat face, smaller chin, shorter oral cavity, changes in jaw function, repositioning of ears behind jaws, ascent of the uvula and descent of the epiglottis, right angle bend in tongue, creation of compliant, combined, flexible airway-footway, and speech."

Even the foremost pioneer of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin, famously remarked on the ridiculousness of the fact that "every particle of food and drink we swallow has to pass over the orifice of the trachea with some risk of falling into the lungs."

It may be easiest to understand snoring not as an inoffensive quirk of human biology, but as something closer to a blinking red light. Because our necks are overstuffed with organs, millions of people struggle with breathing while they sleep. Numerous technologies, dental appliances and even surgical procedures can now alleviate this condition — but only when we grasp that snoring isn't necessarily humorous or harmless.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.