Mechanism of snoring: why do we snore when we sleep?
Snoring is caused by narrowing of the airways. During sleep, the muscles of the soft palate, uvula and tongue relax. They tend to obstruct the airways. Due to the reduction in the caliber of the airways, the air velocity will increase and make the pharyngeal mucous membranes causing the noise vibrate more. “Anything that can reduce the caliber of the airways – from the entrance of the nose to the vocal cords – can cause snoring. Imagine: if you blow into a large glass tube, there is no noise. On the other hand, if the tube narrows, a noise will appear”, illustrates Dr. Laurent Yona, ENT doctor and cervico-facial surgeon. Snoring is more intense during certain stages of sleep when muscle relaxation is greater.
What are the possible causes?
A neck circumference greater than 43 cm is linked to a risk of snoring
Excess weight promotes snoring. This is actually the main cause of snoring. “As you get fat, fat infiltrates your tissues and helps reduce the diameter of your airways, which can cause snoring,” says Dr. Yona. A study published in January 2017 in the Journal of Respiratory Disease showed that a neck circumference greater than 43 cm or a neck circumference greater than 39 cm (if in addition one suffers from high blood pressure) increases the risk of snoring.
Sleep on your back
“We snore more on the back than on the side. Due to gravity, the soft palate and the tongue fall back and reduce the caliber of the airways”, explains our interlocutor. The best way to avoid snoring is to sleep on your side to clear the upper airway.
We tend to snore when our nose is blocked. This may be due to the presence of a deviated nasal septum, acute (cold, sinusitis) or chronic (allergic or not) rhinitis or nasal polyps (congestion of the nasal mucosa). If it is an ENT infection, it is advisable to treat it quickly by washing your nose with saline solution morning and evening, using decongestants (after consulting a doctor) and possibly antibiotics. If it is an allergy, it must be treated by avoiding the presence of allergens in the room and by taking antihistamine treatment. If they are nasal polyps, treatment with corticosteroid nasal sprays or tablets may be considered. Surgical removal of polyps responds to specific indications. In case of deviated nasal septum (acquired during growth or following trauma), surgical treatment may be considered. However, it should be noted that the treatment of nasal obstruction does not always make snoring go away.
Tonsils that are too big
“Various anatomical variations can contribute to reducing the caliber of the pharynx. Among them, we will retain retrognathia (short lower jaw), large tonsils, a long soft palate and/or a long uvula as well as macroglossia (abnormal increase in volume of the tongue)“, says Dr. Yona.
“Snoring is one of the symptoms of sleep apnea. But beware, not all snorers are apneic. However, most apneic people snore,” says Dr. Yona. Sleep apnea is a sleep-disordered breathing disorder characterized by airway obstruction in breathing lasting longer than 10 seconds and recurring at least 5 times per hour. These apneas lead to micro-awakenings which alter the quality of sleep. In addition to snoring, chronic fatigue, daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, nocturia (need to urinate which occurs during the night) but also memory concentration disorders can be observed. In the long term, sleep apnea syndrome can promote cardiovascular complications. More than 5% of the population would suffer from it and more than 30% of those over 65 would be affected.
Smoking or drinking alcohol at night
Alcohol increases muscle relaxation and therefore promotes snoring.
Smokers are more likely to snore than non-smokers. Why? Because tobacco causes inflammation with edema of the mucous membrane, which promotes snoring. In addition, “consuming alcohol in the evening or at dinner also promotes snoring”, insists the specialist. Alcohol increases the relaxation of the muscles of the pharynx. “Alcohol can give the impression of accelerating the sleep phase but in reality, it greatly disrupts the quality of sleep,” adds Dr. Yona.
Relaxants and sleeping pills
“Certain medications such as muscle relaxants, sleeping pills or benzodiazepines also promote snoring,” says the ENT doctor. This is also the case with certain antihistamines which, taken before sleep, can cause excessive relaxation of the muscles of the walls of the pharynx.
“Many women don’t snore until they are 50 and start snoring after menopause,” says Dr. Yona. Menopause is a period marked by a significant drop in estrogen levels, a sex hormone that helps preserve muscle tone. In addition to age, the amount of estrogen decreases, pharyngeal muscles become looser, which can create an obstruction of the airways and hinder the passage of air.
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