Here's good news for those of you whose nights are shattered by the hellish, rhythmic rasp of constant snoring: The snorer may just be obeying an evolutionary imperative to protect you.
Sort of. That's according to some imaginative theorists who believe that snoring began as a survival skill among early humans. According to the theory, loud snoring mimics the roar of mighty beasts, which may have scared off nocturnal predators and allowed our proto-human forbears to safely sleep.
Snoring: Bad Vibrations
More likely, though, it has to do with too much soft, fleshy tissue. What really causes snoring, experts says, is an abundance of soft tissue in your mouth and throat - the tongue, the uvula, the tonsils and so on. As air struggles to pass these soft obstructions, the flesh vibrates, and the result is the grating nocturnal serenade we all know so well.
Nearly one of every four men, and one of every seven women, is a frequent snorer. In some cases, snoring is a warning sign of serious and potentially dangerous sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea. But even in simple cases, it can have a disruptive impact on the snorer's household.
"The men we see are often at the desperation point," says Rosalind Cartwright, director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. "Someone's kicked them out of the bedroom usually, and they come here looking for a quick fix."
Cartwright always suggests the simplest therapies first. "Weight gain and alcohol consumption are huge factors in snoring," she says, "if patients can lose a little weight and quit boozing, they'd see an enormous difference in the peace and quiet of their nights."
But those things take time and discipline, she says, so many snorers look for outside help. In response, a new arsenal of anti-snoring technologies, including new surgical interventions, has begun to emerge.
Many snorers, for example, are turning to a surgical procedure called Laser Assisted Uvular Plasty. As the name implies, surgeons use lasers to carefully slice off layers of offending tissue in the throat, providing an instant end to snoring.
LAUP is an outpatient procedure that can be completed in just a few 10- to 15-minutes sessions, but according to Cartwright, there are questions about its long-term success. "The effects don't seem to last," she says. "Whether the tissue regrows, or the snoring occurs at another location, we don't know. There hasn't been enough long-term testing. Also, there's the problem that snoring is the first warning signal that a person is developing apnea, and if you silence that signal, that's dangerous. So I'm not completely comfortable with the procedure."