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."
Snore-proofing Your Sleep
One Simple Device to Stop Snoring
Cartwright is more optimistic about the effectiveness of a new family of anti-snoring dental devices, which are finding wide and enthusiastic markets.
"These are basically mouthpieces you wear while you sleep," says Cartwright. "They work best for people who sleep on their backs."
The problem with sleeping on your back, says Cartwright, is that the tongue can sag into the throat and block the top of the airway. The two most popular categories of dental devices - jaw positioners and tongue retainers - use two different approaches to prevent the tongue from sagging.
"Jaw positioners fit into your mouth like two athletic mouthpieces - top and bottom - with a hinge," says Cartwright. "They're made to force the lower jaw a slight bit forward. That keeps the airway open."
Tongue retainers, meanwhile, feature a soft plastic bulb at the front of the mouth that holds the tongue in place by suction. "When you're wearing one of these, it looks like you're blowing a bubble-gum bubble," says Cartwright. "You slip your tongue into the bubble, squeeze it like a turkey baster, and it holds the tongue in place, like when you suck your tongue inside a soda bottle."
These oral devices are effective, says Cartwright, but they have their drawbacks, too.
"They tend to slip out, or people pull them out and drop them on the floor without realizing it," she says. "They take some getting used to."
Stop Snoring With a Few Tennis Balls, a Needle and Thread
There's also the matter of the price. They can cost as much as $800, and many insurance plans won't cover the expense. Fortunately, Cartwright has a more reasonable offer, which might do millions of back sleepers some good.
"I invented it myself," she says. "It's just a white T- shirt, with the yin-yang sleep/wake symbol on the front and three to four tennis balls sewn into a pocket along the spine."
The concept is simple: The tennis balls keep you from sleeping on your back, reducing the kind of airway obstructions that cause you to snore in the first place.
"In two to eight weeks, many people who use the shirt learn to sleep on their sides," says Cartwright, "then they can throw the shirt away."
You can sew pockets for tennis balls into a sleep shirt or buy ready-made shirts over the Internet.
In any case, snorers should be assured that with expert help and a little self-discipline, snoring can be reduced to tolerable levels. Meanwhile, the beleaguered bed partners of snorers might find solace by reminding themselves that on some primal level, your snoring sidekick may be following a latent, Neanderthal urge to protect hearth and home. Maybe that's a stretch, but then again, do you have any cave bears lurking in the hallway?