If you've ever been kept awake by a serial snorer, you can be forgiven for thinking that you're the one suffering the most, while the offender is deep in blissful dreams. New research has revealed that snoring can actually be bad for our health with links to serious conditions including heart disease.
Middle-of-the-night wheezing and snuffling can happen for a multitude of reasons, but it's always the result of some sort of obstruction of a person's airways. Most often, the muscles in the roof of the mouth (often referred to as the soft palate) relax and partially block the flow of air as we sleep.
Michael Grandner, PhD, professor of psychiatry and a member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine told CNN, "If you blow air through a floppy tube, it's going to vibrate and make noise, And at night, for a lot of people, your airways become a floppy tube."
This can occur for several reasons including when people sleep on their back rather than their side, when they've consumed alcohol before bedtime (because alcohol relaxes muscles) or due to nasal congestion as a result of a common cold. In fact, about half of adults will snore at least some of the time, says Grandner, and it usually isn't thought to be a cause for concern.
"Most of the time, we can still get enough air to keep things functioning normally," Grandner said.
However, snoring can occur for other medical reasons, such as having an enlarged uvula (the ball of tissue hanging in the back of your mouth) or by being overweight. Both factors raise your risk for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which the heart isn't able to get enough oxygen to function properly.
It is thought up to 15 percent of adults suffer from sleep apnea but it often goes undiagnosed, which is discouraging news as studies have shown strong links between sleep apnea and high-blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attacks and other cardiovascular conditions
However the positive news is that once diagnosed sleep apnea is treatable with lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or sleeping on your side. If simple changes are not effective, almost all cases can be treated by using a device called a continuous positive-air pressure machine. The device sends air through a tube and a mask, into a patient's nose and mouth while they sleep, keeping the airway open.
Sleep apnea is often diagnosed via a specialist sleep center so if you suspect you or a partner may have it, ask your doctor for a referral for tests.