Is snoring in our DNA? This topic has been debated for decades. The general consensus among sleep researchers working today is that chronic snoring, on its own, is not necessarily genetic. However, a number of factors that contribute to snoring — such as obesity, certain anatomical traits, and medical conditions like obstructive sleep apnea — have hereditary roots. Our bodies may not be programmed to snore, but genetic blueprints probably make us much more susceptible to snoring.
Additionally, sleep experts have identified several non-genetic factors that also increase one’s risk of snoring. While there is no established cure for snoring, a wide range of medical treatments, bedtime remedies, and lifestyle changes can lead to less snoring on a nightly basis.
Causes and Risk Factors for Snoring
According to the latest data, roughly 40% of adult men and 24% of adult women experience chronic snoring. Half the U.S. population will snore at some point during their adult lives. Snoring is also somewhat linked to age. While most habitual snorers are adults, the majority experience less nightly snoring after the age of 70.
In addition to age, the Mayo Clinic lists the following conditions that may contribute to heavy snoring:
- Anatomy: The way your mouth and throat are structured can play a significant role in snoring. Key attributes often include narrow airway/throat passages, extraneous tissue at the back of the throat, enlarged adenoids, and/or an elongated soft palate (uvula). A cleft palate can also lead to snoring. All of these physiological traits can be traced to genetic roots.
- Nasal congestion: People with chronic congestion are likelier to snore. The same is true with those whose septum — the partition between the nose and lips — is crooked, or deviated.
- Sleep position: People who sleep on their backs tend to experience more snoring than those who sleep on their side or stomach. This is due to the position of the tongue. When sleeping on one’s back, the muscles in the mouth and throat become relaxed; the tongue often falls back into the mouth, blocking the airway.
- Sleep deprivation: When you are excessively tired, your throat muscles will become overly relaxed. This can lead to snoring, especially if the tongue falls into the back of the mouth.
- Alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking, like sleep deprivation, causes the throat muscles to relax. Intoxication may also reduce one’s reaction time if the airway becomes obstructed.
- Smoking: Chronic smoking has been linked to a high incidence rate for snoring.
Another leading cause of snoring is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a medical disorder characterized by temporary loss of breath during the night. Unlike central sleep apnea (CSA), which occurs due to improper signals between the brain and breathing muscles, OSA is caused by a physical obstruction that hinders airflow in the throat and nasal cavity. For many people with OSA, this ‘obstruction’ is the tongue falling into the back of the mouth when their throats become too relaxed. Other possibilities include oversized adenoids or tonsils.
The risk of developing OSA is higher for individuals with at least one parent who has been diagnosed with the condition. The Mayo Clinic also notes that people who are overweight are more susceptible to snoring and considered at greater risk for OSA. For many overweight individuals, their obesity is a combination of genetic and behavioral factors.
Medical attention is advisable if you suspect you or your partner may have OSA. While OSA may not be life-threatening, it is considered a precursor for much more serious conditions like heart disease and some types of cancer. In addition to snoring, many people with OSA display the following symptoms:
- Gasping, choking, or struggling to breathe during the night
- Feelings of excessive drowsiness or the inability to concentrate the next day
- Chronic headaches, particularly in the morning
- A sore throat after waking up
- High blood pressure
- Chest pains, particularly at night
Strategies to Reduce Snoring
While there is no cure for snoring, the following medical treatments may be helpful for excessively loud and/or frequent snorers.
- Oral appliance: These appliances are fitted dental mouthguards or mouthpieces that keep the jaw, tongue, and soft palate in place. Oral appliances can effectively reduce snoring but are associated with some unpleasant side effects, such as dry mouth and jaw/facial discomfort.
- Continuous positive air pressure (CPAP): CPAP therapy consists of an airflow generator (also known as a CPAP machine) that uses a motorized fan to draw in outside air, pressurizes and humidifies the air, and then delivers the air to a sleeper through a connective hose and nasal or full face breathing mask. CPAP therapy can be expensive and the machines have a high noise potential — but for many people with OSA, this form of therapy is the most effective method for decreased snoring.
- Surgery: Surgical procedures to help reduce snoring include uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), which helps remove extraneous tissue from the back of the throat; and maxillomandibular advancement (MMA), which permanently repositions the upper and lower jaw forward in order to advance the airway. These procedures are typically used as a last resort.
While medical treatments can he highly effective, they also represent a serious financial investment for most. The following lifestyle changes may also help decrease snoring frequency without the added expenses of surgery or medical equipment:
- Invest in nasal strips: Nasal strips expand the area of nasal breathing passages, which can increase airflow and help minimize snoring.
- Lose weight: Weight loss can significantly improve snoring symptoms, especially for those with OSA.
- Avoid alcohol and sedatives before bed: Alcohol and sedatives both relax the throat to a significant degree, and should not be taken before bed unless absolutely necessary.
- Quit smoking: People who stop smoking often experience a decline in their snoring symptoms.
- Sleep on the left side: Side sleeping is considered the best position for snorers, and sleeping on the left side causes less discomfort since sleeping on the right side can put excess strain on the stomach, lungs and kidneys.
- Get enough rest each night: Most adults need at least seven and a half hours of sleep every night, including on the weekends. Well-rested people are less likely to snore than sleep-deprived individuals.
- Update mattress and pillow selection: When shifting to side sleep, some bedding adjustments may be necessary. Mattresses with less firm surfaces that conform to the sleeper’s figure are considered more conducive to side sleeping, as they help align the spine and alleviate pressure points in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. Pillows with more loft (or thickness) may also help snoring, as thinner, low-loft pillows can cause the sleeper’s head to slide back too far.