Why do we snore (and how can we stop)?
Most of us only know we snore at night because a partner tells us the next morning. Some of us remain blissfully unaware that we’ve been snoring away for hours. But if you share your bed – or sometimes just your house – with other people, they’ll definitely tell you in no uncertain terms if you snore.
If you’re the partner of a snorer, chances are that you’ve wondered (while elbowing them in the ribs at 2am) how to make them stop. And ideally, you want the stop to be quick and permanent.
Let’s take a look at why we snore – including a reason you might not have heard of – and what you can do about it.
What causes snoring?
First, it helps to understand why snoring happens. “Think about your airway as a river (yes, really),” says sleep specialist Dr David Cunnington.
“If water flows down a wide river, the surface is nice and smooth. But if the river banks start to narrow, you get turbulence, choppy water and changes in the current.”
Dr David explains that it’s exactly the same with the airflow in the back of your nose and throat. Any time the airway partially narrows, you get turbulence, which sets off a vibration. And it’s the vibration you hear as a snore.
Why some people snore more than others
You’ve probably heard that being overweight makes you more likely to snore, which is true. What most people don’t know, however, is that certain face shapes also make you more prone to snoring.
In particular, having a triangular face that gets narrower from the nose down to the chin seems to increase our chances of snoring. Dr David explains that a smaller lower jaw creates less internal space for airflow. It also means your tongue takes up more space proportionally in your mouth, reducing airflow when the tongue relaxes during sleep.
Signs that you might have a triangular face shape include:
- having an overbite
- having had teeth removed when you were younger because of overcrowding
- having needed braces for an overbite or dental crowding
"Additionally, just like every other part of your body, the back of your airways gets saggier as you get older," Dr David adds. So if you snored occasionally when you were young, your snoring will probably get worse as you get older.
According to Dr David “someone with that triangular jaw might only snore with alcohol in their 20s, but start to snore more on their back in their 30s. Finally, in their 40s, they’ll probably start to snore more in all sleeping positions, before developing sleep apnoea in their 50s.”
Does it matter if children snore?
Children often snore if they have a cold. But if your child seems to snore even when they’re well, it’s probably worth getting a doctor to check them out. “Often, children who snore have a problem with their airway – perhaps enlarged adenoids or tonsils,” Dr David says.
However, be aware that kids generally won’t complain about feeling tired or losing sleep the way we adults might. That can make it hard to know if they’re snoring (especially if you’re a deep sleeper yourself).
But Dr David comments that the lack of quality sleep can show up as poor academic performance and behavioural problems.
“It’s important to see your GP, because data for primary-school-aged kids shows that habitual snorers may not perform as well academically as non-snorers,” he adds.
What to do if you live with a snorer
If you sleep next to – or even in the same house as – someone who snores, you probably think about snoring a lot. Not just when they wrench you awake again for the fifth time that night, but also when you get up feeling groggy the next morning.
And the more the snoring wakes you up, the worse it seems to get – and the more impossible it becomes to go back to sleep.
Dr David acknowledges that it’s very disruptive to sleep next to a snorer, but he also offers a different perspective.
“Did you know that in some cultures, snoring is a sign of a healthy household where everyone feels safe enough to sleep deeply?” he asks. This contrasts vividly with western cultures, where we often see snoring as something that we need to remove from the bedroom at all costs.
One way to manage a snoring partner is to recontextualise the situation. Is the snoring actually that bad? Does it necessarily affect your sleep? Does it need to be banished from the bedroom?
Sometimes, the answer is ‘yes’. If the snoring becomes a make-or-break issue in your household, try to get the snorer on the same page about the issue. You may also want to consider investing in high-decibel earplugs, or sleeping in separate bedrooms.
“Encouraging the snorer to learn how to reduce their snoring may be helpful,” Dr David says. But he warns that you may need to be patient and persistent with that encouragement.
“Sometimes ‘good’ sleepers can’t see it from the disturbed sleeper’s viewpoint. They just drop off easily, so they can’t see why it’s such a big deal for their partner.”
Consider seeing a doctor if you suspect sleep apnoea
If someone’s snoring gets to the point that they suddenly stop breathing, gasp for breath or choke, that could be a sign of sleep apnoea. This happens when more significant airway narrowing lowers blood oxygen, which triggers the brain to try fixing the problem by taking bigger breaths.
"In women, sleep apnoea can show as either snoring, or simply as tiredness in the morning," Dr David says. So if you or a snorer you know have these symptoms, it’s worth considering asking a doctor to check you out.
How to reduce snoring
We’d all love to know how to stop someone snoring – ideally, immediately, naturally and permanently.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to prevent snoring – after all, it’s a function of our airways and influenced by the shape of our skulls. “It’s part of the human condition, and the cost of speech,” Dr David says.
But even if you can’t stop snoring completely, there may be some things you can do to reduce it.
- Look after your health: maintaining a healthy weight may reduce your snoring at night.
- Sleep on your side: snoring may get worse when you sleep on your back, thanks to gravity’s effects on your airway.
- Try upper airway exercises: Dr David warns that research into the exercises people use to stop snoring has shown only modest benefits.
Consider seeking help if snoring is a problem
If the suggestions above don't seem to help, rest assured that there are some effective treatments available.
Getting enough quality sleep is essential, so if snoring is a persistent problem, you should consider seeing your GP. They can refer you to a sleep specialist to find out whether there’s an underlying issue, and help you to manage it if so.
However, snoring isn’t the only factor that can interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. Hormone imbalances and the blue light from your mobile phone screen can also play havoc with your sleep cycle.
Meanwhile, following Dr David’s recommendations above should help to improve your sleep. And you might also find useful tips in our article on getting better sleep when you have kids.
- Do hormones affect my sleep?
- How the blue light from your mobile phone affects your sleep
- Why do I always feel so tired and what do I do about it?
- Sleep for women: how to get better rest and improve your health
- Why is sleep important and what are the benefits?
Dr David Cunnington is a specialist sleep physician who helps his clients to treat their complex sleep problems while also promoting sleep health through education, research and advocacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021