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Many people do: some very loudly, others more quietly. It often sounds like rattling, snorting or grumbling. And it's not only men but also women who make noises in their sleep. But why do people snore in the first place? Find out the answer to that in this article.

Many people snore, but why?

Around 50% of the population snore at some point in their lives. So snoring is not an exception, but a very common annoying sound. For most people, snoring is nothing to worry about from a health perspective. But in some cases, snoring can be an indication of a more serious health problem. The proportion of these cases is however relatively small. For those who share a bed, snoring can also disturb their partner's healthy sleep, as frequent awakening interrupts their natural sleep rhythm.

Relaxed muscles and constricted airways cause snoring

The nocturnal noise due to snoring is often annoying for everyone involved. But why do we snore? The answer is simple. When we sleep, almost all our muscles relax – including those in the mouth and throat. The muscles relax so much that our upper airways narrow. As a result, the flow rate of inhaled and exhaled air increases, while the air pressure decreases. Because of the simultaneous muscle relaxation, parts of the soft palate and palatal seal, sometimes even the base of the tongue, tonsils and walls of the pharynx, flutter when you inhale. The result is more or less loud snoring.

Causes of common snoring

Upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, swollen nasal mucosa, acute inflammation of the sinuses, but also allergic reactions such as hay fever are often the triggers. Sleeping on your back also promotes snoring: this is because the lower jaw is tilted down. As a result, the tongue slides back into the throat and narrows the airway.

Health-related causes

In principle, anything that causes the airways to narrow during sleep can cause snoring, including for example

  • Nasal mucous membranes that are swollen by a cold
  • Nasal polyps
  • Chronic inflammation of the sinuses
  • Allergy to dust mites
  • Increased, overly elastic fatty tissue in the neck due to obesity
  • Narrowed airways due to fat in the neck area
  • Excessive alcohol consumption in the evening
  • Smoking
  • Sleeping pills

Anatomical causes

But there are also anatomical causes of loud snoring sounds at night, such as:

  • A lower jaw that is too small
  • An enlarged pharyngeal tonsil
  • A deformed nasal septum
  • An elongated, soft palate with an enlarged uvula.
  • Age-related deterioration of muscle and tissue

Not all snoring is the same

There is primary snoring, obstructive snoring and snoring due to sleep apnoea. All variants have different effects on your sleep and health.

Primary snoring

The most common form, primary or simple snoring, is often only annoying and poses no health risks.

Obstructive snoring

In obstructive snoring, there is a repeated partial closure (obstruction) of the upper airway during sleep, which negatively affects the sleep cycle (sleep architecture) and recovery rate. 

Obstructive sleep apnoea

This is the most severe form of snoring. In obstructive sleep apnoea, complete blockages of the upper airways occur repeatedly during sleep. These pauses in breathing can last for minutes – several hundred times a night. This leads to a decrease in the concentration of oxygen in the blood and a reduced supply of oxygen to the organs. The brain is affected first and triggers an alarm through recurrent awakening reactions.

As a result, the sleep rhythm is disrupted, the heart starts beating faster, blood pressure rises and neither restful deep sleep nor dream sleep can take place. Fortunately, only about 5% of the population suffers from sleep apnoea, mainly overweight men between the ages of 40 and 65.

Snoring is not a purely gender-specific problem

Both men and women snore. The causes are also largely the same: muscle relaxation during sleep, age, alcohol and nicotine consumption, and obesity. How loudly someone snores depends mainly on weight, neck and abdominal circumference.

Women tend to keep quiet about their snoring

In a study published in 2019, Israeli sleep doctors at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva proved that women tend to hide their snoring from doctors and misjudge it themselves ¬– even in terms of volume. Men, on the other hand, are more open about their snoring.

Why do young men snore less than young women?

A study by the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ears Hospital in the UK found that young women snore slightly more than young men. In the 25-34 age group, 31 per cent of men snore heavily three times a week. Among young women, it was 34 per cent. Obesity, which has increased since 1990, is thought to be a possible cause.

Older men snore more than older women

With increasing age, snoring shifts to the disadvantage of men. In the 55-64 age group, 45 per cent of men and only 35 per cent of women snore. From the age of 75, snoring decreases noticeably for both genders.

Comparative causes of snoring in women and men

Dr med. Holger Hein from the sleep laboratory at the Johanniter Hospital Geesthacht explains that men have a slightly narrower neck than women. In addition, they have softer muscles. Men also tend to drink more alcohol and be more overweight than women. As a result, men are generally more likely to snore.

The female hormone oestrogen tightens tissue. However, oestrogen production decreases in women during the menopause and the accompanying development of fat deposits then has a negative effect, just as it does in men. This is why women snore almost as often as men.

In addition, the tissues become softer due to hormonal changes during pregnancy. However, towards the end of the pregnancy the snoring usually stops as well.

What can you do about snoring?

  • Refrain from taking sleeping pills and tranquillisers
  • Do not drink alcohol before going to bed
  • Stop smoking
  • Stick to a regular sleep pattern
  • Sleep on your side and avoid lying on your back
  • Clear your nose, mouth and throat before sleep to relieve congestion
  • If you are overweight, losing weight can help

Snoring is almost normal and usually not dangerous to your health

Anything that constricts the airways can make you snore in your sleep – this applies to both men and women. People whose tonsils or tongue are enlarged or who have too much fatty tissue in their throat are more likely to snore. The shape of the nose or a too small lower jaw can also contribute to snoring. Obesity in particular, but also lifestyle factors such as alcohol and nicotine consumption and sleeping on your back are contributing factors to loud snoring.

In most cases, snoring is annoying and disruptive, but harmless. It becomes a health risk when repeated, sudden awakenings occur during sleep due to lack of oxygen. Among other things, sleep apnoea increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and should therefore be treated medically. Normal snoring, on the other hand, can often be eliminated with measures such as losing weight or sleeping on your back.

Why not try it yourself? Your body and your partner will certainly thank you for calm nights and more relaxation.

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