Snoring is such a problem for me that I recently decided to get in touch with Gary Zammit, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Institute at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, who offered me an exam. Frankly, I wanted to know how to stop snoring.
Zammit examined my throat, took a medical history and asked me a long list of questions about both my snoring pattern and sleep habits. The questions were wide-ranging - from how much coffee I drank to whether I ever saw or heard things that weren't there as I was falling asleep or waking up (hypnagogic hallucinations). He was looking for two things: clues as to why I snored and warning signs that might indicate a condition called sleep apnea, a serious medical problem of which snoring is only a symptom. There are some interesting anti-snoring devices out there, though.
According to Zammit, my snoring-onset scenario is not unusual. For men, the age-related snoring stats read like this: An estimated 5 to 7 percent of boys snore. By our early 30s, the number doubles. The biggest snoring spike starts as we approach our 50s and moves upward until, by our early 60s, as many as half of us make some obnoxious noises in the night.
* Extra pounds. From the time we're teenagers, we tend to slowly put on weight. Fat cells in the mouth and neck then narrow our airways, and the narrower the passage, the more turbulence is created - as whitewater rafters know.
* Girlie-man muscles. Aging, and the concurrent loss of muscle tone, may start us sliding toward snoring, says Neil B. Kavey, M.D., the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. Past the age of 35," he says, the muscles that line the airways are not quite as good as they once were at holding the airway open." Again, the more narrow the airway, way, the more turbulent the influx of air.
* Bad vibrations. Not only do aging muscles hold the airway open less efficiently, but they also start vibrating, waking up the good woman who was kind enough to cuddle with you.
Beyond these three major factors, there are several other potential causes of nighttime noisiness, such as:
* A packed proboscis. If your nose is stuffed up - by either a cold or allergies - you may gulp air through your mouth, which speeds up airflow. Try elevating the head of your bed for a better breathing position.
* Tonsils or tumors. Yes, grown-ups can get tonsillitis, too. Sometimes that's enough to precipitate snoring. The same is true of swollen adenoidal tissue. Any kind of asymptomatic growth - from a perfectly benign lesion to a potentially serious tumor - can be the source of snoring.
* Anatomical abnormalities. A deviated septum, in combination with the ravages of age, may set you snoring. "Sometimes people with short necks are prone to snoring," says Dr. Kavey, "as are people with overbites and small jaws."
* latrogenic interference. Cool word, huh? Pronounced eye-a-tro-GEN-ic, it means caused by a medical treatment, and is often used in malpractice suits. Some drugs, such as sedatives and certain antihistamines, can cause swelling of the membranes that line the throat. Ask your doctor if a medication could be the cause of your annoying nocturne.
* Cigarettes. If increased risk of heart attack, lung cancer, stroke and emphysema haven't done the motivational trick for you when it comes to quitting, you probably won't care, but how's this? Caution: The surgeon general also thinks smoking can cause snoring. It irritates and narrows the throat lining and increases mucus buildup.
* A belt before bed. Alcohol's a muscle relaxant, and those relaxed muscles may tremble in the turbulence.
* A bone-dry bedroom. If your bedroom is very dry, throat tissues can swell. In some cases, a humidifier may help.
Finding no obvious cause for my snoring, Zammit suggested I spend a night at his snoratorium to undergo polysomnography - a sleep study that would monitor pretty much everything my body did while I was unconscious.
A week later I checked in with Rena and Flex, the sleep technicians, who showed me to my room. The accommodations were surprisingly comfortable. This was no cold, clinical laboratory, but a carpeted, air-conditioned room, complete with a queen-size bed and even that rarest of commodities in medical facilities, up-to-date magazines.
Once I was in my sleepwear, Rena and Flex began peppering my body with sensors. Within 15 minutes, I had 17 different sensors attached from head to calf. There were several electrodes on my skull to measure brain activity. There were also sensors to measure eye movement, chest and stomach movement, leg movement and heart rate. There was a microphone to record snoring sounds, a device attached under my nose to measure airflow in and out, and another placed on my fingertip to take my pulse and record the level of oxygen in my blood. A sensor attached to my chin would detail chin movement and the level of muscle relaxation.
I wondered how I would be able to sleep at all with all this equipment attached to me. But once the technicians gathered all the wires behind my head in a sort of polysomnographic ponytail, it was surprisingly comfortable. I could move easily about the room.
When I felt ready to go to sleep, Flex plugged all the wires from the sensors into a central control panel, disappeared into the next room and then, through an intercom, asked me to do a few things that would establish baseline readings. She came back in and warned me that if some of the sensors came off in the middle of the night, someone might have to come in to reattach them. Then she wished me a sweet good night and returned to her post, from which she would monitor the equipment overnight as it spewed forth data about my every breath and brain wave.
The next morning, Flex's lilting Caribbean voice gave me a wake-up call through the speaker over the bed. She came in, removed the wires and asked me a few follow-up questions. Then I shampooed the electrode paste out of my hair, got dressed and was on my way.
A few days later, Zammit told me that although I had had one apnea (shutting down of my airway) during the night and 75 hypopneas (partial closures), they didn't compromise the amount of oxygen in my blood or the function of my heart.
As to my snoring, he suggested that I try to lose some weight (at 5 feet 11 inches tall, I should be 15 pounds lighter, with an ideal of about 175 pounds), and that I try some "positional treatments," tricks that help you sleep on your stomach, where you're less likely to snore. If those didn't work, he recommended a dental appliance - either a tongue-retaining device like this one or a jaw repositioner - as the next-best bet. He also suggested that I have another overnight sleep study in a year or two, to be sure that serious sleep apnea had not developed.
I'm happy to report that I've lost half the weight already. I have also sewn a golf-ball pouch into the back of a few of my T-shirts. The Titleist technique is no fun, but it's amazing how quickly it makes you stop rolling over. According to Jody, my snoring is both a little less frequent and less loud.
In fact, she recently woke me up at dawn - this time, however, not with a cranky kick but with a needy caress. She had slept right through the night and apparently had energy to burn.
After our tender tango, my girl got up and about the business of the day. I, in the time-honored male tradition of afterglow, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Another Idea: The Snoring Pillow
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