November 23, 2016
We were sharing a hotel room, each in our own bed, but my friend snored so loudly I couldn’t get to sleep. I ended up spending three nights curled in a blanket on the floor of the bathroom, wearing ear plugs, with the door shut.
My friend was overweight, which can lead to snoring. He also had a chronically stuffed nose from allergies — which also aggravates snoring. He tried over-the-counter decongestants and a variety of products that mechanically open your nostrils, which include strips you place on the outside of your nose or tiny plastic cones or boomerang-shaped devices you insert inside the nostrils.
But he still snored like a fog horn with an occasional rattle. In fact, he once had the sensation of waking up because of a roaring noise, and realized the sound was his own snore.
If this story reminds you of your own bed partner, don’t endure sleepless nights. Couples fight more and are less able to solve problems when they’re sleep-deprived. In one study, 78 young adults in romantic relationships kept daily reports over two weeks about their sleep quality and relationship. “Even among relatively good sleepers, a poor night of sleep was associated with more conflict with their romantic partner the next day,” said University of California (at Berkeley) psychologist Serena Chen. In another study, 71 couples rated how they had slept the previous night and then, while being videotaped in a lab, discussed a relationship problem. Both the participants and observers thought the discussions went less well after either participant in a couple had endured a bad night’s sleep.
Sleeping separately can be the solution, says Wendy Troxel, a sleep specialist at the Rand Corporation think tank: “Couples who make conscious and collaborative decisions to sleep apart are perfectly capable of maintaining intimacy and highly satisfying relationships.”
Because both sleep apnea and insomnia increase with age, older couples tend to have more of a conflict, with louder snores on one side of the bed and a lighter sleeper on the other. Home builders designing new homes especially for senior couples have begun offering floor plans that include “snore rooms,” small sleeping alcoves separated by a door from the master bedroom, or a separate full-size bedroom that shares the master bathroom.
Snoring remains a health problem even if it doesn’t disturb a partner’s sleep. Some research links the vibrations in the neck from snoring to atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease. In one small study, 20 percent of the people who snored mildly, 32 percent of those who snored moderately, and 64 percent of heavy snorers also had carotid atherosclerosis, even if they didn’t have sleep apnea.
Some 13 percent of Americans may have undiagnosed sleep apnea, a disorder in which your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, pushing you out of deep sleep into the lighter kind. It may happen because the brain doesn’t send correct signals to the breathing muscles or, most often, the airway collapses or is blocked by fat. The most obvious sign is a loud snore.
Don’t ignore the issue: Sleep apnea increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, heart failure, and car accidents from sleepiness at the wheel.
But for older people, the most common cause of snoring is flabby throat muscles, which weaken as we age. You can strengthen them by blowing up balloons a few times a day, humming, or adopting a wind instrument like the kazoo.
That may sound like a lot of trouble, but it could be worth it to you to avoid sleeping with a C-PAP machine, a device prescribed for people with sleep apnea to keep your airway more open by blowing air into your throat. The Darth Vader-like machine isn’t sexy. That said, snoring isn’t endearing or sexy either. At least one study has concluded that a C-PAP improves the sex lives of people with sleep apnea.
How has snoring or other sleep issues affected your marriage? Write me with your questions about health and relationships at firstname.lastname@example.org.