Q: I’m a 55-year-old woman with a snoring problem that started around the time of menopause. It’s troublesome enough that it keeps my husband awake at night. Could it be related to menopause? Or maybe some other medical problem?
A: When you sleep, the muscles that support your pharynx (the back of your throat) relax. This allows tissue to flop into the airway, essentially narrowing the opening. When the airway narrows too much, it disrupts the airflow, making it turbulent. This causes the surrounding tissue to vibrate, producing the noise we know as snoring.
Women are more likely to snore more after menopause. But there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation with lower female hormone levels. With aging, most of us tend to gain weight and lose muscle tone. Decreased muscle tone in and around the throat and weight gain contribute to snoring.
If you have excessive daytime sleepiness along with loud snoring, your snoring may be more than a nuisance. The problem may be sleep apnea, or some other type of sleep-disordered breathing.
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In sleep apnea, the airway becomes blocked or breathing muscles stop moving. Breathing temporarily stops or becomes shallower hundreds of times each night.
People with untreated sleep apnea can have difficulty concentrating and are more likely to develop high blood pressure. If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea, talk with your doctor. The usual test to confirm the diagnosis is a sleep study, which often can be performed in your own home.
Lifestyle changes, a machine that helps keep the airway open (called CPAP), and, for some people, surgery can help improve sleep apnea.
There are other reasons for snoring that can definitely affect your bed partner’s sleep but don’t have the health consequences of sleep apnea. A narrow nasal passage from allergies, nasal polyps or a deviated septum might be causing your snoring. Less commonly, snoring can be due to a very large uvula (the cone-shaped tissue that hangs down the back of your throat); enlarged tonsils, adenoids or tongue; an unusual shape to the roof or your mouth; or a very small jaw.
Meanwhile, there are some simple things you can try to dial down the decibels.
- If you sleep on your back, switch to your side. You might try sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pajamas to keep you from rolling onto your back.
- Limit alcohol use. Alcohol is a muscle relaxant, including the muscles around your throat. Sleeping pills sometimes have the same effect.
- If you are overweight, shedding a few pounds can help.
- Consider asking your dentist about a mouth guard that repositions the jaw and the tongue.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)