Causes Of Snoring
Snoring is extremely common with around 40% of women and more than 50% of men1 claiming to snore regularly. In fact, most people will experience snoring at some point in their lives2. In most cases, there isn’t a serious underlying condition and won’t require any investigation, but that doesn’t mean it is not troublesome.
Snoring can cause significant sleep disruption to the sufferer, their sleeping partner and even the rest of the household. So, it’s no surprise that we ask the question: what are the causes of snoring?
Why Do We Snore?
There are two ways of answering the question “what causes snoring?”. The first is to look at the mechanism of snoring in the body to understand exactly how it happens. The second is to look at the risk factors that raise the chances of that happening in someone and seeing if those can be changed. In this article – we’ll do both.
Mechanism Of Snoring
Put simply – snoring is a description of noisy breathing when you are asleep. This noise can be generated at a number of anatomical levels:
- Mouth based
- Throat based
- Base of tongue
In truth, there is a lack of clear and consistent definitions around snoring and that isn’t helpful when you are looking for a solution to a particular individual’s problem. Of course, this problem may be caused by more than one area as the risk factors are often similar.
It’s also incredibly difficult to know which one is the major issue – snoring is so common, that you may presume your old broken nose is the problem, but how do you know you wouldn’t be snoring anyway?
The most important thing is to keep an open mind and perhaps consider a few options to address a particular issue. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of snoring.
1. Nose Or Nasal Snoring
This is sometimes referred to as ‘real nose’ snoring, as we naturally should breathe primarily through our nose at night. Nasal snoring can be broken down into two different areas:
- Anatomical collapsing nostrils: having small nostrils, a deviated septum or a previously broken nose can all be risk factors.
- A blocked nose: perhaps caused by catarrhal congestion, colds or allergy.
Anatomical Collapsing Nostrils:
It stands to reason that trying to open the nostrils here and seeing if this improves the situation is helpful. Nasal dilators and strips can support this type of approach and are readily available.
A Blocked Nose:
Looking further into the cause and perhaps getting some health professional advice here may be of some support. If you are aware you have an allergy – allergen (the thing you are allergic to) avoidance is often the first step. Antihistamines and nasal sprays may be further options.
2. Soft Palate And Uvula, “Mouth based” Snoring
Whilst it has been called “mouth based” here and elsewhere, it often also strictly refers to an area where the oral cavity moves to the pharynx. Long uvulas (the dangly bit at the back of your throat) and enlarged tonsils can all be included here in potential obstructions that might increase your risk of snoring.
This area is also considered to be one of the causes in snoring who aren’t significantly overweight (as well as those who are) and is sometimes referred to as palatal flutter, where your soft plate is vibrating at night as air pushes over it.
Mouth and throat exercises (Myofunctional therapy or Oropharyngeal exercises) may be of support here to try and strengthen the muscles in the area of the palatal arch. Speech therapists have supported these and trials have shown benefits3.
Snorgo is a really useful tool for strengthening these muscles – it can be considered to be like a ‘dumbbell for the pharynx’. We could all probably build bigger arm muscles by pushing against our other arm, but simple gym equipment makes it easier.
3. Pharyngeal-Wall Or Throat Based Snoring
Throat based snoring is caused by lack of tone of the sides of the pharyngeal wall, so the area is effectively weak. As a result, the tissue becomes floppy and vibrates at night. This is more likely to promote Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), which requires medical advice and potential intervention.
The first step here is to ensure that the nasal passages are clear. This is helpful to know for all types of snoring as it otherwise means you are more likely to be forcing air through the mouth at night, rather than the nose. You can check this by standing in front of a mirror, closing one nostril gently and then trying to breathe in through the other. It should be clear and easy and the patent nostril should not collapse.
Snorgo, whilst not a treatment for OSA, can be used in throat based snoring cases. It may be that treatment efforts and length may need to be increased slightly if tissue is significantly floppy.
4. Tongue Based Snoring
In tongue based snoring, the tongue may partially block the airway as you try to breathe at night. This is often the case when you snore whilst sleeping on your back at night (but don’t forget this can come into combination with soft palate snoring).
Strangely and frustratingly, prolonged and heavy snoring itself can also be a cause of this problem, by damaging the nerves supporting muscles of the pharynx, larynx, tongue and soft palate. This then stops these muscles doing their job of keeping the airway as patent.
For immediate support with this – Mandibular Advancement Devices (MADs) may be of help. MADs probably form the majority of over-the-counter mouth-based snoring solutions on the market and all aim to try and bring your lower jaw forward and keep your tongue away from the back of your throat. These are therefore worn when you are asleep at night.
Positional snoring products may also be of help here, which encourage you to not sleep on your back.
An alternative consideration is again Snorgo, which aims to retrain the muscles into undertaking their support role. Snorgo is a training device which you use for a few minutes each day for about 6-8 weeks, strengthening your muscles to reduce your snoring.
Summary Of Mechanisms
As discussed, there are a few different ways in which people try to categorise snoring. Arguably the most common is to divide these into anatomical areas.
The reality is that there may well often be overlap and a bit of a ‘mixed bag’. However, it is helpful to explore and try to have an understanding of those most relevant to yourself, as this can help you to focus treatments, understand what to do next if those don’t work or even when to seek medical support for other factors.
You can particularly see the overlap in ‘floppy tissue’ and how aids are increasingly focussing on trying to either make these areas more open/patent or to ideally strengthen the surrounding areas so they are potentially able to do that unaided. Sometimes a combination of those approaches is required to achieve the desired results.
Snoring Risk Factors
In looking at the causes of snoring, it is also important to consider the risk factors for snoring. In many of our posts, we remind readers that other factors are crucial in considering if trying to stop snoring. (eg What Can I Do To Stop Snoring? Or How to Stop Snoring DIY?).
We have listed a few of those considerations here but feel free to check out other posts.
1. Reduce Alcohol
Alcohol is a known muscle relaxant and, now you have read the above mechanism of snoring, you will understand why this plays such an important role.
2. Stop Smoking
We have all been made aware just how many toxins there are in cigarettes. Unfortunately, some of these also target our soft tissues and also make them floppier.
3. Lose Weight
Weight increases the risk of having more fatty tissue in the mouth and pharynx area and by the mechanisms above increase the risk of snoring.
4. Increase Your Exercise
Strangely, this is an independent risk factor for snoring and doesn’t just help by losing weight. No one is 100% sure quite why this happens. It should be mentioned that vigorous exercise isn’t recommended just before bed, which is sometimes tempting if trying to take this approach for snoring. Always exercise safely and consider your health and suitability.
5. Avoid Large Meals Before Bed
Eating close to bedtime seems to relax the tongue and pharynx, increasing the chances of snoring occurring.
Hopefully, you now have a greater understanding of the types of causes of snoring and can get yourself, or your partner, on the right track for you to start improving the problem.
Remember that although many different solutions can be found, these will usually work best when combined with addressing the other risk factors listed above.
- Schwab, R. J. (2020, June). Merck Manual Professional Version: Snoring. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/sleep-and-wakefulness-disorders/snoring
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2014). The International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Third Edition (ICSD-3). Darien, IL. https://aasm.org/
- Guimaraes KC, et al. Effects of Oropharyngeal Exercises on Patients with Moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine2009; 179(10): 962-966.https://doi.org/10.1164/rccm.200806-981OC
Dr Pete Naylor is the inventor of Snorgo, a patented snoring cure made in the UK recommended by medical doctors.
Wirral CCG Chair 2014 – 2016
General Practitioner (GP) 2000-2017
National Institute for health and Care Excellence National GP representative (Diagnostics) 2012 – 2018
Associate Medical Director ICE Creates 2018 – 2020
Senate Council Member Merseyside 2014 – 2017
Forensic Medical Examiner Merseyside/Wirral 2005 – 2008
Youth Justice Management Board Wirral 2015 – 2017
NHS Doctor 1996 – 2017
GMC registered Doctor 1996 to present
Master of Science in Medical Leadership Birkbeck University and Royal College of Physicians. (Awarded Merit) 2013
OPP Myers Briggs Trainer, 2010. Subsequently also completed Step 2 to further support training
Diploma in Occupational Health, 2006
Diploma in Child Health, 2000
Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery, Sheffield University, 1996
Bachelor of Science, Psychiatric Neurobiology, Sheffield, 1995. Work produced papers on mRNA and Brain Plasticity.
Outstanding Innovative and Inspirational Leader 2013 Northwest Leadership Academy (Given for commissioning work with Wirral Health Commissioning Consortium.)
Vision Award 2012 (National award): Best Long Term Condition Initiative for WHCC
North West Respiratory Best Practice Award 2012: Self Care Award for WHCC
Diploma in Occupational Health – annual award