Sometimes I snore like a steam shovel, other times more like a teakettle.
This "gentle, unromantic music of the nose," as William Makepeace Thackeray
called it, is the nighttime soundtrack in many homes. For most of us, snoring
is no more than an irritant to those trying to sleep within range. But for 12
million American men, the cause of snoring is an invisible, though
not-so-silent, epidemic -- obstructive sleep apnea, a cessation of breathing
We snore -- about half of adult men snore, according to studies -- for one
of two reasons. Mostly we snore because our airways narrow in sleep, creating
resistance in the passageways that connect our nose and mouth to the lungs. The
narrower the tube, the greater amount of pressure needed to establish enough
flow. The fatter we are -- and in particular, the thicker our necks -- the more
pressure there is on the airways, and the more they tend to collapse as we
You walk into Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up a lightbulb. Instead, you
leave with some new flooring, a circular saw, a framing square, and big ideas
about re-tiling your kitchen.
The problem? You've never done anything more than change a lightbulb by
Growing numbers of Americans are tackling do-it-yourself home improvement
projects that once might have been left to professionals. One reason for the
shift: Stores like Home Depot, along with TV shows on networks like HGTV or the
A small percentage of men have a structural problem, a small jaw or a
"shallow midface" -- the area between your nostrils and the back of your head
-- which can cause snoring even in thin men. In either case, the more suction
pressure on the soft tissues of the mouth, the more vibration and the more
"If there's enough pressure, you collapse the airway and obstruct it,"
explains Patrick Strollo, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University
of Pittsburgh. An obstructed airway means your lungs aren't getting enough
oxygen. If your blood oxygen level plummets when your airway is blocked, a
message is sent to your brain to wake you up so you can breath again.
Sleep is a foreign country to the sleeper. You can't see yourself sleep, or
hear yourself snore. The typical apneic -- a person with apnea -- will wake up
dozens or even hundreds of times each night without knowing it.
"Usually it's the wife or girlfriend who brings them in, horrified by what
they see when these men are asleep," says Nancy Collop, MD, a pulmonologist and
director of the sleep clinic at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
"The patients themselves are often unaware of sleep apnea -- it's pretty
unusual for a patient to wake up complaining of not breathing. All they realize
is that no matter how much they sleep, they can't get good sleep."
But just because it's not noticed doesn't mean apnea isn't a problem.
Hypertension and diabetes have been linked to sleep apnea. Apnea symptoms can
include headaches and sleepiness throughout the day, and diminished alertness
on the job. The Institute of Medicine estimated last year that undiagnosed
sleep disorders cause 100,000 traffic accidents each year.
Equally serious is the damage that sleep apnea does to your heart, arteries
and metabolism. Strictly speaking, it isn't the oxygen depletion that does the
most damage. When the snorer briefly awakens and breaths, oxygen-depleted
tissues fill with oxygen. The pattern of depletion and re-oxygenation
stimulates the nervous system and releases chemicals that can damage tissue and
leave plaques in the blood vessels.