Half of adults occasionally snore and it turns out, fit and healthy folks are not immune. A quick physiology primer: When you fall asleep, the muscles in your neck and throat relax and tissue falls back, closing down on your airway. For some people, the passageway gets too narrow and whistle-like snoring sounds are created when air passes through and the tissue vibrates.
The snoring athlete
You may have your parents to thank: “From the shape of your nose to size of your tongue, these are all factors that contribute to snoring,” says David Vernick, MD, ENT, of Boston-based practice Vernick & Gopal. There are a number of other reasons high-performers might snore, including having a cold or seasonal allergies (which make it harder to breathe) or certain sleeping positions (back sleepers are more prone since gravity pulls the tongue back, blocking the airway). Even being fatigued (after a hard workout, for example,) will play a role: "If you are especially tired, your muscles might relax more, causing the tongue to fall back and act like a vibrator, resulting in snoring,” explains Vernick.
When to worry
Snoring in and of itself is not a problem. “Unless you’re waking up multiple times in the middle of the night or finding that you’re tired every morning despite regularly getting enough sleep, it’s okay to snore," says Vernick. If your snoring is keeping you awake or disrupting your sleep, though, head to your MD. It could be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is irregular due to constricted airways. While it's true that overweight people are more likely to have it (because they have larger fat deposits in the neck area, which make the airways smaller), healthy people can have it as well. "The thinking used to be that this wasn't the case until we developed sleep studies to check for it," Vernick says. While you can snore and not have sleep apnea, you can never have sleep apnea without snoring, adds Vernick, who notes that diagnosing the condition is simpler today thanks to advances in technology. “We’ve made a big step forward with home sleep study screenings. Now you can take a kit home to monitor your sleep rather than going into a lab.”
How to prevent it
If you’re sleep apnea-free and your snoring is just a nuisance (maybe you're getting complaints from your partner), there are a few simple fixes to try at home. Vernick suggests sleeping on your side instead of on your back. Alternatively, sleeping propped up with a pillow can also alleviate the likelihood of an obstructed airway. If that doesn’t work, there are non-invasive strips (such as Breathe Right) which open up the nasal passage as well as mouthpieces that can maintain the shape of the palette.