Why do humans snore?
One creative theory suggests that snoring evolved as a natural defense mechanism to ward off predators. The idea is that since snoring is a loud, vaguely threatening sound not unlike a growl, wild animals or hostile Neanderthals would keep their distance, believing you to be awake, on guard and ready to protect yourself.
Today, most of us sleep in locked homes so bears, mountain lions and saber-toothed tigers are not a threat. Our snores may irritate and even scare our family and neighbors, but that’s about it.
Or is it?
Research suggests that snores may be the equivalent of a life-saving alarm after all. Snoring is one of the cardinal symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that drastically increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, atrial fibrillation, congestive heart failure and diabetes – potentially fatal diseases that can shorten your life as surely as any physical predator.
What is sleep apnea?
A pause in breathing while sleeping is called an apnea episode. The word apnea literally means “without breath.” Individuals with sleep apnea actually stop breathing for short periods of time. These pauses, though brief, interfere with the delivery of oxygen to the heart and brain, which can wreak havoc on your body.
Most cases of sleep apnea are classified as obstructive sleep apnea, which means that the pauses in breath are caused by an obstruction of the airway. When you’re awake, your posture and muscles hold your airway open. When you lie down at night and sleep, your muscles relax; the combination of a prone posture and muscle relaxation can cause your airway to temporarily collapse, restricting the flow of oxygen to the body. In some people, swollen tonsils or an over-sized uvula (that floppy thing at the back of the throat) can contribute to obstructive sleep apnea.
Almost everyone with obstructive sleep apnea snores (usually, loudly!). That’s because snoring is essentially the sound created as you struggle to suck air past the collapsed structures of the airway. The muscles and tissues vibrate as air squeezes past; the sound that results is a snore.