The old adage (and constant meme) is of the snoring husband and plagued wife. Generally, the image is of the man with his mouth wide open and eyes blissfully shut; the woman is sitting up in bed jamming something (her hands, a pillow, anything) over her ears.
But is this always accurate?
Actually, a surprising number of women snore – up to 40 million in the U.S., according to the National Sleep Foundation. And while that’s just half of men’s number, it’s significant…and it warrants investigating further if women wish to be healthy.
Why is it Such a Big Secret?
Strangely enough, it seems women are expected not to snore…which means their snoring may be made light of or even overlooked by a very heavy-sleeping partner who is not easily wakened.
However, human bodies are remarkably similar, and men and women have the same mouth/throat physiology and the same changes to muscle relaxation and oxygen intake at night (with men taking in somewhat more, just as they do during the day).
It seems it’s offensive to admit a woman snores. But this attitude could be doing more harm than good when you take the dangers of snoring into consideration.
The Health Risks
Even if a woman’s snoring seems lighter than her partner’s, or is less loud, the health risks remain.
These may include:
- too little oxygen overall due to interrupted breathing
- frequent night waking, resulting in sleep deprivation over time
- an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke
- chronic headaches
- chronic fatigue
Why Do Women Snore?
While there are marked similarities, there are also some differences between what causes snoring in women and men. Let’s look at each.
For one thing, hormone changes have been implicated in snoring, particularly the ones involved during menopause. While “female” hormones are believed to have a protective effect on the upper airway, once these reduce or become erratic in the years leading up to menopause (and then plunge once menopause is reached), a change takes place, and women become much more at risk for snoring-related disease and for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
For another, women are affected by obesity in large numbers (just as with the general population). Obesity has been implicated in OSA risk factors and there may be a symbiotic effect (the obesity makes the snoring worse, the snoring increases the risk for ongoing obesity, and so it continues).
Finally, external influences assaulting the body, such as allergies or cigarette smoking, can make snoring worse in women just as they can in men.
What to Do
- First of all, don’t assume you don’t snore because your partner hasn’t said anything. Assess how you feel each morning. Are you energetic or do you feel sluggish, tired and headache-y? Ask your partner to let you know if he hears you snoring in the night, or set up a camera to uncover the truth.
- Reduce risk factors for snoring where possible. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink alcohol late at night. If you are overweight and/or out of shape, work to fix these issues.
- Watch out for sleep changes in the years leading up to and immediately following menopause.
- If you suspect that you snore, ask your doctor if she is willing to order a sleep study so you can find out whether you snore, how much you snore, and how snoring is impacting you (including oxygen levels in the blood, your blood pressure, and whether or not your cycle of REM sleep is normal).
Don’t assume you don’t snore simply because nobody has ever elbowed you in the night in irritation. If you suspect snoring, uncover the truth and get the help you need, so you can get and stay healthy.