Why Do Men Snore More Than Women?

Kelly asks: Is it true that men snore more than women? If it is true, why and if not where did this stereotype come from? Thanks!

snoringWhen humans sleep, the muscles around our throats relax and cause the airways to narrow. Snoring occurs when certain soft tissues—such as the soft palate (or roof of the mouth), the uvula (the dangling piece of tissue at the top of the throat), elements in the nasal passages, or the base of the tongue—relax too much and partially block a person’s airway. As the body tries to breathe normally, the increased pressure in a person’s throat causes the soft tissues near the airway to vibrate. The amount of the airway that is blocked can determine the severity of the snoring, so the smaller the airway, generally the louder the snoring.

Certain factors can increase the likelihood that a person, man or woman, might snore. For instance, snoring can worsen with age due to the loss of muscle tone. Similarly, being overweight causes excess fatty tissue on the neck to put pressure on the airway. Colds, nasal congestion, smoking, and alcohol also can result in a restricted airway and increase the likelihood of snoring, as does sleep position, such as the head tilted down. On the other hand, sleeping on your back with your head tilted back can cause the tongue to fall back and obstruct the airway.

(But note, while it is possible for the tongue to block the airway, contrary to popular belief, it is impossible to swallow your tongue such that it gets stuck. Even with people having severe tonic-clonic seizures, all that needs done to clear the potential tongue obstruction is to roll them onto their side and let gravity do the rest. While we’re on the subject of myths related to seizures, you should never try to put your hands or some sort of “bite block” in the mouth of someone having a seizure. They will not thank you for it later and in some cases may well choke on the thing you try to put in their mouth to stop them from supposedly “swallowing their tongue.”)

So back to the topic at hand: do men really snore more than women and why? While the exact numbers vary from study to study, it is generally thought that this is the case, with approximately a third of men chronically snoring while only a fifth of women can say the same. Besides potential differences concerning men and women with things like the frequency of smoking or drinking alcohol, as well as fat tissue concentration, there are also biological factors at play, with a variety of theories as to what exactly is going on.

For starters, a theory you might often read is that men’s voice boxes typically reside lower in their throat creating a larger space. So the theory goes that if a man’s tongue falls back into that space while he’s sleeping, it is likely it will only block part of the airway and so create the vibration of snoring. The smaller oropharynx in women means that, with this potential cause of snoring, when their tongue falls back into the airway, it would be more likely to completely block the opening and cause them to wake up, rather than snore. Or, at least, so the theory goes.

However, men are much more prone to sleep apnea and hypopnea than women, approximately 84% of the cases of which are a result of obstruction of the airway. Thus, another, much more compelling, theory deals with causes of snoring beyond the tongue and has to do with pharyngeal mechanics.  Specifically, while men have decidedly larger pharynges than women, men also have much more significant changes in airway sizes when lying down vs. standing up. Further, while both men and women see their upper airway size decrease as they age, men ultimately have much greater upper airway collapsibility than women as they get older.  In addition to that, men see a far greater change in pharyngeal size than women based on lung volume at a given moment. This difference is large enough that it’s speculated that it would more than offset the extra room in the airway that men have on average. These are likely large factors in why men are so much more prone to things like sleep apnea, and also just as likely significantly contribute to men snoring more than women, especially as they get older.

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Bonus Facts

  • Snoring can also be a symptom of the aforementioned very serious medical condition known as sleep apnea. An estimated 18 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. Essentially, this is when a person stops breathing for at least ten seconds (and sometimes much longer) while asleep. The majority of cases of sleep apnea occur due to complete blockage of the airway, generally due to soft tissues, the same as snoring. When this happens, the body ultimately wakes up for a brief moment and results in you fixing the issue, perhaps by changing position or the like. The “waking up” interrupts sleep for such a brief period of time that (usually) the person doesn’t remember waking at all. In addition to snoring, symptoms of sleep apnea include sleepiness during the day despite seemingly getting plenty of hours of sleep, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, depression, and anxiety. Possible health problems tied to sleep apnea are an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, and death.
  • Treatments for snoring vary depending on what causes it and the severity. Simple lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol and sedatives before bed can significantly help prevent the airway constriction that causes snoring. In more serious snoring cases, a doctor can prescribe a chinstrap that forces a person to breathe through their nose or a mouthpiece that stops the soft tissue from collapsing into the airway. The most severe cases of snoring can require surgery. The treatment of snoring associated with sleep apnea can be a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine that forces air into the back of the throat and doesn’t let the airway collapse.
  • For those sleeping in the room with someone who snores, the sound can be more than just annoying. Not getting enough sleep can have a major impact on your health. Among other negative factors, the immune system normally releases proteins known as cytokines when a person sleeps, and they help to combat infection, inflammation and stress. However when a person doesn’t get enough sleep, the body doesn’t release enough cytokines in order to deal with those stresses on the body. The lack of sleep can also be detrimental to a relationship. Dr. Ann Romaker of the Sleep Disorders Center at Saint Luke’s Health System stated that “Severe snoring markedly disturbs the partners’ sleep, causing irritability, anger and depression.”
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