It’s happened to all of us: sleeplessly tossing and turning while the person next door snorts and snarfs his way through the night. Why is it a perfectly normal, healthy person will make such an awful noise? Dr. Neil B. Kavey, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City, offers some clues.
The sound you hear when someone is snoring is caused by the vibration of relaxed, floppy tissues that line the upper airway.
Here’s how it works. When you sleep, muscle tone throughout your body decreases. All the muscles in your body relax.
Your upper airway is lined with muscles that keep the airway open. When those muscles relax during sleep, the diameter of the airway decreases and, in some people, this partially blocks the airflow, leading to turbulence.
Instead of air flowing smoothly down the airway into the lungs, it flows with gusts and bursts. As the air travels through the airway, it picks up speed and gets whipped around in all different directions.
As the air bounces around, it hits the relaxed, floppy tissues lining the throat and causes them to vibrate, kind of like a flag in the wind. This is the snoring sound.
People don’t make a snoring sound when they are awake because the muscles in the throat hold the airway open wide enough for a smooth flow of air into the lungs.
We snore more as we get older because our muscles become increasingly flaccid with age. Gaining weight can increase snoring because fat deposits accumulate in the tissues of the airway, making them heavier so they fall more into the line of airflow.