Are You The Snorer or the Snoree?
Statistics say that 30-40% of adults snore. Not only is it annoying and sleep-depriving to those who may be unlucky enough to share a room with you (there’s even a syndrome named after this, called Spousal Arousal Syndrome), snoring typically means that you are not getting restful, restorative sleep. Lack of sleep leads to all kinds of other problems, including increased rate of aging and age-related illnesses (heart disease, dementia, and balance disorders, to name a few,) impaired immune system function, and decreased alertness, memory and energy. Lack of sleep messes with your moods, too, and makes you grouchy. You know it’s true.
Studies have shown that you cannot dream when you snore. And up to 40% of snorers also suffer from sleep apnea, a dangerous condition where the person will actually stop breathing for periods of time during sleep. This increases risks of stoke and heart attack, and leaves the person feeling unrefreshed upon awakening. Oxygen is one thing the brain does not ever, ever, ever like to be without, and neurons start dying within minutes of being deprived (if sleep apnea is a problem for you, please see your doctor ASAP.)
Why, Why, Why??
In order to have a solution, we must understand the problem first. Let’s talk about why you or your loved-one snores. You may already know that being middle-aged, overweight, and inactive are precursors to sawing logs noisily through the night. But the reason these are risk factors is because they correlate with your soft palate is getting weak and sloppy.
Your soft palate is right behind your hard palate, which is the hard part of the roof of your mouth. If you run your tongue along the roof of your mouth from front to back, you will be able to feel where the hard palate stops and the soft palate begins. The soft palate looks like a semicircle at the entrance of the throat, and the uvula is the punching-bag-looking- thing that hangs down the middle of it.
If you look in a mirror, open your mouth really wide, and say, “ah ah ah,” you should see your soft palate raise and lower. You may notice that only one side raises, or that one side gets tired after two or three repetitions, and won’t raise as much the more you say “ah ah ah.” This is called a palatal paresis, or a weakness in the soft palate. My mentor called it a “sloppy palate.” No one wants a sloppy palate!
When the soft palate is completely elevated, it blocks the nasal cavity from the mouth. Try this: raise your soft palate and then try to breathe through your nose. If your soft palate is working right, you won’t be able to get air into your lungs.
Another function of the soft palate is to create a vacuum when it’s elevated, to close off the opening to your lungs when you eat. One sign of a very weak or sloppy palate is if you frequently cough and choke while you’re drinking, because the liquid “goes down the wrong pipe” (the bronchial tubes instead of the esophagus.)
Our soft palate should always maintain a certain amount of tone, even when we are sleeping. The tone of the soft palate mainly comes from the brainstem (the brainstem also controls breathing, blood pressure, and other automatic functions through our autonomic nervous system.) If your frontal lobe is firing strongly into your brainstem as it was designed to do, then your soft palate will have good tone, even when you’re sleeping. If one side is weak, it can mean that one side of the brainstem is not getting the same amount of signaling as the other side. This is something to address with your functional neurologist.
If the palate is very weak and sloppy, it can cut off the flow of oxygen from the nasal cavity and mouth into the lungs, especially when you are lying on your back. This is what causes snoring. And if it cuts off the air supply for extended periods of time, it is called sleep apnea.
What’s the Solution?
You probably already know that increasing your activity and sticking with an exercise program is going to help. Lose some weight, and get moving. That’s key for most people, for just about any problem they suffer from. But I’m going to share a secret with you that can target your snoring problem even more effectively: exercise your soft palate.
It may seem odd to “exercise” something that should work on it’s own. But when the automatic things in our body stop working properly, there are consequences. Think of your bladder, your lungs, and your heart. Thankfully, your palate is a muscle that is easy to exercise, and you can usually get it functioning again.
***Disclaimer*** Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Even one for your palate.
And just how do you put your soft palate on an exercise regimen? Weight resistance training for the soft palate is as easy as GARGLING!
That’s right, gargling. Put some fluid toward the back of your throat, tilt your head back a little, and gargle away. If you do this before and after you brush your teeth every morning and every night, you will get in a good habit that may just stop that snoring ridiculousness for good.
A word of caution here: if you find that you frequently inhale liquids down into your lungs, or if your soft palate is very, very weak, you could be at danger of choking if you try to gargle with liquid. Please be careful and try it first with someone there with you. Certain medications can make this even more problematic. Run this by your doctor if you are taking any medications, OR if you are self-medicating. Alcohol, for example, can make this exercise much harder than it should be. [Interestingly, most medications that people use to help them sleep or to decrease stress/anxiety, whether prescription or not, decrease the tone in the soft palate and can make your snoring problem worse.]
You can start by gargling without any liquid first, or by simply saying “ah, ah, ah” successive times to increase the strength of your palate, and gradually it will get strong enough for you to gargle with liquid.
Start with just a few seconds before and after brushing your teeth (another word of caution: harsh mouthwashes are not the best thing to use. Use a natural mouthwash (dilute it if it’s strong), or plain water, or water with a couple drops of hydrogen peroxide in it. Warm salt water works great too, especially if you have a sore throat or swollen tonsils.) Gradually work your way up until you are safely able to gargle for 20 seconds at a time.
For an “advanced” soft palate workout, try to “sing” while you are gargling. No one’s going to be able to understand what you’re singing. But different tones and pitches make your palate work differently, and make it even stronger.
Commit to trying this for three months, and you’ll be amazed. I’d love to hear back from you to hear your stories and testimonials, and answer any questions you may have. Here’s to a good, quiet night’s sleep!