The war on snoring heats up

That steam engine in your bed is bad for your health, worse for your marriage

The war on snoring heats up

Getty Images, Corbis, Fotolia, iStock; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

We’re often told that celebrities are just like us, and in some respects, that’s true: a great number of them snore in their sleep. Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter don’t just have separate bedrooms; they live in separate (but adjoining) London homes, partly because of Burton’s noisy sleeping. “Tim does snore, and that’s an element,” she told the U.K. Radio Times about their arrangement. Judge Judy has a separate room built off the master suite of her Connecticut mansion that’s just for snorers—a “snoratorium,” although she insists that it’s not just for her husband, and that she snores as well. Tom Cruise reportedly has a snoratorium too, where wife Katie Holmes can stow him when he’s keeping her awake.

Special snoring rooms are actually becoming de rigueur in many upscale homes. Jim Toy, principal at False Creek Design Group Ltd. in Vancouver, says his firm has designed a number of homes with adjacent sleeping quarters, or smaller retreat areas built off the main bedroom, that clients request “for, among other things, the snoring issue.” Some even ask that these rooms be lined with acoustic insulation and “literally be soundproofed,” he says. In a 2007 survey from the U.S. National Association of Home Builders, experts predicted that over 60 per cent of new upscale homes would have dual master bedrooms by 2015. Those expectations dipped after the recession, but on the “upper end of the scale,” Toy says, clients are still keen on having an extra snoring room. “It used to be his-and-hers bathrooms, his-and-hers closets, and his-and-hers offices,” designer Tom Scheerer recently told House Beautiful. “Now, everyone wants a snoratorium.”

Snoring is extraordinarily common. It tends to get worse as we age, partly because of weight gain, says Dr. Charles Samuels, medical director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary. Given the fact that our population is getting older—and heavier, too, as obesity rates rise—snoring could soon reach epidemic proportions. In a recent survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 per cent of people said they snored. (Of course, some people don’t realize they do, or will deny it when confronted.) About 858,900 adult Canadians say they’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, a more serious problem in which a person’s breathing briefly pauses, disturbing sleep until they start breathing normally again; people with sleep apnea almost always snore. Marketers are clearly aware of these numbers, evidenced by the growing range of products that claim to “cure” snoring—from nasal sprays to chin straps, special pillows and everything in between.

According to Samuels, snoring occurs when tissues at the back of the throat relax and start “flopping in the wind” as a person breathes. Beyond obesity, it can be caused by anything from a deviated septum (which is apparently Tim Burton’s problem) to congestion from chronic allergies or a cold. Age brings changes to the tone of upper airway muscles, which can aggravate snoring, Samuels says, and alcohol and muscle relaxants might make it worse, too. While sleep apnea is associated with serious health conditions, like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, those who simply snore with no apnea can wake up and “feel like a million bucks,” he says. In his lab, he measures his patients’ snores with a decibel meter, and while many of them are in the 20 to 30 range, some can get as loud as 60 decibels. “That’s really loud,” he says—about the same as a conversation, and most people probably wouldn’t sleep too well lying next to someone who talked endlessly through the night. For that reason, he adds, “it’s often the partner I am more concerned about.”

The upscale Crowne Plaza hotel, in London’s financial district, recently trialled a “snore absorption room,” loaded with an arsenal of anti-snoring devices: walls lined with egg-carton-style foam, a sound-absorbing headboard, a white noise machine to drown out any rumbles, a body wedge that props up the snorer on his side (this sleeping position is supposed to discourage snoring), and even an “anti-snoring pillow” that creates a magnetic field to open the sleeper’s airways and stiffen the upper palate, which vibrates during snoring. (Crowne Plaza hotels in Spain, Germany, Italy, France, and the Middle East have tried it out, too.)

The “snore absorption room” promises not only to fix sleepless nights, but maybe some marriages, too. It was created after research showed that more than half of British couples lose up to five hours of sleep a night over their partner’s snoring, which amounts to as much as a decade of sleep over a lifetime. Three in 10 have actually considered breaking up because of it. What’s more, the researchers found, snoring can ruin a vacation. One man (who asked to remain anonymous) told Maclean’s about a trip to Rome with his elderly mother, a loud snorer. They were able to book separate rooms until the last night—when her snoring was so unbearable that, at 2 a.m., he tried to book another room in the same hotel. After being told there were no other rooms available, he told the front desk staff he’d have to sleep on a couch in their lobby because it was so bad upstairs. The staff ended up finding him a vacant room in a hotel close by; he woke up his mother to let her know where he was off to, then trundled his bag down the street for a few precious hours of rest. “I still feel sheepish about it, but I was desperate,” he says.

Despite all this, most people prefer to have another person in bed with them. One groundbreaking survey from the U.S. National Sleep Foundation (NSF) found that, on most nights, 61 per cent of all respondents sleep with a significant other (12 per cent slept with a pet). But sharing a bed isn’t always easy. Almost one-quarter of people who are married or living with someone sleep apart because of a problem like snoring, the survey showed. Although snoring is the most common complaint, couples manage to aggravate each other in all sorts of ways, says Paul Rosenblatt, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing, one of the few books to examine this topic. These include reading with the lights on, kicking, and stealing the sheets, to name just a few. “One woman complained about her husband’s sharp toenails,” he says, and another, in her seventies, said she’d had enough of her husband’s sexual advances. Even so, in his study, which looked at 46 couples, some admitted they’d sleep better if they slept apart, he says, “but that doesn’t mean they want to.”

Wives who’ve been kept awake by their husbands seem especially prone to crankiness the next day: U.S. researchers have found that married couples’ interactions are impacted by the wife having had a bad sleep the night before; a husband’s poor sleep didn’t have the same effect. Karen Hirscheimer, a Toronto couples therapist, says that sleep issues will often come up in her practice. “It’s the very basic stuff, like having trouble sleeping in the same bed because one person snores, or the other is a tosser,” she says. “When people aren’t getting enough sleep, there’s more friction.”

One person’s snores might have an impact beyond the bedroom. A recent Danish study concluded that snoring places a heavy burden on society as a whole: people who snore violently (especially those with sleep apnea and obesity-related respiratory difficulties) need more health care, are more often unemployed, and have lower incomes than healthy people, they noted, adding that “every violent snorer costs society €705,” or about $960.

Even so, snorers can rarely help their habit, and the worry they feel about keeping a loved one awake all night can keep them up, too. This anguish is apparent on message boards where snorers can talk anonymously about their experiences: “I know I snore because my ex-boyfriend told me,” writes one, under the handle “girl snorer,” on the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association website. “I am dreading meeting a new guy because when he stays over he’s going to find it such a turnoff.” Another tells of how she heard herself snoring after her husband recorded it on his iPhone. “It is awful,” she writes, adding that she breathes out of her mouth and “puffs out like a steam engine.” One man, who claims to have tried everything, writes about sleeping on the couch so as not to disturb his wife, even though he’d rather be in bed with her. Even two floors apart, “she can still hear me.”

Patricia Pianella was just married in October, and she and her husband are happily enjoying the newlywed phase. Still, they’ve needed to develop what she calls “coping skills” to deal with one thing: his snoring. “It’s quite loud,” the 28-year-old says, about the same as having the TV on in the same room. Her husband tried using nasal strips (these are supposed to open the nasal passages to prevent snoring), but they “didn’t help,” she says. “They ended up falling off halfway through the night, or they’d bother him and he’d rip them off.” These days, the couple, who live in Vaughan, Ont., have worked out a new system: Pianella goes to bed first, and her husband tiptoes in once she’s asleep. This generally works out fine, except if she wakes up in the middle of the night. Then, it’s “much harder to fall back asleep,” she says. But Pianella wouldn’t consider spending the night apart. “I know it’s becoming more common,” she says, “but when I think about the idea of marriage, I think it’s important to sleep together.”

One of the most frustrating things about snoring, as Pianella and her husband have found, is the lack of a surefire cure. For those who suffer from sleep apnea, there are a range of treatments, from CPAP machines (which send continuous air pressure through the nose), to special dental appliances, Samuels says. As a last resort, a doctor might even recommend surgery. But for regular snorers, whose only problem is nocturnal rumbling, finding a solution is often luck of the draw. “One man I interviewed had a normal weight of 225 lb., and didn’t snore,” Rosenblatt says. “If he started snoring, he knew he’d put on weight, so he’d take it off again.”

About 10 years ago, American scientists floated the idea of a “snore vaccine,” which would be injected into the back of the throat to stiffen the soft palate. Until some sort of miracle snoring cure becomes available, store shelves will stay lined with dozens of different remedies: everything from neti pots, which irrigate nasal passages, to chin straps, some of which wrap around the snorer’s head to keep his jaw closed. Some people suggest using a humidifier to help a snorer breathe more easily. Special pillows are sold to prop up a sleeper so she doesn’t sleep flat on her back, the position most likely to induce snoring. And the non-snoring spouse can invest in earplugs, or a fan to drown the noise.

Some home remedies do actually help: nasal strips, Samuels says, can make a big difference for allergy sufferers, even if they didn’t work for Pianella’s husband. Certain dental devices (generally those prescribed by a specialist) will anchor the lower jaw to the upper jaw “so it won’t move,” he says. But buyer beware. “People come in with these appliances they’ve bought over the Internet, and they don’t work that well,” he says. The multitude of websites offering elaborate “snoring cures” speaks to just how desperate some people are. A few sites suggest sewing a tennis ball into the snorer’s pyjamas—in the spot right between the shoulder blades—so when he flips onto his back, the discomfort will make him roll over again. Samuels doesn’t recommend this.

Those who don’t want to deal with nasal strips, special pillows, tennis balls and the like will have to think about separate bedrooms. Before the Victorian era, it was normal for married couples to sleep apart, but today there’s a stigma attached to it. “We have this idea that if you’re not falling asleep curled up in each other’s arms, there’s something wrong,” says Canadian sex columnist Josie Vogels, author of the sex etiquette book Bedside Manners. When clients enlist False Creek Design Group, they’re “absolutely” sheepish in admitting they’d like a special snoring room, Toy says, and will refer to it as a retreat or a “quiet place to get away.” (One client, he says, called it a “crying room.”)

Vogels and her husband actually sleep apart sometimes. “I’m a light sleeper,” she says, and her husband occasionally snores. “He’s not a heavy snorer at all, but I just start focusing on it.” Vogels will wear earplugs to bed, or quietly listen to talk radio in one ear, which keeps her mind from racing and calms her down. “Getting a good night’s sleep is so important,” she says. “It’s hard to sleep when you’re feeling resentful that your partner’s sawing logs.” When it gets to that point, she says, “I go into a separate room.”

People worry that separate bedrooms signal the death of sex and other forms of intimacy. When couples do sleep together, “most of their time together is time spent in bed,” Rosenblatt says. In those late-night moments, he’s found, they often talk more openly, and with more vulnerability, than they do in the daytime. One new study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University suggests that, contrary to the stereotype, men might actually need this intimacy more than women: cuddling and caressing (but not sex) predicted relationship happiness for men with long-term partners, it found, but not for women.

Even so, snoratoriums don’t have to mean an end to intimacy—far from it. “The idea that sleeping and sex have to go together is so bizarre,” says Vogels, who argues that sleeping apart can actually improve one’s love life. “This way, if you’re going into the bedroom together, you’re not going to be sleeping.”

Lorne Procyshen of Yorkton, Sask., used to keep his wife awake with his loud snoring. “I would stop breathing,” says the 73-year-old, who plays dulcimer and guitar and works part-time as a Wal-Mart greeter. “My wife would poke me, and I’d be snoring again. We slept in different bedrooms because it was just terrible.” He was eventually diagnosed with sleep apnea, and now sleeps with a CPAP machine. “My wife’s getting some sleep, and so am I,” he says, but they choose to stay in separate rooms. Procyshen is looking forward to October, when the couple will mark their 50th wedding anniversary. “For her patience,” he says, “I’m taking her to Vegas.”

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