Snoring at first glance seems an innocuous, comical, albeit annoying phenomenon. Nevertheless it is associated with mental, social, and physical complications. Snoring can disrupt marital and family life by interrupting the sleep of other family members.

The snoring family member is at best poked fun at and at worst singled out, an isolated oddity subject to animosity and disdain, the unholy bane that sucks the fun out of family vacations and violates noise ordinances on campgrounds.

You have probably already read that snoring can be a problem for the snorer whether or not an audience is present to witness the snoring. This is especially the case for obstructive sleep apnea, in which the snorer periodically stops breathing during the night until they wake up to catch their breath.

Obstructive sleep apnea is associated with fatigue, headaches, depression, erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and other complications.

In this article you will learn that snoring is not only a cause of physical, mental, and social imbalances, but also a result. In other words, snoring is not necessarily the first link in a chain that leads to poor marriage, depression, and heart disease; it is a sign of an underlying condition or disease pattern in the body that needs to be treated to promote optimum health.

Depending on its associated symptoms; fatigue, headache, irritability, poor memory, etc., we can make a more educated guess as to what is the underlying condition that predisposes the snorer to snoring.

Snoring anatomy

Nasal septum

An anatomical obstacle course lies between the air in our environment and the alveoli in our lungs. The first obstacle the air may encounter is the nasal septum, which is the cartilage that separates the two nostrils from each other. A deviated septum is an asymmetrical division, so that the septum lies off to one side, leaving a large opening in one nostril and a small opening in the other.

Before rushing out to get surgery to correct your deviated septum please take a trip down diagnosis alley that will be akin to looking both ways before crossing the street. The body naturally alternates breathing dominance between the left and right nostrils every 2-4 hours. This means at any one time more air will be exchanged through one nostril than the other, and in 2-4 hours it will change to the other side.

If the deviated septum is causing the snoring, then snoring will only be present when the nostril with a smaller opening is dominant, and snoring will be absent when the nostril with the larger opening is dominant. A sleep clinic should be able to monitor snoring that alternates according to the nasal cycle.

Your sleeping partner should notice that each night there is a period of time of snoring and a period of time without snoring, each lasting from 2-4 hours, and is independent of sleeping position (lying on back, side, or stomach).

Please note that deviated septum snoring is usually complicated by anatomical abnormalities further down the breathing passages and when these abnormalities are corrected for, snoring from a deviated septum is greatly reduced or eliminated. For those of you who snore all night long, the primary problem is NOT a deviated septum.

Adenoids

The next place breathing can be disrupted is at the adenoids. This is a tonsil like tissue that is just behind the nose. If you ever had a cold when your throat wasn’t sore, but instead you had a full, sore feeling behind your nose, chances are your adenoids were inflamed.
Snoring as a result of enlarged adenoids is usually only a problem for children. If left alone, with age and growth of the respiratory passages, this type of snoring will resolve itself. Take care to observe your child sleeping, as children with sleep apnea often develop behavioral and learning problems. If breathing is periodically completely obstructed at night chances are the adenoids aren’t the only thing blocking the airways and treatment should be sought out sooner than later

If childhood snoring presents a problem that can’t be tolerated (as with sleep apnea) it can be treated with Chinese medicine using methods I will speak of later in this article. Often, however, people turn to the quick fix the knife has to offer by choosing the surgical route.

Your surgeon will most likely tell you there are no detriments to immune function with surgery. Those who have undergone adenoid-tonsillectomy (removal of the adenoids and tonsils) do not suffer from a greater number of colds than children who have not undergone the surgery. But they are less likely to tell you about the relative severity of colds that these children do experience.

The adenoids are one of the first lines of defense for airborne pathogens; the body will fight the infection here before it progresses further down the respiratory tract. A child that has had his adenoids removed is not going to get an adenoid infection anymore (good), but they will be more likely to get a cold that is deeper down the respiratory tract (not so good), places such as the soft palate, laryngopharynx, and larynx will be more likely to become inflamed. The further a cold is down the respiratory tract the more severe it is, and the longer it takes to resolve.

This is a very basic principle in Chinese medicine theory, the closer a disease is to the surface of the body, the easier it is to resolve, and the less severe the symptoms will be. As it moves deeper into the body it wreaks more havoc, and is more difficult to eliminate. Would you rather deal with the burglar at your front door or wait for him to get to your bedroom?

Please note that adenoid-tonsillectomy may resolve uncomplicated adenoid snoring, but for obstructive sleep apnea there are often more obstructions to the airways, and breathing will continue to be occluded during sleep even after the surgery.

Both deviated septum snoring and adenoid snoring sound like breathing through a stuffy nose.

Soft palate

The majority of snoring you will encounter has been likened to pigs snorting, lumberjacks sawing, or the foreshadowing of phlegm that will soon be forcibly cleared from the throat. Most snoring comes from here, and this area must be addressed if any remedy is to be successful.

The soft palate is a soft (imagine that) tissue that is located at the roof of the mouth, towards the back or posterior part of the mouth, behind the hard palate. If you slide your tongue along the roof of your mouth, from the front to the back, there will be a point when the hard tissue turns to soft tissue. If you’ve followed my instructions properly, you’ve just successfully tongued your soft palate. Kudos to you.

The soft palate is responsible for closing during swallowing to prevent the flow of food or fluid up into the nasal passages. If you would like to learn to perfectly mimic soft palate snoring while waking (a mildly lucrative talent), just swallow what little saliva is in your mouth. Now hold the position your throat is in (mid-swallow) and breathe in through your nose. If this sounds familiarly like so many nights of lost shuteye and broken lullabies, congratulations, you’ve mastered waking soft palate snoring.

Uvula

This is the dangling tissue that hangs from the back of the throat, attached to the soft palate. It is a good place to stage a last ditch effort to save yourself from being swallowed by a giant, as you can hang on here, and it will stimulate a gag reflex, hopefully sending you headlong back out of his mouth and flying to freedom.

The uvula functions to make some specific sounds in languages other than English, and also produces some saliva to aid in the first stage of digestion; mastication (chewing). Its importance in snoring arises from the fact that it is attached to the soft palate and thus can contribute to blocking the passage from the nose to the lungs, producing the same sound covered in the soft palate section.

Tonsils

The tonsils lie slightly further down the respiratory tract inferior (below) and lateral (to the side) of the soft palate. Because of their close proximity to the soft palate they can contribute to soft palate snoring. This is usually only the case if they are inflamed, as is often the case with an upper respiratory infection.

The tonsils are lymph tissue that produce antibodies much like the adenoids, and provide a barrier to infectious agents that get past the adenoids.

Tongue

Chances are you know where it is and know at least most of what it does. The tongue is often blamed for snoring, it is said that it falls down to the back of the throat and blocks the passage of air. In this way the tongue blocks not only the passage of air through the nose but through the mouth as well.

I have never seen a case of pure tongue snoring that was uncomplicated by soft palate snoring. If indeed you ever came across a case of pure tongue snoring chances are you would be more terrified than annoyed, as this type of snoring produces a typical Hollywood demon up from the depths out to claim human souls sound. People that hear this sound coming from someone in their house most likely consult an exorcist a long time before considering acupuncture or other Chinese medicine remedies.

If you would like to try to reproduce this sound on your own, first clear all the saliva from your mouth. Make sure you have no more liquids in your mouth and practice this technique only at your own risk for if the saliva is not clear you will inhale some and likely send yourself into a fit of coughing. Now pull your tongue as far back into your mouth as possible and breathe in and out through your mouth. If you sound like the possessed girl from the exorcist you are doing uncomplicated tongue snoring correctly.

The tongue tends to add an impressive amount of volume to a snore, so that it echoes through the house, but it rarely presents by itself. Tongue snoring usually happens in concert with soft palate snoring.

Now this is not to say that the tongue in and of itself is not important in snoring, it is very important, but more so in the diagnosis of snoring. I’ll get back to this later.

The epiglottis

The reason you haven’t seen the epiglottis in other snoring documentation is that no one wants to mess with the tissue that makes up the valve to prevent food from going down the trachea (wind pipe). This tissue is a flap that is propelled by the movement of the tongue during swallowing to cover the opening of the trachea which leads to the lungs.

Epiglottis snoring cannot be separated from tongue snoring, as the movement of the tongue backwards moves the epiglottis over the trachea. So pure epiglottis snoring also, like tongue snoring, sounds like a demonic possession.

The pharynx

The pharynx is a tube through which both air and food pass collectively. It basically is the tube that runs behind all of the tissues we have already been discussing. The pharynx is made up of three components, the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the laryngopharynx.

The nasopharynx is behind the nasal cavity where the adenoids are, and nasopharynx snoring goes hand and hand with adenoid and deviated septum snoring.

The oropharyx lies behind the oral cavity and contributes to soft palate, uvula, tonsil, and tongue snoring; it is the opening behind all of these tissues.

The laryngopharynx is the last section of the larynx before food and air go their separate ways (for the most part, if nothing goes wrong). This lies above the trachea and esophagus, and below the oropharynx. Laryngopharynx-snoring sounds like wheezing, and often accompanies obstructive sleep apnea, especially when the snorer is finally catching their breath, or just before the airway is blocked.

The larynx

This is the voice box that adjusts the pitch in our voice, and also functions, along with the tongue and epiglottis to prevent food or fluid from going down the trachea. It is at the top of the trachea, and larynx snoring doesn’t sound like snoring, it presents as the sighing or other vocal sounds that sometimes accompany snoring.

Sounds of snoring

Many of the snoring sounds discussed above will resonate in unison, or alternate between each other. Other than soft palate snoring, which may sound out in isolation for mild snorers, it is uncommon to hear these sounds completely isolated from the others in a heavy snorer.

Blaming just one tissue in particular for the abrasive cacophony that puts the harm into harmony leads to many fruitless remedies. The throat tissues did not secede from the union that is the rest of the body and so invariably reflect the condition of the rest of the body. The implications for treatment are discussed below.

Getting to the root of snoring

Any time any of the above tissues obstruct the passage of air into the lungs during sleep snoring can result. Why would this happen? Blockage can come from local tissue: inflammation, poor fluid metabolism (edema), swelling, obesity, scar tissue, muscular flaccidity, congenital narrowing of the air passages, and mucous overproduction.

Muscular flaccidity can result in collapse of the airways at night. Inflammation of throat tissues can result in swelling that obstructs air movement, much the same way edematous, swollen, or obese tissues occlude the passage of air.

One of the most basic traditional medicine principles that has been somewhat (if not entirely) embraced by mainstream medicine, at least in the case of snoring, is that a pattern in one part of the body often reflects a pattern elsewhere in the body.

An easy way to see this is by looking at a person’s hands. If someone has obese fingers, then without seeing the rest of them it is usually safe to assume that they are obese. If someone has skinny fingers, they are probably skinny all over. If someone has purple veins and dark purplish fingernails chances are the circulation isn’t very good in their whole body.

So in the case of snoring, swelling of the tissues of the throat usually means there is swelling elsewhere in the body, obesity of the throat typically means the rest of the body is obese as well.

Mainstream medicine addresses this principle with advice for lifestyle changes.

Losing weight means the throat will be less obese and can help in some cases with snoring.

More exercise means the muscles in the body in general will be more firm, less flaccid, and thus so will the throat, so less likely to collapse while relaxed and asleep. Not drinking alcohol before bedtime and care not to sleep supine (face up) can help with muscle flaccidity snoring as well.

Less consumption of dairy and other foods that produce mucous incites less liquid blockages to the air passages, especially if avoided right before bedtime.

Prevention of colds and other upper respiratory infections, and a cessation of smoking for smokers, precipitates less inflammation in the throat and decreased snoring.

What if lifestyle changes don’t do the trick?

Here’s where mainstream medicine falls back on devices ranging from tennis balls attached to the pajamas to machines that forcibly push air past blockages. When that fails, the scalpel is utilized (when in doubt, cut it out).

One device is a strap that keeps the chin connected to the rest of the head so the mouth can’t open at night.

The CPAP: ‘continuous positive airway pressure’ that forces air through the air passageways to prevent them from collapsing in hopes of eliminating snoring.

Yes, I’ve seen patients that have obese throat tissues even though their bodies are quite skinny. Some snorers have flaccid throat tissues even though their bodies are rock solid. Localized chronic inflammation of the throat can happen in the absence of an upper respiratory tract infection or smoking.

So losing weight, exercising, and adjusting your lifestyle may not do the trick. The reason being is that the tissues of the throat are more closely related to what is going on internally, in the organs, and less related to external factors such as the muscles and fatty tissue in the skin. No where is this more apparent than on the tongue.

Because ancient Chinese medicine doctors had no access to X-ray machines, MRIs, or blood tests they had to come up with other ways of observing the workings of the body internally. One of the ways they did this was by looking at the tongue. Deep redness of the tongue may be a sign of generalized inflammation of the body, while redness in a specific location on the tongue will correspond to inflammation of a particular organ.

An obese or enlarged tongue points to an organ or organs that are obese or enlarged. Excessive dryness or wetness of the tongue may point to poor fluid metabolism. A flaccid tongue indicates organ flaccidity. This is by no means a complete list of internal pathology that corresponds to signs on the tongue, as such a list would go on and on and read too much like a textbook (my apologies to those of you that enjoy textbooks).

The other throat tissues, like the tongue, correspond to the internal state of the body. The point being is that your snoring is most likely pointing to a deeper underlying problem in the body. If you treat this problem now through lifestyle changes, herbs, and acupuncture you will help prevent more serious and obvious complications in the future, as well as improving your sleep and the sleep of those around you.

Chinese medicine treatment principles are fundamentally built around treating all of the issues related to snoring. Treatments can be geared towards enhancing fluid metabolism, reducing phlegm overproduction, decreasing fatty tissue deposits, improving internal organ and throat muscle tone, and decreasing generalized inflammation.

These are very basic strategies in Chinese medicine that can be achieved through herbs, acupuncture, and lifestyle adjustments, to ultimately improve health and eliminate snoring at its root.

Sleep apnea is not just a cause of hypertension and heart disease, it is a sign of a preexisting heart condition, which at present time has only manifested as blocked respiratory passages during sleeping, but may in the future lead to a heart attack or stroke. By treating the preexisting heart condition now you will not only reduce or eliminate snoring and sleep apnea, but also decrease the chances of future heart disease. Prevention pays higher interest than cure.

The surgical solution?

The problem with surgical solutions is that for the most part they are only addressing the enlargement of tissues at the sight of the tissues, and ignoring any preexisting imbalances in the internal organs.

Surgeries such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty remove part of the soft palate, uvula, and tonsils and may reduce snoring for a while. But scar tissue may form that once again blocks airways.

Unfortunately since this scar tissue is less responsive to treatment than unscarred tissue that is merely enlarged, you may be worse off after the surgery than before. Also, since the soft palate prevents fluids and foods from entering the nasal cavity, surgery to shorten it may lead to laughing so hard milk comes out your nose (over and over, how embarrassing).

One candidate for surgery may be those that have a congenitally narrow throat passage, so that absolutely nothing else works for them. A person like this though, should have trouble breathing without snoring even while awake. If you can breathe normally while waking, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do so while sleeping, you just haven’t found the correct solution yet.

The device solution?

For obstructive sleep apnea mechanical sleeping aids are a good temporary expedient to reduce heart complications and associated daily symptoms while underlying issues are addressed. No one wants to rely on crutches or other disease props forever, so patients should gradually transition to the point where these accessories are no longer necessary.

The Chinese medicine solution.

Chinese medicine is extremely effective in treating the main causes of snoring. Through acupuncture, medical massage, herbal remedies, and lifestyle changes, upper respiratory imbalances such as inflammation, poor fluid metabolism, swelling, obesity, scar tissue, muscular flaccidity, and mucous overproduction can be eliminated.

Take heart in the fact that your body has made you aware of a preexisting internal imbalance before it leads to future complications. Make an appointment at Roots of Eastern Medicine Acupuncture Clinic to fundamentally improve your health, as well as eliminating hazardous nightly noise pollution.