One could joke that snoring and high blood pressure are related because the person who has to listen to loud snoring all night long might be so aggravated by it that they develop high blood pressure!
(And the reality is that sleep deprivation caused by staying up all night listening to snoring could, in fact, elevate your blood pressure... so the joke's actually not all that funny.)
But make no joke about this: snoring is not the harmless sleeping habit people make it out to be. It is not charming, or funny, or something to ignore. Why not? It's been linked to high blood pressure.
The problem with high blood pressure
High blood pressure is not something to take lightly. According to reports by the American Heart Association, untreated hypertension (high blood pressure) leads to all kinds of serious medical problems.
Heart and artery damage, congestive heart failure, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart attack, stroke: take your pick, but rest assured, none of these are harmless consequences.
What makes matters worse is that we don't always "feel" elevations in our blood pressure and may not even know when it's high.
Just like snoring, it can be an easily ignored problem leading to disastrous health consequences if left untreated.
Snoring and high blood pressure
Researchers still aren't certain what it is exactly about the act of snoring which creates conditions that lead to hypertension. Most recent studies show there is a relationship between the two, however, especially for middle-aged and older people.
Snoring is the sound we make when the air we inhale or exhale creates vibrations against the tissues in the upper airway. Most snoring takes place in the throat, where tonsils or the tongue or other tissues may crowd the space.
About one third of all adults snore to some degree: on average, ten percent of men and one in six women snore. Yet, despite how commonplace it is to snore, it is not actually normal to snore.
Snoring warns of interference in the passages designed to move oxygen freely into your body.
If it only happens once in a while—say, while you have a head cold—that is not of great concern. It's when it happens habitually (at least 5 nights a week) that it becomes time to sit up and take notice.
Reasons why we snore
- Snoring can be made worse while sleeping on your back, as this creates the best conditions for turbulence in the throat.
- Alcohol before bedtime deeply relaxes the tissues and muscles of the airway, making them more likely to become flabby and create friction. This also holds true for the effects of opioid pain medications and certain sleep aids.
- Studies show that sleep deprivation can lead to snoring because the body, if lacking adequate sleep, may launch into longer stages of REM sleep. The body, while in REM sleep, loses muscle tone, creating greater conditions for uncontrolled snoring.
- Being overweight or obese practically guarantees that snoring will take place: the added swelling of fatty tissues in the neck leads to additional interference with breathing while asleep.
Snoring as a sleep-breathing disorder
For these reasons, snoring is considered a sleep-disordered breathing issue that precedes the development of the sleep disorder known as sleep apnea.
All forms of sleep-disordered breathing cause varying degrees of stress to the heart; the problem of airway resistance makes the body work harder to maintain an adequate supply of oxygen in the blood stream over several hours every night. It also amps up the level of stress hormones in the blood stream; stress hormones, by their very nature, elevate blood pressure.
If allowed to go untreated, night after night, week after week... sometimes for decades, sleep-disordered breathing is likely to result in--you guessed it!--high blood pressure.
The American Association for Respiratory Care has determined that at least half of all people who suffer from sleep-disordered breathing will develop hypertension. But don't think the bad news stops there... Untreated sleep-disordered breathing is also linked to heart disease, stroke, dementia, and sleep apnea.
Snoring and sleep apnea
Let's make one thing clear: Snoring is not sleep apnea, and sleep apnea does not always include snoring (though it usually does).
Regardless, it's nearly impossible to know the difference between the two without a sleep study. Why is this? The side effects of untreated snoring and sleep apnea are similar: daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, waking up with a dry mouth or snore throat. You can't always know just by looking at a sleeping person whether their breathing sounds qualify as one or the other.
What distinguishes them is the severity of obstruction in the airway. In cases of snoring, the airway isn't obstructed, just vibrating as air passes through.
However, in sleep apnea--specifically, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)--the airway does, in fact, become partially or completely obstructed by the collapse of tissues or organs like the tongue, the uvula, or the tonsils.
The pauses caused by these obstructions—which are followed by gasping, snorting, or choking to achieve a recovery breath—are called apneas. While some people have just a handful of small obstructions throughout the night, others might have hundreds.
The only way to accurately measure these respiratory "events" is through a sleep study. Knowing the difference between a snoring sound and a full-blown episode of apnea requires objective laboratory measurement so that severity of sleep-disordered breathing can be determined. Even with snoring alone, a higher severity index suggests treatment is necessary to protect your cardiovascular system.
Treat your snoring, treat your blood pressure
Occasional snoring is not associated with an increase risk for hypertension. However, sleep apnea and frequent or habitual snoring are, especially to the drug-resistant variety of hypertension. Treating your problems now can help you avoid blood pressure concerns later.
If you suffer from sleep apnea or snoring and also have high blood pressure, you may find that treating your sleep-disordered breathing might just help you reverse those elevated blood pressure readings.
Treatments for sleep apnea and snoring depend a great deal on severity, but include snoring mouthpieces and oral appliances, positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy, and several procedures—some of them outpatient—to help reduce the crowding of tissue in the airway that's causing the obstruction.
Please have your loud or habitual snoring checked out as a matter of prevention. If necessary, undergo a sleep assessment. This may include a sleep study, but it will be well worth it, and your sleeping partner will thank you as well.
Also, keep in mind, you may snore and not have high blood pressure now, but you can be sure that it will come calling some day if you don't take your snoring seriously... and the consequences are no joke.