March 19, 2023 5 min read
Many people snore when they sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, as many as 40% of men and 20% of women are habitual snorers . Because snoring is so common, it is often viewed as normal. But snoring isn’t exactly normal and can even be a sign that your body is struggling to get enough oxygen.
Oxygen desaturation — or low blood oxygen levels — caused by some cases of snoring can lead to troubling symptoms during the day and have a negative effect on health. Oxygen levels are tightly regulated because oxygen is one of the most important elements for cellular functioning. When levels are low, this can spell trouble. Here is more on snoring and its impact on oxygen levels.
The term “snoring” refers to noisy breathing during sleep. Snoring happens when tissues in the upper airways collapse and cause turbulent airflow that results in snoring. Tissues that can block normal airflow during sleep include the back of your tongue, the soft palate, and the pharynx .
There are many reasons why this can happen. Congestion due to a cold or allergies is a common and temporary reason. Another temporary reason is drinking alcohol or taking sedatives before bedtime as these nervous system depressants cause throat muscles to relax. A deviated septum, enlarged tonsils, and excess weight in the neck area are some causes of chronic snoring.
Most snoring is an occasional nuisance and nothing to be alarmed about. But when it is loud, frequent, and accompanied by other symptoms, it can signal obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
OSA is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops during sleep. These pauses in breathing lead to low blood oxygen levels that trigger the body to wake from sleep and gasp for air. Most sufferers are not aware this is happening, though. Instead, their bed partners notice their loud snoring or pauses in breathing. Sufferers may also wake with a headache, feel unrefreshed no matter how much sleep they get, and have trouble focusing during the day.
Oxygen desaturation is when the percentage of oxygen in your blood is lower than normal. Oxygen saturation measures how much hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells) is bound to oxygen. Normally, 95-100% of hemoglobin is bound to oxygen. Oxygen desaturation is when less than 95% of hemoglobin is bound to oxygen.
Being at high altitudes can cause oxygen desaturation because of low atmospheric pressure. Medical conditions that affect the lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen to blood or the heart’s ability to circulate oxygen to the lungs can also cause it. Specific examples include asthma, pneumonia, COVID-10, and heart failure.
Snoring can be a sign your body isn’t getting enough oxygen. That’s because habitual snoring is an often overlooked sign of OSA. All patients with OSA have periodic oxygen desaturation during episodes of apnea or hypopnea.
To diagnose OSA, sleep specialists measure the number of times your blood oxygen levels drop below normal during sleep. This is known as the oxygen desaturation index (ODI) and is used to determine the severity of your OSA, which helps find the best course of treatment.
However, not all snoring means low oxygen levels. Most snoring does not involve pauses in breathing found in OSA sufferers. That’s why studies on non-apneic snorers show that there are no significant changes in blood oxygen levels in this group of patients .
When OSA and its accompanying oxygen desaturation aren’t treated, it puts you at risk of chronic health problems and even early death. Just some of the health consequences of untreated OSA include :
Oxygen levels are tightly controlled for a reason — every system in your body needs a constant supply of oxygen to function well and stay healthy. When oxygen levels become lower than optimal, many problems can arise. In fact, researchers believe that one of the reasons OSA puts sufferers at a 33% greater risk of early death is oxygen desaturation [5,6].
One explanation for why oxygen desaturation is especially problematic for your cardiovascular system is because it damages arterial walls. This leads to the thickening of arteries and heart disease. And because the cardiovascular system compensates for low blood oxygen levels by pumping harder and faster, this can cause dysregulation in blood pressure (i.e. hypertension), further straining your cardiovascular system.
Simple, non-apneic snoring rarely causes any symptoms because it does not lead to low blood oxygen levels or disrupted sleep. The same isn’t true for snoring due to OSA. If you were told that you snore and have noticed other unusual symptoms, you may have OSA and not know it. If you have any of the following symptoms that point to low oxygen levels during sleep, it’s a good idea to get tested:
Chronic and loud snoring that is accompanied by the above symptoms should be taken seriously. This is one of the first signs you might have OSA, which always leads to dangerously low blood oxygen levels. Luckily, OSA is treatable and can even be reversed in some cases.
To get treatment for OSA, you may need to undergo a sleep study that measures your blood oxygen levels during sleep, among other parameters. Once a diagnosis is established, your doctor may prescribe continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or recommend an oral appliance if you have trouble adhering to CPAP therapy. Oral appliances like the Good Morning Snore Solution are helpful against snoring and mild cases of OSA.
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