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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Silent Night

In the several years since our wedding, my wife, Elizabeth, and I have had the typical disagreements over money, in-laws, and the talent of Jonathan Safran Foer. To resolve these minor spats, we've tried to observe that old spousal chestnut: Never go to sleep angry. However, until recently, we hadn't done much to address the one major cause of disharmony in our marriage—a growing crisis that happened while we slept. Or, more precisely, while I slept.

I am a snorer. A virtuoso snorer, really, with a repertoire ranging from a breezy whistle to a staccato snort. (Click on the player below to listen to an audio clip of my snoring.) My default snore is a variation of the "Snorchestra," a high-pitched stab of an inhale releasing to a low grumble that builds in intensity until Elizabeth wakes up and takes action.

Traditionally, that action has come in the form of a pleading "Chip!" which my brain semiconsciously translates into "Snoring! Turn to side! Now!" (I snore only while lying on my back.) But a year or so ago, the situation began to worsen. Elizabeth and I started referring to the actions of our "sleep selves" to explain the spiteful nocturnal behavior we preferred not to think of as our own. (It was foul-mouthed, sometimes violent—shouting, punching, kicking.) Worst of all, our sleep selves started to infiltrate our awake world. We woke up grumpy, and even staggered our bedtimes so that Elizabeth could fall asleep first. Snoring had driven a wedge between us.

We were not alone. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, 45 percent of "normal adults" snore occasionally and 25 percent snore every night. Most snoring is caused by the muscles in the mouth, tongue, and throat relaxing to the point that they vibrate against each other and partially block the flow of air during sleep. Anything that further relaxes those muscles—like alcohol—or contributes to the blockage—like extra fat—can make snoring worse. (Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a serious condition in which the obstruction is so complete that the snorer quits breathing for seconds at a time. If you think you have apnea, see a doctor.)

In the abstract, the fact that so many others snore (or live with a snorer) is comforting. But in practice, not so much. Finally, this past spring (motivated in part by Elizabeth being pregnant), I went looking for help.


First, I took several online questionnaires to determine what kind of snorer I was. The consensus: I belong to the population of "socially incorrect" snorers, who are, as the clever minds behind Put an End to Snoring define it, "more a menace to others than themselves." (Disclosure: I still have my tonsils, and I've broken my nose a couple of times. I've also seen an ENT about snoring and was diagnosed as being a "mild" snorer.)

Severe snorers have many options available to them, from medical procedures like uvulopalatopharyngoplasty to breathing apparati like the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine. We socially incorrect snorers can choose from a multitude of so-called remedies that comprise a minor but colorful subset of the massive "sleep racket." Anyone familiar with late-night infomercials will recognize the look and tone of those pushing these snoring solutions—everything's "all natural" and "FDA-approved." Often, the power of "earth magnets" and "essential oils" is invoked.

I wasn't looking for a miracle. I just wanted an easy, inexpensive remedy that would help cut down on my snoring—quickly. I narrowed my list to six varying remedies. To rate them, I designed a scoring system that borrowed from figure skating and golf (two sports that usually put me right to sleep). I tested each remedy for five consecutive nights and evaluated them using three criteria. I tossed the best and worst scores for each criterion, and averaged the middle three. I then added the averages and rounded to the closest whole number to get a total score. The total with the lowest score won.

Ease of use
(10 = very uncomfortable/1 = not uncomfortable)
I don't like sticking anything inside of me that doesn't need to be there, so remedies that had to go inside my mouth or nose fared worse. Otherwise, did it hurt to apply or use? Was it a pain to set up? Did it require much maintenance? Was it hard for me to fall or stay asleep while using it? Was there an adjustment period? Were there side effects?

Elizabeth's reaction
(10 = actively hated/1 = didn't dislike)
Did the remedy scare or repulse Elizabeth? Did my use directly affect her sleep (i.e., did it make noise, give off an odor, or crowd the bed)? Did she notice a difference in my snoring, or in her sleep? How often did she have to yell at me? How did she feel the next morning?

Morning after
(10 = much worse than usual/1 = better than usual)
Was I more or less sluggish than usual? Was my mouth dry? Did I feel tired? Did I look tired?

The Results (from nightmarish to dreamy)

Pureline Scoreclipse nasal clip, $14.95
There are many nasal clips on the market. This one purports to cure snoring by using "rare earth magnets." The magnets put pressure on the septum, which supposedly increases circulation in the nose and promotes the opening of the nasal passages to help cut down on snoring.

But I never got around to testing the clip because it hurt to wear, felt invasive, and repulsed Elizabeth so much that she couldn't even look at me while I wore it. "I'd rather you snore than sleep with that thing in your nose," she said, settling the matter.

Ease of use: 10
E's reaction: 10
Morning after: n/a
Total: Disqualified

Generic boxing mouthpiece, $1.99 and up
"Custom fabricated dental devices" like Snore Guard and Silent Nite help severe snorers by keeping the jaw in the same position during sleep that it is in during the awake hours. Their over-the-counter cousins are glorified boil-and-bite mouthpieces at a significant markup. I ordered one such product called a SnoreMate, but it got lost en route from South Africa. So, I went to a local sporting-goods store and asked the sales guy which mouthpiece he'd recommend. He walked me over to the boxing section, handed me a double mouthpiece set, and said that a customer had bought one earlier to "help during his schizophrenic seizures." Sold.

Elizabeth, however, was not a fan. "You look like a monster," she said. After the second night, I wasn't keen, either. I slurped throughout the night, but woke up with cottonmouth. I had that dry, rubbery taste all the next morning, even after brushing. One morning, I discovered I had taken the mouthpiece out during the night. I didn't remember doing this, but it was not a strong endorsement from my sleep self. Worst of all, according to Elizabeth, I snored heavily every night.

Ease of use: 7
E's reaction: 9
Morning after: 8
Total: 24

Breathe Right Strips, $14.99 for a box of 30
Anyone who's watched a pro football game in the past decade will recognize Breathe Right and other nasal strips. These cross the bridge of the nose and stick to the nostrils, "lifting open" the nasal passages to make it easier to breathe through your nose. I have used nasal strips periodically since they came on the market in the mid-1990s. I like that raw rush of cold, dry air I seem to take in when wearing one. I feel as if I'm breathing better, even if I'm not. Of course, the strips have their obvious problems. They're an expensive full-time habit, and they often peel off of one side of my nose after an hour or two. Plus, they leave strip marks on my face the next day.

Elizabeth finds them ridiculous. "They don't work," she said. "You basically just have a piece of Scotch tape on your face." Still, I wanted to include them to see how they'd perform in a test environment. As she expected, I snored every night, though I did feel a little peppier on several mornings.

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