Breathing patterns normally change during sleep. During deep sleep, breathing slows and becomes lighter as the body rests. During light sleep and REM, breathing can resemble waking life, including periods of heavy breathing during dreams. However, consistent breathing troubles, gaps in breathing and even snoring can be symptoms of a sleep disorder or other health risks.
Snoring is quite common and is the biggest complaint of disturbed sleep, at least for those who sleep next to a snorer. People who snore are more likely to sleep on their backs, be overweight, or have persistent allergies that can lead to throat irritation. Drinking alcohol close to bedtime also can relax throat muscles and increase the chance of snoring.
Obstructive and Central Sleep Apnea
However, extraordinarily loud and consistent snoring could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea. Gasping for breath and making choking and gasping sounds can also indicate this sleep disorder, which is caused by the relaxation of soft tissues of the throat, leading to short interruptions in breathing. A more rare form of sleep apnea known as central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not send the electrical signal to the diaphragm to breathe. Both forms of sleep apnea, as well as a third form called mixed sleep apnea that combines symptoms of both, can be dangerous if left untreated.
Children and Excessive Snoring
Some children have excessive snoring but do not have the other symptoms of sleep apnea. Reduced oxygen flow in children who snore often may lead to behavioral and learning problems if left untreated, according to a 2007 article published in the “Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.”
Breathing problems resulting in sleep disturbance can be instigated by factors such as climate, season and temperature. Research carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham & Women's Hospital found that breathing-related sleep disturbance increases during warmer nights and also when air pollution worsens during summer.
Prevention and Treatment
Lifestyle choices can reduce breathing problems. Losing weight, not drinking alcohol before bed and getting regular exercise can reduce ordinary snoring as well as reduce obstructive sleep apnea symptoms. Quitting smoking and reducing house-born allergens will also help. Try encouraging a snoring sleep partner to sleep on the side rather than on the back.
If daytime grogginess, a persistent dry mouth while awakening, and morning headaches continue despite these lifestyle changes, consult a medical provider. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health risk including heart disease, diabetes and stroke.