By Lana Adler
Updated March 17, 2021
One in two adults (1) snore, and the widespread belief is that snoring is more common in men than women. However, this stereotype might be about to change.
Although researchers have long claimed that men are almost twice as likely (2) to snore as women, recent studies have discovered that women may simply be less likely to realize they are snoring (3). In fact, one large-scale study found that 59% of male versus 47% of female participants snored, suggesting the gap is much smaller than previously believed.
Why Do Men Snore More than Women?
If men have a slightly higher risk of snoring, it's primarily due to differences in hormones and fat distribution.
Men and Women Have Different Airways
Early studies of snoring emphasized differences in upper airway anatomy (4) between men and women. Snoring arises when soft tissues in the upper airway collapse, producing vibrations as air passes through the smaller space. Men have a longer upper airway and a larger soft palate (5) (roof of the mouth), leaving the male airway more vulnerable to collapse.
Men and Women Put On Weight In Different Places
Weight gain increases the risk of snoring and sleep apnea for both men and women, but studies show that weight gain (6) is more likely to cause sleep-disordered breathing in men than it is in women. Men tend to gain more fat around the organs and in the upper body, a pattern that may contribute to breathing difficulties during sleep.
Several milestones during the female reproductive cycle are associated with a higher incidence of snoring. Women snore more during pregnancy (7), a time marked by weight gain and swollen tissues (8). Snoring also increases during menopause, when declining estrogen levels lead to central weight gain (9) that more closely resembles the male body fat distribution.
Sex-Specific Hormones Contribute to Snoring
Scientists believe that hormones (10) that are typically more prevalent in females may help prevent snoring. The two principal female hormones, progesterone and estrogen, appear to protect against upper airway collapse. Progesterone also stimulates respiration by helping dilate muscles in the upper airway, which may reduce snoring for many women.
That said, higher levels of progesterone might disrupt breathing. The surge in progesterone levels could be partially responsible for the high rates of obstructive sleep apnea during pregnancy.
Snoring increases with age in both men and women, but menopause carries a marked increase in snoring for many women. Women who take hormone replacement therapy during menopause snore less, supporting the theory that female hormones protect against snoring.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea Differs in Men Versus Women
Snoring is one of the most prevalent symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition marked by periodic lapses in breathing while a person sleeps. Obstructive sleep apnea is believed to be two or three times more common in me, with the ratio levelling out after the age of 50 (11). However, researchers believe that as many as 90% of sleep apnea cases in women may go undiagnosed.
Men with obstructive sleep apnea typically notice disruptions to their sleep, but women with OSA often report atypical symptoms (12) to their doctors, such as insomnia, depression (13), or daytime fatigue (3). Since these symptoms are not traditionally associated with OSA, doctors may be less likely to correctly diagnose women with OSA.
Women with obstructive sleep apnea tend to have fewer total lapses in breathing, in part because their airways aren't completely obstructed as they are in men. Instead, women display prolonged periods of partially reduced breathing. Although symptoms might be different, sleep-disordered breathing contributes similarly to diabetes and high blood pressure (14) in both women and men. Researchers are currently working on developing methods to better detect sleep apnea in women (15).
Lifestyle Choices Affect Snoring
Smoking and alcohol are considered risk factors for snoring in both sexes, though these effects may play out differently for men and women (16). Tobacco smoking appears more likely to provoke snoring in women, perhaps because women are more susceptible to airway irritation and inflammation. By contrast, men are more likely to snore if they frequently drink alcohol, possibly because alcohol relaxes the airway, which is already more prone to collapse in men.
How Can You Stop Snoring?
Certain lifestyle adjustments can help reduce snoring. These lifestyle changes include losing weight, exercising regularly, and avoiding alcohol near bedtime. If you're one of the many people who snore more while sleeping on your back, some experts recommend sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pajamas or propping yourself up with pillows to encourage sleeping on your side.
Snoring is sometimes related to congestion in the nasal passages. People experiencing congestion may be able to reduce snoring by treating seasonal allergy symptoms or using nasal strips designed to clear the airway.
When to See a Doctor
Snoring is generally harmless in and of itself, but the sleep disruptions caused by snoring can leave you susceptible to secondary health problems. Snoring can also affect sleep for bed partners and lead to relationship friction. If your partner notices you snoring on a regular basis, or if you frequently experience poor sleep or daytime sleepiness, it's a good idea to mention this to your healthcare provider. They can get you tested for obstructive sleep apnea and prescribe a device designed to help you breathe better at night.
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