Over the years, my snoring has been compared to a chainsaw, a howler monkey, the eruption of Krakatoa, and an industrial snowplow throwing off sparks on the asphalt of an interstate in the middle of a snowstorm. I have been relegated to sleeping in the most remote corners of other people’s homes, undoubtedly said goodbye to lovers who couldn’t deal with the racket, and, in at least one instance, had six rows of a long-haul international flight alternately in hysterics and cursing me. I have tried nasal strips, mouthpieces and numerous other devices to no avail. I now fortunately have a husband who can, for the most part, put up with it, although I am often banished to another bedroom. (For the record: He snores, too.) And I am in the habit of carrying earplugs with me and offering them to anyone I’m spending a night under the same roof with—while simultaneously apologizing in advance.
Thirteen years ago, I found out that I was born with a heart anomaly, which some doctors suspect might have a correlation to sleep apnea. On the advice of my cardiologist, I had a sleep study done at Mass. General. I arrived at the lab and got settled in a charmless, linoleum-tiled room painted a queasy-looking green and equipped only with a standard hospital bed and some intimidating machinery. A technician attached electrodes to my forehead and chest, and I recall asking, “How the hell is anyone expected to go to sleep hooked up to all this crap?” At a bedtime more suitable for a child, I was told to go to sleep, and I tried to get comfortable despite all the wires. Hypnos eventually descended upon me, and I slept relatively soundly, given the circumstances, until some ungodly early hour the next morning. I tapped on the glass at the lab technician who had been monitoring me overnight. She came in.
“So, do I have sleep apnea?” I asked.
“Only the doctor can say for sure,” she said, “but one thing I can tell you is that you snore really fucking loudly.”
As I later found out from the doctor, I don’t have a sleep disorder, unless you count snoring so loudly that a lab technician who routinely monitors other people’s sleep felt compelled to resort to profanity in describing mine.
Science has determined that sleep is one of the most important things for our physical health, playing a key role in healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels. Chronic sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Simply put, sleep is as crucial as eating, but we pay it much less attention, and the quality of our sleep even less. While I, generally speaking, have little trouble getting to sleep, I wanted to try to find ways to catch some better Z’s—and, if possible, modulate my nocturnal thundering.
Cue Dr. Stuart Quan, clinical chief and medical director of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His cardinal rule for a good night’s rest? “You should use your bedroom only to sleep and do other things that begin with the letter ‘s’.”
Assuming that he isn’t referring to “spelunking,” I’m in pretty good shape in this regard. Although I am guilty of reading in bed, which helps me feel tired, I’ve never had a TV in the bedroom, and this, it turns out, is a good thing.
Says Quan, “It’s a good idea to avoid screens of any kind, especially ones with blue wavelength light like in smartphones.”
That means that even if you rely on your phone as an alarm, it’s best to set it and forget it. For me, that meant installing an old-fashioned clock that I could see in the dark. If you are older than 40, I need not explain that the bladder becomes a great interrupter the older you get, and out of curiosity, I always want to know what time it is when I get up to pee. In that case, not blinding myself with my iPhone while I try to find out the time makes it easier to get back to sleep. Similarly, having a night light in the bathroom might be a better choice than subjecting yourself to the full glare of the overhead bulbs.
It also turns out that my Jewish grandmother’s admonition against eating before bedtime is true. Quan points out that getting horizontal too soon after eating can result in acid reflux or heartburn. Obviously, stimulants are to be avoided (no snorting meth before lights out!), but many people don’t realize the hidden stimulants in places you wouldn’t expect them, like cold medicines that contain phenylephrine. However, the biggest, and most ignored, sleep disruptor is alcohol.
“People have been taught to believe that drinking will help them sleep because it initially makes them feel tired,” Quan says. “But actually, it fragments your sleep architecture,” which means that that nightcap messes with your REM cycles, and the result is less restful, productive sleep. While obviously apocryphal, I noticed that when I heeded this bit of Quan’s advice, not only did I wake up feeling more refreshed (and not hungover), but I felt that my dreams were more vivid, and I remembered them in greater detail. To me at least, that’s worth a night off the sauce.
In 2012, The Fiscal Times estimated that the sleep industry was a $32.4 billion a year business, and it’s only grown since then. In the past month, Bedgear announced a partnership with the Boston Celtics, becoming the team’s “Official Performance Sleep System Partner.” The company provides custom mattresses, pillows, sheets and blankets, as well as neck pillows for traveling. This means that the Celtics are now in a love-triangle with the Red Sox, who became Bedgear’s “Official Performance Bedding Partner” in 2016, leaving little doubt that pro athletes, whose sole concern is high performance, believe in these technologies. Meanwhile, Framingham-based audio giant Bose recently launched a sold-out Indiegogo campaign for “noise-masking sleepbuds,” which cancel unwanted noise and replace it with soothing sounds. While still in the prototype stage, the buds should be on the market early this year.
When asked what he thinks of all the new sleep technology, Quan demurs with the understandable comment: “I don’t recommend any of those products you see on TV, because I don’t know that any of them have any scientific basis to support their claims.”
So what, ultimately, are Quan’s top three tips for getting a good night’s sleep? Fairly simple: “One, ensure you have enough time to sleep, which for adults is at least seven hours. Two, try to have a fairly regular sleeping schedule, because the data shows that regularity is important in sleep quality. And three, don’t go to bed until you’re tired.”
As for my snoring, he had little solace to offer.
“There are some remedial things you can do, and some you can’t. Smoking, allergies and being overweight increase snoring, and those you can do something about. Being male and getting older? Not much you can do.”
So it looks like my husband and anybody else I share a roof with is out of luck—at least until Bose comes out with those sleepbuds. In the meantime, you can probably find me in the guest room.