< Back to front page Text size +

An antidote for snoring: exercise

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 24, 2013 11:20 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Do you know someone with a snoring problem? Buy them a pair of running shoes—and not just so they can lose weight.

That’s the argument in an article in the current issue of the always entertaining Medical Hypotheses. The author, a doctor from Kyrgyzstan named Aibek Mirrakhimov, explains that poor fluid circulation contributes to Obstructive Sleep Apnea (really bad snoring); and he theorizes that exercise might improve blood flow in the legs and lead to a quieter night’s sleep.

All the arguments in Medical Hypotheses are, well, hypothetical. But they’re not plucked out of thin air, either, and Mirrakhimov blends scientifically established relationships with his own intuition to arrive at his theory. Regardless of whether he’s right, his argument provides a fun example of how doctors reason when confronted with an unexplained condition.

The immediate cause of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a narrowing of the upper airways. It’s serious because bad nocturnal breathing interferes with normal sleep rhythms, leaving people tired during the day. There are a number of risk factors for OSA. Some can’t be helped, like having a short lower jaw or a large tongue; others, like obesity, are more manageable.

It’s this last risk factor that caught Mirrakhimov’s eye. He looked at studies linking exercise and OSA, and noticed something: Even in situations where subjects weren’t getting trimmer, regular workouts still seemed to be having positive effects. This suggested that exercise mitigates OSA by some additional mechanism, beyond losing weight.

And here’s where the hypothesizing starts. Mirrakhimov knew that people with OSA also often suffer from Excessive Daytime Sleepiness. He guessed that sleepiness decreases physical activity, and he knew that decreased activity causes fluid accumulation in the legs. Mirrakhimov also knew from previous studies that when people lie down at night, the collected fluid flows up their bodies and into their necks (something known as the rostral fluid shift), constricting their airways. From there he reasoned that exercise might stop this bad cycle by stimulating the leg muscles and promoting better circulation.

Some of the links in Mirrakhimov’s chain are well-established, like the relationship between neck circumference and OSA. But his critical step—that exercise might promote better fluid circulation—is an intuition that remains to be tested. And as biologist H. Allen Orr writes in the current New York Review of Books (making a point that's surely not lost on Mirrakhimov), “a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition.”

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


Browse this blog

by category