Jamesha Edwards, 32, was no stranger to sleepless nights. Her husband, Lionel, 40, saw to that with his snoring. "The snoring was so loud," she explains. "And really scary. He was [often] gasping and fighting in his sleep because he was trying to get air." Edwards, a sales representative who lives in Pottstown, Pa., alternated between sitting awake worrying about her husband's health and being forced out of their bedroom in search of peace and quiet.
Hers is a familiar story. A National Sleep Foundation survey found that nearly one in four couples in the United States sleeps in separate bedrooms, a number that has more than doubled in just a few years.
Snoring -- the vibration of air against narrowing upper airways -- is the No. 1 complaint of bed partners, according to Charles W. Atwood Jr., MD, sleep medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. A small airway, a large neck, nasal congestion, or a blockage such as tonsils can cause snoring. Sleep apnea, a condition marked by breathing that stops for brief periods, is another, more serious cause of snoring. "The person with sleep apnea has a brief arousal, which restores the airway tone, usually there is a loud gasp or snort and the person may startle a little and then go back to sleep. This cycle may continue for dozens or hundreds of times a night," Atwood explains.
The tossing and turning or getting in and out of bed all night that goes along with insomnia causes trouble between couples. So does involuntary jerking motions, which are sometimes linked to restless leg syndrome.
Sleepless nights bring more than just dark under-eye circles. High blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, depression, and loss of concentration have all been linked to sleep apnea. And over time, insomnia "makes people feel run down, tired, and less productive," Atwood says. "Their quality of life is diminished."
Edwards' husband was ultimately diagnosed with a severe case of sleep apnea and now sleeps with a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure machine, that uses air pressure to open his upper airway. He breathes easier at night, and so does his wife. "I could see the difference right away," she says. "It's created a whole new [direction] for our relationship."
Shelby Freedman Harris, PsyD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center's Sleep-Wake Disorders Center, offers tips for helping your partner.
Nightcap no-no. Late-night meals, muscle relaxants, and alcohol can all worsen snoring, so try to cut them out of nighttime routines.
Ball gain. Some people snore only while sleeping on their backs. To help keep your partner from sleeping on his back -- and prevent you from waking up -- sew a pocket onto the back of a T-shirt and fill it with a tennis ball.
Witness stand. Often, bed partners help diagnose sleep disorders by observing their bedmate at night. Take an active role in getting help for your sleep-deprived significant other.