Up until a few years ago, Alise Ojay had a persistent problem with her spouse. Many couples can relate. Her husband, Frank, was a chronic snorer. But she invented a fix, and eventually persuaded Frank to try it out. As reluctant as he was, it was worth a shot, especially considering that a well-known scientist, after testing it, had already given it a thumbs up.
While there are a number of sophisticated medical treatments available, such as nasal and oral devices as well as surgery, Ojay's solution is more akin to a natural home remedy. The British choir director claims that a series of routine vocalizations, performed 20 minutes a day over the course of less than a month, can reduce snoring significantly. That's because these "singing exercises," she says, were formulated specifically to work out throat muscles that have weakened over time. The approach is based on the premise that firming up these muscles would allow air to pass in and out with less obstruction.
“Singing for Snorers,” a 42 pound ($70) CD of guided vocal gymnastics, was developed though clinical trials and extensive research that identified particular sounds (like "ung" and "gah," for instance), and in some cases pitch changes, that would strengthen parts of the throat most implicated in snoring. In the 10 years since her product has been on the market, users have reported that it has helped them snore less and breathe quieter. One reviewer who purchased the CD on Amazon.com even said that undergoing the program enabled him to bring his sleep apnea, a more serious sleep disorder involving sudden interrupted breathing, under control.
Ojay came up with the idea back in 1997, when a friend shared that his snoring was so severe that it led ultimately to the breakup of his last relationship. After listening in on his snoring, she suspected that his soft palate (a swath of controlled tissue located near the back of the mouth) was very lax, to the point where it produced loud acoustic vibrations with each breath. She then wondered if making sounds that toned up his palate would allow it to better resist the force of the air that funneled through each time he breathed in.
Her line of thinking is, at the very least, scientifically sound. Various factors—including obesity, alcohol consumption and certain sleeping positions—contribute to noisy breathing during sleep. Excessive fatty tissue around the neck, for instance, can make for particularly loud breathing patterns. But the primary mechanism responsible for most snoring is the relaxation of throat muscles, which progressively worsens as we age. Alcohol and other muscle relaxants also momentarily affect these areas.
To test out her hunch, Ojay enlisted the help of Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the nearby University of Exeter, who had previously ran experiments using electrodes to stimulate soft palates. Together they designed and conducted a study involving 20 subjects committed to following a 3-month-long daily regimen of vocal exercises that Ojay compiled based on her own self-experimentation. The duration and volume of the participants' snoring was monitored and recorded by a voice-activated tape recorder for seven nights prior to and after the treatment to assess its effectiveness.
“I spent months experimenting with a mirror and my own throat, even though I knew which muscles I wanted to work," Ojay says. “It was just a case of finding the exact sounds and pitch changes that grabbed and maximized the movement in those muscles.”
The results, published in the International Journal of Otolaryngology and Head & Neck Surgery, revealed that snoring was "on average reduced, especially in subjects who performed the exercises accurately and consistently." Moreover, those who experienced the most significant improvement started snoring only in middle age, weren't overweight and didn't have any pre-existing nasal problems.
While she has received positive feedback from customers who are moderately overweight, Ojay cautions that the program won't work for everyone. "The people most likely to get an excellent result are those who have started snoring as they get older," she says. "As we all discover, any area of our bodies we don’t exercise becomes lax, and our throats are no exception."
A recent review by the U.K.'s public health agency, the National Health Service, concluded that although the findings are promising, additional studies using better monitoring apparatuses would be needed to further establish this effect. At the moment, clinical phase trials are being planned at Kingman Medical Center in Arizona and another at Emory University in Atlanta. Both are designed to measure the impact of targeted singing exercises on patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea.
For now, Ojay says she hopes to eventually expand her sole product with a graduate version for those who may want to ratchet their routine up a notch. "It’s not a quick fix, you need to stick at it and ultimately keep it going at a maintenance level," she adds. "But the benefit, besides reducing snoring, is that it's good for your singing voice and helps raise everyone’s spirits—especially the person sleeping next to you."