Snoring became a problem for Obediya Jones-Darrell, a 38-year-old artist and acupuncturist in Vancouver, Canada, in college.
“I would spend long hours on campus studying in the library. I would fall asleep, and then wake up from hearing a loud noise,” he says. “I think other students in the library were waking me up on purpose because I was snoring.”
Jones-Darrell soon noticed that the quality of his sleep was being affected — he didn’t feel rested in the morning and had stopped remembering his dreams — so he sought help from his family doctor and was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder that can obstruct breathing during sleep and cause snoring.
A CPAP machine ― a mask worn at night to help ensure continued breathing ― stopped the snoring, but Jones-Darrell still wasn’t remembering dreams. So he decided to look for a complementary alternative anti-snoring treatment.
To his surprise, his research revealed that many people have reported improvements in snoring after learning to play the didgeridoo, a wooden wind instrument played by indigenous Australians.
“To play this instrument,” Jones-Darrell explains, “you need to learn how to do circular breathing,” which is a technique used by wind instrument-playing musicians to keep a continuous tone and requires the player to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth at the same time.
“I would go to a park close to my house and practice playing the instrument. After 45 minutes of circular breathing, my throat and mind felt very relaxed. I slept much better, and I had vivid dreams again,” he says. “I think the didgeridoo reconnected me with the person I lost when I started using the CPAP,” though he continues to use the two treatments in tandem.
As far-fetched as this may seem to some, experts agree that circular breathing can help ease or even eliminate snoring, and research has found that playing the didgeridoo helps to strengthen throat muscles and reduce snoring.
A 2006 study published by The British Medical Journal found that among a control group — of mostly men around age 50 — playing the didgeridoo for about 25 minutes per day six days per week correlated with a significant reduction in daytime sleepiness. And while the study participants didn’t note much difference in the quality of their sleep, the partners of the didgeridoo players reported far fewer nighttime disruptions (i.e., less snoring).
Dr. Emerson Wickwire, director of the insomnia program and assistant professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says he has seen positive results with snoring patients who learn to play the didgeridoo.
“Singing, tongue and throat exercises, and even the didgeridoo have been shown to reduce snoring,” he says. He cautions, however, that it’s critical to get properly diagnosed and treated by your family doctor or an ear, nose and throat specialist if you’re suffering from snoring.
“Snoring takes place when there is too much air forced through a small airway, causing vibration; this is the same reason that a kazoo or saxophone makes noise,” he explains, but over time, the vibration can lead to swelling and tissue damage in the throat that can, in turn, cause the potentially fatal condition of obstructive sleep apnea.
In short, says Wickwire, even though the didgeridoo can help, seeking a professional opinion is a critical first step to easing snoring, a symptom of a potentially bigger problem. Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, but it’s important to get checked out.
Jones-Darrell agrees, noting that what worked for him won’t work for everyone. He says, however, that he’d recommend anyone who’s been prescribed a CPAP machine look into holistic remedies to complement the doctor’s orders.
“I think the medical solution addresses how your body works,” he says. “But a holistic approach is all about your whole body getting the treatment it needs to improve your quality of life.”