Can Noise Help You Sleep Better?

How you can use white, pink, brown, or black noise to sleep.

CHRONIC SLEEP INSUFFICIENCY is associated with a variety of suboptimal outcomes. Get short sleep, and you may see a suboptimal performance, an increase in your risk for accidents and early death, and adverse effects on both psychological and physical health. Today we look at some sleep basics before turning to how various noise colors might improve your sleep quality.

Cumulative sleep deprivation raises the risk of motor vehicle accidents, even among those who do not report excessive sleepiness. Among the health problems associated with short sleep are cardiovascular morbidity, immunosuppression, obesity, and all-cause mortality.

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

― DR. SEUSS

Are you among those who have a hard time falling asleep? Sleep insufficiency exists when sleep is not adequate to support alertness, performance, and health. The deficiency can be reduced total sleep time (decreased quantity) or fragmentation of sleep by brief arousals (reduced quality).

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If yes, you join the approximately 30 percent of American adults who don’t regularly get enough sleep. What does the science say about using sound to enhance your sleep experience?

You may have heard that white noise is beneficial for those with sleep challenges. Let’s look at whether other sonic hues can help with your sleep. We being with some basics of sound.

The sonic signal’s energy determines the color of noise; the energy distribution over various frequencies (or the sound speed) makes the difference.

Pink noise contains all of the audible frequencies, but the energy is more intense at lower frequencies. This energy distribution creates a deep sound. You have heard pink sounds in nature. For example, you’ll listen to it with rustling leaves, wind, a steady rain, or heartbeats. To the human ear, pink noise typically sounds flat or even.

Pleasant sound, but can pink noise enhance your sleep?

Your brain processes sound, even when we are asleep. Different noises vary in how they affect your restfulness. Some use noise sleep aids on their smartphone, computer, or a dedicated device such as a white noise machine. But what about pink noise?

Pink noise is deeper than white noise. Think of white noise with a bass rumble. Brown noise is even deeper than is pink noise, however.

Pink noise appears to have promise. For example, a 2017 study found a positive association between pink noise and deep sleep. Deep sleep is central to memory and helps you feel refreshed when you awaken in the morning. Honestly, there are few well-done studies to make any definitive statements about pink noise and sleep quality.

You are probably wondering how pink noise compares to other color noises. White noise has all audible frequencies, with energy equally distributed among these frequencies. Because of the even distribution, white noise is a steady humming sound. A whirring fan is an example.

Given white noise has all frequencies at equal intensity, it can mask sounds that stimulate the brain. White noise is a favorite tool for those with sleep challenges.

Brown noise (also known as red noise) can sound like low roaring or a powerful waterfall. To my ear, it does not seem so remarkably different from white noise. Brown noise appears to help with sleep, but we don’t have much proof.

Finally, we pivot to black noise. This informal descriptor describes lack of noise or complete silence (with or without bits of random noise). Black noise is my preferred noise type: I feel most relaxed when there is little or no sound.

Exploring sonic hues

Smartphone apps such as NoiseZ can allow you to explore various noise colors. Alternatively, check our YouTube for examples. If you are in the market for a noise machine for sleep enhancement, you should check out such a source.

There is limited data that a bit of background noise may help you tune out sounds that can interfere with good sleep. In a small 2005 study in the journal Sleep Medicine, researchers exposed sleeping subjects to recorded hospital sounds, with or without a white noise machine.

The sleepers’ brain wave analysis found that those who slept with the white noise machine were hardly disturbed by the hospital sounds, whereas sleep arousals were frequent among those who slept without white noise.

I wish that listening to sonic hues helped solve all issues with suboptimal sleep. Here are some sleep hygiene suggestions:

  • Be consistent with your sleep and awaken times. I find it helpful to retain a general schedule, even on weekends and other days off. Try doing something that is relaxing in the 30 to 60 minutes pre-sleep. I often read or meditate. Alternative, try stretching.
  • Avoid stimulants. Nicotine and caffeine can have effects for many hours.
  • Get physical activity (but limit strenuous exercise a few hours before bedtime).
  • Watch the artificial lights. Such light suppresses our sleep hormone melatonin. It also stimulates our brains. Avoid smartphones, laptops, and televisions in the hour before bed. On the other hand, regular bright light exposure in the mornings may improve your alertness and maintain a steady circadian rhythm. In extreme latitudes where sunlight is minimal in the winter, researchers have found that as little as one hour of exposure to white light in the morning helped subjects go to sleep earlier and awaken earlier.
  • Limit your daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Be careful with food intake. Watch out for large meals a few hours before sleeping.

If optimizing your sleep hygiene doesn’t solve the problem, please talk to your doctor about the next steps. And if you try a noise machine, let us know how it works for you. There is not high-level evidence to say one particular form of noise is better than another.

References

Sleep deficiency and motor vehicle crash risk in the general population: a prospective cohort study…DOI: 10.1186/s12916-018-1025-7. 1 Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology…pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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PATIENT ADVISORY

Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

General HealthCan Noise Help You Sleep Better?
Michael Hunter
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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