Noise and Sleep


Written by Dr. Michael Breus

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If you’ve ever spent the night in a loud neighborhood or tried to sleep with activities happening outside your bedroom, then it should come as no surprise that noise can greatly affect sleep quality. One or two nights of noise-related sleep loss can be annoying but should not pose any threat to your overall health. However, long-term sleep disruption can take a heavy toll on your physical and mental well-being.

Thankfully, there are a few measures you can take to minimize or block noise while you sleep. These range from time-tested methods, such as using earplugs, to newer advances like white noise machines and noise-blocking curtains. The strategy you choose may depend on your personal preferences and how much spending money you have at your disposal, but effectively reducing noise exposure at night is key to getting the sleep you need.

How Can Noise Impact Sleep?

The effect of loud noises on sleep is more complex than you might think. Noises that simply wake you up can cause sleep fragmentation that interferes with a healthy, four-stage sleep cycle. But even noises that do not awaken you can affect your sleep on a subconscious level.

For instance, traffic noise can affect your sleep cycle by extending the first stage of light sleep — normally the shortest stage — and reducing time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep. These latter two stages are essential for brain and body recovery during the night, as well as mechanisms like memory consolidation. Another example is aviation noise, which is believed to boost production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Both hormones promote feelings of alertness that can make sleeping more difficult.

Due to the potential sleep disruptions that can occur, noise can have both short-term and long-term effects on your physical health and mental state:

  • Short-term effects of sleep deprivation include poor cognitive performance, trouble learning and concentrating, and irritability. People who don’t get enough sleep often struggle in academic, professional, and social settings. They are also at higher risk for being involved in a car accident, and — for older adults — falls that lead to broken bones and other serious injuries.
  • Long-term effects of sleep deprivation can be more serious. Those who don’t get the sleep they need can increase their risk of certain medical and mental health conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, obesity and diabetes, depression, and anxiety. Since the immune system needs time to recover during the night, insufficient sleep can also leave you more vulnerable to illnesses and infections.

The volume of noise at night is crucial. If you can’t completely block noise that is disruptive to sleep, reducing its intensity can still help prevent nighttime awakenings, balance your sleep cycle, and ensure you get enough deep sleep. Current guidelines from the World Health Organization state that bedroom noise levels should not exceed 30 decibels, which is equivalent to a soft whisper. Traffic noise, on the other hand, can measure 80 to 85 decibels.

Tips for Reducing or Blocking Noise at Night

Maintaining a quiet bedroom is a tenet of healthy sleep hygiene, a term that collectively refers to habits and behaviors that promote restful, high-quality sleep. This includes both reducing noise within the bedroom and blocking external noise outside your residence. Measures for creating a quiet sleep environment include:

  • Soundproof the bedroom: Soundproof windows can be very effective. One study found that soundproof windows can reduce traffic noise in an indoor setting by more than 50%. Soundproof curtains may also cut down on outside noise in addition to keeping your room dark and conducive for sleep.
  • Customize your phone settings: Removing your cell phone and electronic devices from your bedroom is most effective, but this may not be feasible for some people. If you need to keep your phone close by for work or family obligations, one effective workaround may be to activate the “do not disturb” setting. This will mute all incoming calls and texts unless there is an emergency.
  • Isolate yourself from cohabitants: Unless you normally share your bedroom with a partner or children, you should train other people under your roof to not disturb you during sleep time. You may also want to consider preventing pets from entering your bedroom.
  • ‘Soften’ your bedroom: Soft surfaces can absorb noise better than hard surfaces. Cushions, curtains, and soft wall coverings such as tapestries and quilts can make your bedroom much quieter.
  • Use earplugs or headphones: Plugging your ears can significantly block outside noise. Earplugs for sleeping are affordable and effective at creating near or total silence while you sleep. Headphones for sleeping may be better suited to people who want to listen to music or ambient noise while they sleep.

Are Earplugs and Headphones Safe for Sleeping?

Earplugs are generally considered safe. For many people, they are a crucial component of the personal protective equipment they need to do their job without excessive noise exposure. However, prolonged use of earplugs may cause earwax buildup. Long-term effects of this buildup can include hearing impairments and tinnitus, a condition that produces a constant clicking, hissing, or buzzing sound in the ears.

Long-term use of in-ear headphones can also cause earwax buildup. Listening to music with headphones can also cause hearing problems later in life, though most documented cases involve a volume of 85 decibels or louder.

White Noise and Sleep

Listening to white noise is a method of masking disruptive sounds during sleep that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Just as white light contains all colors on the color spectrum, white noise is made up of audible sound across all frequencies. Each sound is played at the same intensity level, resulting in a somewhat crunchy playback akin to the static on a television or radio.

Research into white noise’s effectiveness as a sleep aid is ongoing, but results thus far have been uneven. Some studies have found that white noise effectively masks noise and promotes healthy sleep. Additional benefits of listening to white noise may include decreased symptoms for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and stronger vocabulary building skills for adults. Other studies have contradicted the claim that continuous noise is conducive to sleep.

Whether or not white noise helps you sleep may depend on your personal preferences. If you have not enjoyed listening to white noise in the past, then you may sleep better with a different color of noise. For example, pink noise also contains every octave on the sound spectrum, but the power behind the frequencies decreases as the octave rises, resulting in a lower pitched sound than white noise. A similar principle applies with red noise — also known as brown noise — but the power decreases at double the rate of pink noise, making it sound even deeper.

You can purchase dedicated devices that play white noise and other noise colors. White noise machines typically cost between $50 and $150. Downloadable white noise apps for smartphones are also widely available. These programs frequently feature other sleep-inducing programs such as relaxing music or nature sounds.

While not effective for everyone, a white noise machine or app may help remedy sleep loss due to disruptive sounds inside or outside your residence. If you’d rather not spend money on a device, the whir of a bedroom fan can be a low-cost alternative to white noise.

About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. He holds a BA in Psychology from Skidmore College, and PhD in Clinical Psychology from The University of Georgia. Dr. Breus has been in private practice as a sleep doctor for nearly 25 years. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is also the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, Good Night!, and Energize!

  • POSITION: Combination Sleeper
  • TEMPERATURE: Hot Sleeper

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