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June 17, 2019

From 'pink noise' to binaural beats, these sounds may help you sleep

Or, keep it simple and use a fan

Bedtime has arrived, and now it’s time to set the stage.

Light-emitting electronics like the TV and computer are off. Phone is on airplane mode. Pajamas are breathable and comfortable. Bed is made. Sheets are clean. Room is cool. Curtains are closed. It’s quiet. In fact it’s silent. So deafeningly silent.

How can you sleep when the silence is so loud? When all you can hear is your breath and your thoughts?

So now the silence is broken with your neighbor’s car alarm or construction or the ice maker or barking, beeping, yelling, dripping, ticking. It doesn’t matter. How can you sleep when it’s so noisy? What’s the solution? It’s noise. You heard right. Just the right noise.


MORE ON SLEEP: Getting in sync with your circadian cycle is a key to healthy sleep

There are a number of different noise options. I was recently on a flight and noticed one of the options for in-flight entertainment was an audio program for sleep. Sleep always catches my attention, and I was curious. I put it on and closed my eyes. The female voice encouraged me to separate myself from my thoughts and get caught up in the present moment of relaxation. I just couldn’t get over the fact that her voice sounded familiar. Was it Emma Thompson – only with a slightly lower pitch and faint lisp? I’m not sure, but I just couldn’t get into the meditative state I was supposed to be in.

Guided meditation for sleep can certainly be a relaxing option with someone who is able to immerse themselves. Others like listening to music, but some may get caught up in in it, may hum or sing along, or follow the beat.

There are also sleep apps, stations and videos with different nature sounds like waterfalls, rain, animals, even city sounds. Again they may work for some, but those different sounds can be distracting or have background sounds like birds or thunder that can be jolting. Be careful about the videos that are available since screens may emit blue wavelength light that is stimulating and can have counteractive effects.

Speaking of blue, there’s colorful noise. Pink, blue, violet, brown, white, black and gray. The various colors of noise depend on the frequencies that affect the power spectrum of a noise signal. The most popular colors of noise for sleep are white and pink.

A "white noise" machine may help with a gentle constant whir in the background. It may also mask outside sounds such as a car door slamming or voices that can change frequencies and cause a disruption in sleep. Oftentimes, it's not the noise that is bothersome, but the change in noise frequency. An old water heater or car going by can suddenly sound much louder in the still of the night, so this consistent sound blends it all together. There was even a study showed that patients in a coronary care unit were able to sleep much better when white noise blocked the sounds of the busy hospital ward.

Then there's "pink noise," which is like white noise, but instead of having equal power across frequencies, pink noise comes out louder and more powerful at the lower frequencies (it has been likened to white noise with the bass turned up). Pink noise is often found in nature, such as waves lapping on the beach, leaves rustling in the trees, or a steady rainfall.

Research has showed that compared with no noise, the pink noise corresponded with a longer duration of deep sleep. (Interestingly, the subjects were also able to recall almost twice as many word pairs shown to them the previous night after sleeping with pink noise, vs. no noise at all.)

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Dr. Thanuja Hamilton

Or you could keep it simple and use an indirect fan. It keeps the room cool while creating a hum that drowns out sounds.

My friend Brenda swears by "binaural beats." Binaural means “relating to two ears." In this case, slightly different frequencies of sound are played into each ear. For instance 300 Hz in the left ear and 305 Hz in the right ear. When the brain hears these different frequencies, it perceives a third tone based on the difference between the two frequencies (in this case 5 Hz) and creates a low frequency pulsating beat.

When that difference is between 5-8 Hz, you get Theta waves that are associated with deep relaxation and certain stages of sleep. A difference of 0.1-4 Hz are associated with deep sleep. You can test how the phenomenon works by playing binaural sounds with headphones on. Take one earphone out and you’ll see you lose the pulsation and get a single tone.

I had a patient who was listening on headphones. She ended up waking up in the middle of the night with intense pain in her ear because she was sleeping on her side with the headphones on. There are now smart eye masks and cloth headbands with built-in Bluetooth headphones that are comfortable enough to sleep with.

A relatively new phenomenon is ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. This response is from sounds such as whispering or crisp sounds that bring on a euphoric tingling and relaxing sensation. Picture someone gently blowing in your ear. There are now thousands of videos and even ASMR artists who record relaxing sounds that help people unwind, decrease stress and fall asleep. It may be blowing sounds, whispering, tapping, crinkling or scratching.

Oh, and if that sound keeping you up is your partner’s snoring? Send him to a sleep specialist. You’ll thank me in the morning. Hear's, ahem, to good sleep!

Dr. Thanuja Hamilton is a board-certified sleep medicine specialist with Advocare Pulmonary & Sleep Physicians of South Jersey in Mount Laurel. She will be writing occasionally on sleep topics.

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