How to Use White Noise for Sounder Sleep

Homedics White Noise Sound Machine

Courtesy of Homedics 

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If you’re the kind of person who needs complete silence in order to get a good night’s sleep, close this tab. There's no need to read further. However, if you find that even the slightest noise—a garbage truck outside, a dog barking, a snoring spouse—is a call to attention, then you might want to look into the benefits of white noise.

Sleep Goals

There's nothing better than waking up after a great night of sleep, feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. There are so many benefits of a good night's sleep in addition to feeling rejuvenated the next morning: it can keep your heart healthy, help reduce stress and ward off depression.

You may have noticed that getting a good night's sleep is becoming tougher to achieve as you grow older. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, older adults who don’t sleep well at night are more likely to have problems with memory and attention and are at a greater risk of nighttime falls.

Sleep duration, how much you sleep each night, has also been linked to longevity. The most beneficial night’s sleep is probably seven to eight hours in length. Interestingly, more is not necessarily better.

According to a 2011 study in the journal Sleep, people who get fewer than six hours or more than nine hours of sleep per night at a greater risk of early mortality compared to good sleepers.

Finding the right balance between too much and too little sleep can ensure better daytime functioning and overall health. While hypersomnia (excessive sleep) may require the help of a sleep specialist, people with poor sleep may benefit from improved sleep hygiene and a simple tool called a white sound machine.

Benefits of White Noise

If you have trouble falling asleep or are easily awakened during the night, many sleep specialists recommend trying a sound conditioner or white noise machine. In the book "Say Good Night to Insomnia," researcher Gregg Jacobs contends that the devices work in two ways: by blocking distracting noises and producing soothing sounds that are relaxing and help to induce sleep.

"I am a true believer of white noise," says psychiatrist David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. " They provide something of a kind of "sound cocoon," which can be very soothing. When it’s completely quiet, people with insomnia focus more closely on small noises, which can interfere with their ability to get to sleep."

A 2016 study in the Journal of Caring Sciences reported that white sound machines increased the sleep time of people in a coronary ICU from 4.75 to 7.08 hours after three days compared to those without a machine who had no improvement.

Machine Options

Noise machines are widely available and are relatively inexpensive, but before you head to the nearest big-box store, find out which kind of noise machine is best for you.

White Noise Machines

White noise is when sound waves of a broad spectrum of frequencies are combined, forming a sound similar to the constant hum a fan creates when it’s blowing air. White noise machines may generate their own white noise or play it back in a loop.

Research has shown that white noise can help patients sleep through the type of sounds that occur in a hospital Intensive Care Unit setting by helping to block out ambient noise. Sleep loss in the ICU has been the focus of some research because a patient’s recovery can be negatively impacted by a lack of sleep.

White noise may be especially useful for people with tinnitus, a condition characterized by an abnormal ringing or buzzing in the ear. White noise can help mask the sound, which tends to be more noticeable and disruptive at night.

Nature Sound Machines

Many people find nature sounds like rainfall and ocean waves more relaxing than white noise. The repetitive, consistent sound is easy for the brain to ignore. This may not be true for machines that feature ocean sounds with intermittent bird calls or foghorns, for example.

Nature sound machines may not be ideal for light sleepers. Certain high-pitched or heavy-bass sounds have been known to inadvertently jar a person awake.

Pink Noise Machines

There also machines known as pink noise machines. Pink noise is believed to slows down brain waves, ensuring a steadier, longer period of uninterrupted sleep. During the daytime, pink noise is also said to increase productivity and concentration in the workplace.

While white and pink noise covers all of the frequencies a human ear can hear, the intensity of pink noise decreases as the frequency increases. Whereas white noise can sound like a hiss, pink noise is smoother and more soothing.

When to Seek Help

Neubauer says there is no evidence of dependency or withdrawal when the noise machines are absent. He compares using them to making any other change in your sleeping environment, like getting a better mattress, lowering the room temperature or turning off the lights.

While it’s true that quality of sleep tends to worsen with age, sleep disturbances in older people are often due to other health problems, like cardiac or pulmonary diseases, chronic pain or psychiatric issues like depression. Age-related changes in circadian rhythm, the body’s daily biological cycle, may also be to blame.

If you have tried to build good sleeping habits by cutting back on caffeine and having a regular bedtime routine and it’s not enough, talk to your health-care provider. They’ll want to rule out sleep apnea, which can have the same symptoms of fractured sleep, or difficulty falling asleep, as with insomnia.

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