A TV droning in the next apartment, a late-night bus hissing to a stop, birds chirping in the wee hours — all these noises can potentially pull you out of much-needed slumber. Whether inside or outside of your home, environmental noises can be a problematic sleep disruptor that slowly start to impact your health. Fortunately, noise can be masked or completely avoided in order to maintain quality shuteye.
“In order to sleep at night,” says Chelsie Rohrscheib, Ph.D., sleep specialist and neuroscientist, “our brains have to reduce [their] heightened awareness to allow our brainwaves to slow so we can drift off to sleep. Therefore, it’s essential that our sleeping environment be free of stimulation that our brain will try to focus on, including noise.”
How Noise Affects Sleep Quality (Even When It Doesn’t Wake You Up)
“Our earliest ancestors had to deal with danger from predatory animals, harsh environmental conditions, and other humans from foreign tribes,” Rohrscheib explains. Noise put us on alert. It was how our minds snapped awake or prevented us from falling asleep. “Thus, our brains evolved to constantly scan our environment and switch attention between different stimuli to determine if there is danger present.”
Though we typically do not deal with the same threats that awakened our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the attention processes in our brains still exist and work the same, according to Rohrscheib. And audio cues evolve to notify us of other issues: Our brains are still hardwired to be on alert for, say, that smoke alarm or the wail from the baby monitor.
Researchers have found that environmental noise — like the sounds you may think you’re used to — can cause significant sleep disturbances. One of the most problematic types of night noise pollution comes from transportation, like cars, trains, busses, and airplanes. But noises inside the home are a concern too. Disruptive sounds, even at low exposure levels, can have a negative effect, both on falling asleep and staying asleep. If you have misophonia, or are particularly sensitive to noise, consistent noise may be a bigger disruption for you than other people.
“Consistent noise, such as snoring,” Rohrschieb says, “may make it extremely difficult to fall asleep because your brain never has a chance to reduce attention away from the snoring sound. Conversely, a random one-off noise, such as a car horn, might quickly jolt you awake, as your brain may consider it a threat.”
Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist, works with clients in recovery who struggle to get a good night’s sleep in a noisy environment. “Your brain still processes sound when you are asleep,” he says, “so too much noise is a serious obstacle to getting high-quality sleep every night.”
Products and Tricks for Blocking Out Noise at Night
You may not be able to move away from that bus stop outside your bedroom window or stop the birds from their perky chirping. However there are many hacks and products to help reduce sound levels at night.
Soundproof Your Room
“Having multi-pane, noise-blocking windows [is] one of the best ways to reduce outdoor noise from entering the bedroom,” Rohrscheib says. But if you can’t change your windows, you can opt for soundproof curtains, which help block soundwaves. Seek out a product with a Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating of 20 or higher.
Other effective ways to soundproof your room include:
- Use a towel or door sweep to seal the bottom of your bedroom door to drown out living room noise and light.
- Place a bookshelf against the wall that transmits sound to muffle vibrations.
- Place soft rugs over creaky floorboards to dampen noise.
- Buy a sound-proof foam sheet to set into your window at night.
Use High-Quality Ear Plugs
Sleeping with high-quality earplugs may also be a solution. And they’re a portable option for travel. “Silicone ear plugs cancel out enough noise for you to be able to enjoy a distraction-free sleep,” Sadoun says.
Earplugs have a noise reduction rating (NRR). If you sleep in a noisy environment, aim for an NRR of 33 decibels, which is the highest level of noise reduction. Based on a specific formula, an NRR rating of 33 reduces your exposure by 13 decibels. For reference, residential urban noise generally ranges from 45 to 55 decibels.
Try a Sound Machine
A sound machine emits a continuous loop of noise to block out environmental sounds. In one small trial, researchers found that a white noise machine helped subjects fall asleep faster than they did when exposed to the normal noise around them. Beyond white noise, there is also pink noise and brown noise to help with sleep.
For a quick fix, you can also try turning on your fan for the night.
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Rearrange Your Bed
If your bed is right next to a loud neighbor’s wall, you might want to rearrange your bedroom. This might seem like a dramatic step, but deciding to sleep through — or be woken up by — noise that you can’t control may lead to a lot of tired mornings and frustration.
Try Sleep Hypnosis for Directed Focus
Sleep hypnosis sounds gimmicky, but this method can help your brain transition away from being active and move towards relaxed thinking patterns. Listening to guided meditation, bedtime stories, or ASMR videos while focusing on your breathing may help tune out noise you can’t control.
Talk It Out With Your Partner
Got a bedmate who snores? Snoring is pretty common and can happen occasionally because of stuffy nose or for other reasons. “There are many snoring aids available,” Rohrscheib says. But snoring can also be a health concern.
If it’s a frequent occurrence, you may want to have a kind conversation with your partner so they can be screened for sleep apnea if needed. If snoring continues to keep you awake, she adds, “Some partners sleep in separate bedrooms to avoid disturbing each other.”
What Are the Best Sounds to Fall Asleep To?
“Sound, like other sensations, is highly personal,” says Dr. Teofilo Lee-Chiong, chief medical liaison of sleep and respiratory care at Philips. “While some individuals may find certain sounds soothing and help them sleep better — to aid us when meditating, to momentarily distract us from worries and anxious thoughts, or to make the darkness less isolating and frightening —others may prefer silence when sleeping.”
Sadoun recommends avoiding falling asleep watching the TV or listening to a podcast, however. “Try to break this habit,” he says, “as you will be processing this media as you sleep rather than fully relaxing.”
If a TV sleep send-off has long been your go-to for drifting off, an alternative is to set a timer to be sure another episode doesn’t begin and rouse you from slumber.
The Consequences of Night Noise Disruption
Finding a way to block out night noises may help you get better quality sleep by reducing disruptions. Even better, it may also aid your short- and long-term health and well-being.
Whether we realize it or not, sound while we are trying to sleep repeatedly flips our internal switch from some of the relaxing effects of our parasympathetic nervous system to those of our fight-or-flight stress responses of the sympathetic nervous system.
The result can be next-day grogginess and fogginess. But people may also experience mood changes, like irritability, grumpiness, or feeling down. More studies are needed to understand the long-term health consequences, but emerging research shows that repeated exposure to nocturnal noise while sleeping may affect heart and metabolic health.
If you’re not sure if noise is affecting you at night, try using a sleep recording app, something Sadoun recommends to his clients. “You may notice that you toss and turn,” he says, “which is a sure sign that noise affects your sleep.”
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