Alternatives: Using sound as a bedtime sendoff

Many people who have trouble sleeping aren’t aware of the many options they can try before asking for the over-prescribed (in this writer’s opinion) sleeping pill. One of the best solutions for achieving sleep onset and for staying asleep can be found in the use of sound to deliver distraction and relaxation.


Sleep Music, by A-L-i-E-Nxx

Despite what most people think, the body and brain don’t just shut down at night while you are asleep. In fact, your body is always at work somewhere at all times of the day. During sleep, your cells are (ideally) being repaired, your brain is filing away information, your digestive system is working at a different rate based on its own circadian clock, and so forth. Your senses function at varying levels of activity as well.

Visual: Your eyes may be closed, but if there is light in the room, your body still perceives it through photoreceptor cells not only in your eyes, but in your skin.

Taste and smell: Your sense of taste may not be active, but that’s because you are not eating. Your sense of smell will slowly shut down, but if someone were to walk into your room with a plate full of freshly cooked bacon while you were in early stages of sleep, you would probably wake up, your mouth would probably water and your digestive system, because of new salivary action, would leap into regular action.

Touch: Your sense of touch will remain somewhat alert. Ideally, you will have a comfortable sleeping environment and not one which keeps you aware of discomfort (poor mattress support, ill-fitting sheets, inappropriate blanket weight, overwarm bed partner, active pets or children in bed, too cool or warm a room, etc.).

Sound is also something the brain processes while you are asleep. This is obvious to people who sleep with snoring bed partners, which could be spouses, children or pets. Noise can pull you out of deeper sleep stages or fragment the stages you are in, which leads to changes in pulse and blood pressure. If you are in the deepest stage of sleep, stage 3 or Delta sleep, you’ll be harder to awaken than if you are in early stages of sleep (1 or 2).

In addition, if you are aroused by sound during the night, the way that you deal with it depends a lot on how you regard that sound emotionally. If it’s the sound of a door being opened, and you aren’t expecting someone to come home in the middle of the night, you will react emotionally with panic or concern. If it’s the sound of your cat purring, you’ll probably not mind it so much and go back to sleep. If you live in the city but are in a rural environment, you might hear a coyote and the sound of that could increase your stress response and make it harder to fall asleep. Similarly, if you live in the country and hear the same coyote, you’ll probably let the sound go in one ear and out the other without much thought. And ruralites, in the city, are infamously known for not being able to sleep against the backdrop of traffic noises outside, while city dwellers can find great comfort in these sounds. Regardless where you live, there will always be the potential for noise pollution from barking dogs, loud parties, construction site racket, crying babies, fog horns, thunderstorms, fireworks, and low-flying jets, as the noise of life happens regardless our best intentions for getting sleep at night.

There are numerous ways to address the control of sound in your sleeping environment as a way to help prevent insomnia or broken sleep across the night.

The most simple way to drown out sound is to block it entirely with earplugs or a noise-canceling headset. This may be all you need, or you might find these items too uncomfortable to wear more than occasionally. Similarly, some people have reported using ski head bands with wide space to cover the ears; they wear the head band over their eyes instead of on the top of their head and keep the ears covered, and this works for them.

If these won’t work, then your options generally tend toward the creation of some kind of consistent background noise that masks other smaller household or exterior sounds which might interrupt your sleep.

You may already own a room fan, either on your nightstand, built into the window, on a stand in the corner or overhead. Fans can be useful even in the winter for pushing warm air down by reversing overhead fan blades or by directing conditioned warm air from vents or heaters to the center of the room. They can create just enough background noise to keep the brain from tuning into the tiny sounds of a household, like the refrigerator running or the minor creaks of a house, or of the sound of water in outside gutters.

Soft music is another useful option. You can deliver this in various ways. Tune into a New Age or classical music station on your satellite TV or stereo at a very low volume (but drape a towel over the TV or stereo to block any outgoing light patterns, which can disrupt sleep). Wear noise-canceling headphones or earbuds and listen to very soft, relaxing music from your electronic device (again, turn the device face-down or shut its cover to hide outgoing light patterns). You can use timers to shut off these programs, if available, so that you get just enough soft noise to usher you off to sleep. Avoid listening to spoken word programs, unless they are designed for relaxation, as they tend to command attention and stimulate the brain enough to prevent relaxation.

Sound machines generate different kinds of noise, including white or pink noise, wave sounds, the sounds of storms or rain, and other nature or even manmade sounds (some people like the slow drone of traffic to relax by). They can also generate frequency tones that may help the brain achieve relaxation (see Isochronic tones and binaural beats). If you have a bed partner, you may need to figure out which noise machine sounds work best for the both of you. Interestingly, some people find comfort in the sound of their partner’s CPAP machine and are bothered by its absence when their partner is away or not using it.

Isochronic tones and binaural beats are specific kinds of frequencies that may be capable of delivering sleep-friendly tones through a process known as brainwave entrainment. The theory behind brainwave entrainment, generally, is that you can use certain repeated vibrations or frequencies to launch specific kinds of brainwave patterns. Some tones might allow the brain to become more focused (synchronizing with alpha waves), which is desirable for, say, college students, while others could encourage relaxation by creating synchronization with delta wave patterns, which would appeal to insomniacs.

Isochronic tones are defined as specific, carefully spaced pulses of sound that target certain brainwaves that, once processed in the cortex, achieve brainwave entrainment. They are thought by some to be effective without the use of headphones to be heard, unlike binaural beats, which are defined as two slightly different frequencies presented independently to the left and right ear by way of headphones. What the brain “hears” is the subsonic difference between both sounds of a binaural beat, which creates a distinct new “binaural” sound that the brain may then become entrained to.

Theories behind isochronic tones and binaural beats are being researched, but little solid scientific evidence has yet been established to prove their efficacy. However, many people use these particular frequencies in smartphone apps designed to augment meditation and relaxation practices and anecdotally find that these technologies work. While the jury is out, this is still an area of research to watch. It’s worth noting that those who suffer from seizures should avoid using these kinds of products until research can prove (or disprove) safe usage for them.

Sound “radio” refers to online radio channels devoted to relaxation music which borrow from theories about brainwave entrainment to offer listeners options for music which can be used for meditation as well as for achieving sleep. They often incorporate isochronic tones or binaural beats. In addition, there are sound relaxation downloads through online media servers like iTunes, and smartphone apps, which can deliver these various options for those who are interested.

Additional resources

The National Sleep Foundation || Listen. Are Noises Keeping You Awake?
Huffington Post || 9 Ways To Block Out Noise And Get A Good Night’s Sleep For Once
REDDIT DISCUSSION || The best headphones to SLEEP in? Most comfortable?
Top 10 Reviews || 2015’s Best Top Ten Sound Machines
[PRO] Intelegen Inc. || The Science of Audio-Based Binaural Beat Brainwave Entrainment
(supporting brainwave entrainment for sleep)
[CON] Neurologica || Brainwave Entrainment and Marketing Pseudoscience (skeptical about brainwave entrainment for sleep)
Sound Oasis Radio || Listen to 8 Hours of Free White Noise 
Relax Melodies || Free sleep aid application which includes isochronic tones, binaural beats and various white noise options

A friendly reminder that links to websites offering products does not imply endorsement by

SleepyHeadCENTRAL strongly encourages people with ongoing sleep health problems to approach a medical professional to determine appropriate differential diagnoses and treatment. This post, like all other posts on SHC, is not intended to substitute for medical advice.  

About Tamara Kaye Sellman (621 Articles)

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