Noise has a major impact on sleep. Exposure to too much noise during sleep has immediate effects while we are sleeping, which leads to short-term issues the next day, and over time may result in long-term mental and physical consequences.
Noises at night might wake you up, and a fragmented night’s sleep is less refreshing. Even noises that don’t wake you up have subconscious effects on sleep by changing the time we spend in certain sleep stages. Sleep stages are the different types of sleep we cycle through each night, ranging from lighter stages (1 and 2) to deep (slow wave) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM). Environmental noise, such as air and vehicle traffic, has been shown to increase stage 1 sleep and decrease slow wave and REM sleep.
Nighttime noise may also cause extra production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol as well as elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
A study of circadian rhythms in mice showed an increased sensitivity to noise trauma at night compared to during the day, and the researchers hypothesize this sensitivity may apply to human circadian rhythm as well.
Getting sufficient undisturbed sleep is critical for feeling good and performing well. Although you are unlikely to notice subtle changes to your sleep structure and biochemical experience of sleep, these changes can manifest the next day in ways that are more pronounced. Sleepiness, irritability, and poorer mental health are associated with exposure to nighttime noise the night before.
Poor quality sleep over a long period of time is linked with high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The relationship between noise during sleep and long-term health effects is less clear, but studies indicate a possible association with high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, increased use of sleep medications, and decreased overall health.
In a city, it’s common to deal with the sounds of traffic, sirens, airplanes, or people gathering outside. Even in suburban or rural settings you are unlikely to be completely isolated from noisy appliances, cars, neighbors, and animals during the night. Additionally, other people or pets in your home may make noise that disrupts your sleep. Think about the specific sounds that affect your living space as you review the following ideas for avoiding noise at night.
Creating a bedroom space that’s as supportive of a quiet night’s sleep as possible is a critical part of good sleep hygiene.
Depending on your living situation, you may not be able to physically soundproof your bedroom. Ear plugs are an effective tool as long as they don’t interfere with your ability to sleep. A research study found that hospital patients who wore earplugs and an eye mask woke up less often and experienced more deep sleep compared to a group of patients who did not.
An alternative to earplugs is to find small, comfortable noise-cancelling headphones, which are designed to block out noise and also allow you to introduce relaxing sounds that could help you sleep.
If your primary source of noise at night is coming from other people in your home, communicate with them about how they can help you get the sleep you need and how you can return the favor. When operating on different sleep schedules, some noise at night is inevitable, but you could try agreeing upon rules for quiet hours. For example, it might help to request that your partner or roommate use headphones to listen to TV or music and refrain from talking on the phone inside while you are sleeping. Planning ahead by cooking meals and laying out the next day’s clothes during waking hours can also cut down on disruption.
If your partner’s snoring is keeping you up, talk with them about it. Lifestyle changes or anti-snoring mouthpieces might help. Very loud snoring and choking or gasping sounds at night could be signs of obstructive sleep apnea. Seek a doctor’s help if you notice these symptoms in your partner.
In a perfect world, we would all have the option to retreat to a completely soundproof bedroom. However, noise exposure is a nightly reality for most.
You might be able to limit sound exposure in your bedroom at night by following the steps outlined above, but if that’s not enough, adding an “acoustic perfume” to your bedroom environment might help. A consistent background noise may mask or drown out the sounds you can’t control and could help to counteract the harmful effects of noise exposure during sleep. Also, some people find that background noise helps to distract them from anxious or intrusive thoughts and prepares the mind for sleep.
Research studies have produced conflicting data about whether adding a stream of background noise improves sleep quality. One study of the effects of adding sound from an air conditioner in the home found no positive impact on sleep. In another experiment, researchers investigated the effect of broadcasting white noise into the rooms of hospitalized patients and found that white noise improved sleep quality over the course of three nights compared to a control group. A third study of patients who were having trouble sleeping showed that white noise helped them fall asleep 38% more quickly. Given the inconsistent data, the utility of adding background noise may come down to personal preference.
The best night sounds for sleeping can vary from one person to the next, but consider utilizing sounds that are loud enough to cover other noises and that maintain an even tone and volume; sudden sound changes could cause you to wake up. It might help to experiment with a few and see what works for you. Here are some ideas to get you started: