If you find that your brain starts revving up as soon as your head hits the pillow, or you’re prone to tossing and turning when you should be snoozing, you’re not alone. Stress and anxiety can make your ZZZs feel far away.
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White noise machines (or phone apps that play white noise) are common solutions for sleeplessness.
But if you struggle with getting restful sleep, “you can experiment with different types of sound,” says sleep medicine expert Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM.
That includes a different color of sound — such as pink noise.
What is pink noise?
We can’t see noise with our naked eye, only hear it. But noise exists on a colorful spectrum — think of it like a rainbow.
“There are all different colors of noise,” explains Dr. Drerup. Both pink and white noise contain all of the frequencies that humans can hear (ranging from 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz). With pink noise, though, certain frequencies — the lower ones — are more prominent.
“White noise is perfectly balanced across all frequencies,” says Dr. Drerup. “With pink noise, the higher frequencies are actually turned down. Pink noise sounds lower-pitched than white noise.”
As a result, you perceive these colors differently.
Pink noise vs. white noise
There haven’t been research studies comparing pink and white noise. But the two colors of sound do resemble different things.
“The best comparison is probably pink noise is the sound of a waterfall,” says Dr. Drerup. “White noise is more like static.”
Pink noise is often associated with certain relaxing sounds you might find in nature. Common comparisons for pink noise include:
- Ocean waves.
- A rushing river.
- Leaves rustling in plants or trees.
- Gentle, steady rainfall.
It doesn’t matter what kind of pink noise or white noise you pick, Dr. Drerup notes. Not everyone finds the sound of a babbling brook soothing, after all.
“Whatever you find relaxing works,” she says. “I had a patient who found techno music relaxing to help fall asleep. For me, that would be the last thing. But it has a steady beat, and it worked for them.”
How pink noise helps you sleep
Pink noise, white noise or any type of sound is generally safe for anyone to use. It helps you sleep by covering up distracting sounds that might disrupt your snoozing.
“That consistent noise creates a masking effect that blocks out sudden noises that might cause you to wake up,” explains Dr. Drerup. That might include a snoring bed partner, a barking dog or something outside, like a garbage truck.
“This noise tunes your auditory focus to that constant sound. You can find this to be soothing. It can also help you fall asleep — or fall back asleep — after waking.”
Certain kinds of noise might also affect you physically. In one study, pink noise increased deep sleep and improved memory in older adults.
“The pink noise actually enhances brain activity that’s associated with deep phases of sleep,” says Dr. Drerup
Using pink noise on a consistent basis can also lead you to associate pink noise with falling asleep.
“It’s like the child who conditions herself to fall asleep with a teddy bear,” says Dr. Drerup. “If she doesn’t have the teddy bear, she won’t sleep as well. Is the teddy bear changing her sleep? No, but she associates it with falling asleep.”
Thankfully, technology has also made this conditioning much more manageable to rely on.
“Before, people who used a fan to fall asleep couldn’t bring the fan with them when they were flying somewhere,” Dr. Drerup notes. “So, they’d have to go and buy a fan once they got to their destination.
“But now that there are apps, you’re not likely to be without it,” she says. “It’s easier to have a consistency with it.”
Tips for using pink noise
Pink noise is generally OK for anyone who wants to try it. But Dr. Dreup recognizes that if you live with hearing loss or are sensitive to sounds, you might find pink noise a bit frustrating. Even still, she says there’s probably not any concern if people want to try it out.
You might wonder if using earbuds to listen to pink noise is better than simply having a noise machine play. Dr. Drerup stresses that comfort and personal preference should be your guide. Some people, she says, like headphones that are like a headband, so they don’t have to have the earbuds in their ears.
There’s also no hard-and-fast rule regarding volume. “Some people might like it a little louder. For others, softer is better,” she says.
You can find pink noise in a variety of places, including sound machines, downloadable apps, or videos streaming on YouTube.
Dr. Drerup also adds that pink noise also isn’t a magic bullet to cure bad sleep hygiene.
“You need to make sure you get enough hours of sleep, have a consistent sleep schedule and don’t overdo it on caffeine,” she advises. “If you’re having difficulties sleeping, it’s not usually a one-trick pony that’s going to help you.”