Why ‘Pink Noise’ Might Just Help You Get a Better Night’s Sleep
“Pink noise” isn’t a magic bullet. But it is one useful tactic that could help you get the rest you need. Our sleep expert explains.
Your mind is racing. (Unfortunately, it’s 12:18 a.m.) If you don’t get a solid night’s sleep, tomorrow’s big presentation is going to be downright brutal.
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So, uh, a cup of chamomile tea? Maybe. Or perhaps tune into “Night Thunderstorm in the City with Open Window” or “Tropical Amazon Rainforest with Distant Thunder?” Go for it!
These popular “sound machine” tracks are another useful tactic that may just help you finally nod off, says sleep medicine expert Michelle Drerup, PsyD.
If you struggle with getting restful sleep, “you can experiment with different types of sound and volume,” Dr. Drerup says.
Pink noise is a “color” of noise. So is white noise. (Bear with us if you don’t get it. This is how experts talk about sound.) But how do they differ? Both colors contain all of the frequencies that humans can hear (ranging from 20 hertz to 20,000 hertz).
More scientific explanation? The human ear, though, usually hears pink noise as being “even” or “flat” and perceives white noise as “static.”
In one study, pink noise increased deep sleep and dramatically improved memory in older adults.
“The pink noise actually enhances brain activity that’s associated with deep phases of sleep,” Dr. Drerup explains.
The researchers aren’t claiming that pink noise is better than white noise. (There hasn’t been research comparing the two types of sound.)
“They may both help,” she says. But it’s important to note that the exact technology used in the study isn’t the same as what you’ll find in a sleep app or on YouTube. “It’s not widely available. The apps will probably help, but not to the same level.”
It doesn’t matter what kind of pink noise or white noise you pick, Dr. Drerup adds. The sound of a babbling brook drives you up a wall? No worries. “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.”
Earbuds or no? Again, Dr. Drerup says comfort and personal preference should be your guide. Some folks, 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 become conditioned to anything you use to fall asleep, Dr. Drerup notes.
“It’s like the child who conditions herself to fall asleep with a teddy bear. If she doesn’t have the teddy bear, she won’t sleep as well,” she says. “Is the teddy bear changing her sleep? No, but she associates it with falling asleep.”
So the Pavlovian conditioning is a positive thing, Dr. Drerup says. Thankfully, technology has made this conditioning much more manageable to rely on too.
“Before, people who used a fan to fall asleep couldn’t bring the fan with them when they were flying somewhere. So they’d have to go and buy a fan once they got to their destination,” she recounts. “But now that there are apps, you’re not likely to be without it. It’s easier to have a consistency with it.”
Pink noise is generally safe and a good idea for anyone (of any age) who wants to try it, Dr. Drerup says.
Those with hearing loss or sensitivity to sounds might find pink noise a bit frustrating, but she says there’s probably not any concern if they want to give it a shot.
Dr. Drerup also adds that pink noise 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 says. “If you’re having difficulties sleeping, it’s not usually a one-trick pony that’s going to help you.”