How White Noise May Help You Sleep

Tara Youngblood Aug 19, 2022

Benefits of white noise and sleeping

There's nothing better than waking up feeling rejuvenated and prepared to take on the day. We all know the price we pay when we lack sleep, even for a few nights. Declined concentration, irritability, and grogginess quickly destroy the promise of a productive workday and a lovely time with family and friends.

In searching for a good night's sleep, many people have turned to use white noise. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was researching methods to treat insomnia at the time, invented the first white noise sound machine in the 17th century [1].

A multitude of apps and white noise machines are available. Often, people use their humidifiers or air conditioning to generate the sound of white noise. Even recorded stretches of 8-plus hours of white noise can be accessed online.

So, what is white noise anyway? What's the most helpful way to use them? Most significantly, is there credible science to back it up? Below you'll find those answers and more to help you make well-informed decisions about your sleep needs.

What is White Noise?

White noise is sound that includes all frequencies across the spectrum that are audible to the human ear. All frequencies have the same intensity, creating a uniform sound. Sometimes called "broadband" sound, white noise spans over multiple frequencies.

What does white noise sound like? People say it's similar to an untuned radio or TV sound. Some may compare the background noise to a "shh" or hissing sound. [2,3]

You can listen to examples of white noise.

How Does White Noise Work?

White noise effectively blocks sounds that commonly cause nighttime awakenings. So, it can drown out the footsteps in the apartment above us or the loud TV downstairs. [4]

It increases the auditory threshold with gently and consistent monotonous sounds. The differences between the white noise sound and, say, a dog barking outside are smaller and, thus, less harsh than if the room were completely quiet.

The decreased contrast between other environmental sounds and white noise makes breakthrough auditory stimuli less capable of reviving the cerebral cortex, which causes arousals from sleep. [5]

Benefits of White Noise: Scientific Research

Sleep scientists, public health experts, and neurologists have extensively researched white noise's benefits and values. Many clinical studies have found that white noise effectively enhances the amount of sleep and quality we get each night.

Other studies have also confirmed that white noise benefits can positively impact tinnitus, sleep onset latency, and lowered night awakenings.

Sleep Onset Latency

Sleep onset latency refers to the time it takes to proceed from wakefulness to the initial stages of sleep. It involves how long it takes you to fall asleep. For adults, typical sleep latency varies between 10 and 20 minutes.

The appropriate amount of sleep latency influences overall sleep efficiency, meaning more time in bed is spent sleeping versus lying awake. [6,7]

Evidence indicates sleeping with white noise is beneficial for helping someone fall asleep faster in a high-noise environment such as New York City. [8] Sleep onset latency also improved for a group of healthy college students using broadband/white noise. [9]

Nighttime Arousals

Interrupted sleep patterns experienced regularly by hospitalized patients concern many healthcare professionals in a study on improving patients’ sleep in a noisy intensive care unit (ICU), white noise machines significantly reduced nighttime arousals.

Furthermore, the arousals decreased substantially even when the study participants were exposed to peak levels (greater than 65 decibels). [10] Another study of patients hospitalized in a coronary care unit yielded comparable results.[11]

Difficulty sleeping

May Help with Tinnitus

White noise may be helpful for someone with tinnitus. [12] Tinnitus is a condition described as a strange ringing or buzzing in the ear. White noise can help mask the sound, which leans to be disruptive and more prominent at night when it's quiet.

Different Types of Sleep Noises

You may have heard about white noises, but did you know there are different colors?

White Noise vs. Pink Noise vs. Brown Noise

Although the world of audio engineering considers white noise one of the most well-known types of sound, a whole rainbow of colors describes the sound. Each sound has unique properties that aid in relaxation, create music, and even describe natural rhythms such as the human heartbeat. At least two other colors may assist in relaxation and quality of sleep:

Pink Noise

What is pink noise? It's similar to white noise, but pink noise has lower-pitched frequencies. Some individuals describe it as a "shhh" soothing sound blended with the soft rumble of a waterfall or a rainstorm.

A study performed in 2012 discovered steady pink noise can increase stable sleep by lowering brain activity. [13] A study in 2017 determined a positive link between listening to pink noise and deep sleep. [14]

Examples of Pink Noise

You’ve most likely heard the relaxing sounds of blowing wind, rustling leaves, crashing ocean waves, and falling heavy rain. But did you know that pink noise mirrors those same sounds of steady rain, strong wind, and more?

Listen for yourself to see how similar the sounds are.

Brown Noise

Also known as red noise, brown noise has a more profound pitch than pink and white noise. In a current study, individuals indicated that brown noise reminds them of the sounds of rainfall or a shower. [15] Similar to pink noise, brown noise possesses sounds from every octave of the sound spectrum.

Brown Noise Examples

Think of low-roaring natural sounds such as thunder or a strong cascading waterfall. That’s the sound similar to brown noise.

Listen to brown noise to see how closely those sounds are alike.

White noise sleeping app

Choosing What Works for You

The million-dollar question: does white noise help you sleep? Sleep scientists, physicians, and public health professionals see white noise as one of the many techniques available to provide high-quality sleep and the development of a healthy lifestyle.

If you choose to try white noise, select a comfortable volume level, such as the level of a soft shower. Remember that white noise is only one tool in the selection of sleep hygiene strategies.

Below are just a few of the many alternatives available:

The Bottom Line

Colored noises such as white, pink, and brown may be an effective non-pharmacological sleep aid, as they help you sleep and mask out the outside noises disrupting your sleep. [16] It may take a bit of trial-and-error to accommodate the volume controls. Nevertheless, you’ll ultimately figure out if white noise (or even pink or brown noise) helps improve your sleep quality.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that you consider these points when choosing a white noise machine:

  • Decide whether you want a white noise app or a stand-alone machine.
  • Take the time to read the online reviews. Good sound quality is critical.
  • Make sure you can control the volume on your device.
  • Examine different types of background noise that can help improve sleep.
  • Research free online programs about white noise. [17]

Tara Youngblood: How a Sleep Recipe Changed My Life

Tara Youngblood, CEO, and co-founder of Sleepme Inc. teaches us to optimize our waking hours by developing a sleep recipe we need to recover and restore overnight.

Citations/References

  1. Riva, M.A., Cimino, V., Sanchirico, S. (2017, October 1). Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th century white noise machine. [abstract]. The Lancet, Neurology, 16(10), 776 View Study

  2. Summer, J. (2022, March 11) White Noise. Sleep Foundation. View Resource

  3. Vinall, M. (2021, August 27). Why white noise may help you get the best sleep ever. Healthline. View Resource

  4. Ibid.

  5. Farokhnezhad Afshar P, Bahramnezhad F, Asgari P, Shiri M. Effect of white noise on sleep in patients admitted to a coronary care. J Caring Sci 2016; 5 (2): 103-9. View Study

  6. Stanchina, M. L., Abu-Hijleh, M., Chaudhry, B. K., Carlisle, C. C., & Millman, R. P. (2005). The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise. Sleep Medicine, 6(5), 423–428. View Study

  7. Messineo L, Taranto-Montemurro L, Sands SA, Oliveira Marques MD, Azabarzin A and Wellman DA (2017) Broadband Sound Administration Improves Sleep Onset Latency in Healthy Subjects in a Model of Transient Insomnia. Front. Neurol. 8:718.

  8. Ebben, M.R., Yan, P., Kriedger, A.C.(2021) The effects of white noise on sleep and duration in individuals living in a high noise environment in New York City. Sleep Medicine V. 83, 256-259 Abstract. View Resource

  9. Messineo L, Taranto-Montemurro L, Sands SA, Oliveira Marques MD, Azabarzin A and Wellman DA (2017) Broadband Sound Administration Improves Sleep Onset Latency in Healthy Subjects in a Model of Transient Insomnia. Front. Neurol. 8:718.

  10. Stanchina, M. L., Abu-Hijleh, M., Chaudhry, B. K., Carlisle, C. C., & Millman, R. P. (2005). The influence of white noise on sleep in subjects exposed to ICU noise. Sleep Medicine, 6(5), 423–428. View Study

  11. Farokhnezhad Afshar P, Bahramnezhad F, Asgari P, Shiri M. Effect of white noise on sleep in patients admitted to a coronary care. J Caring Sci 2016; 5 (2): 103-9. View Study

  12. Barozzi, S., Ambrosetti, U., Callaway, S. L., Behrens, T., Passoni, S., & Bo, L. D. (2017). Effects of Tinnitus Retraining Therapy with Different Colours of Sound. The international tinnitus journal, 21(2), 139–143. View Study

  13. Yoon, H. & Baek, H.J. (2022). External auditory stimulation as a non-pharmacological sleep aid. Sensors, 22, 1264. View Study

  14. Summer, J. (2022, March 11) White Noise. Sleep Foundation. View Resource

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