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White noise for a better sleep

by Dominique Vanier, B.Sc.H., M.Env.Sc., on 13 April 2017, Stress and sleep
white-noise

For those of us who are light sleepers, few things are more irritating than the sound of street traffic, a neighbour wearing high heels in the apartment above, or your partner fixing a late-night snack while you try to fall asleep.

Getting adequate sleep is one of the most health-promoting activities you can do. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, getting less than seven hours of sleep can lead to difficulty processing information and reduced attention span, weight gain, increased chances of getting sick…

Poor sleepers are more than familiar with the many sleep aids on the market. From earplugs to eye masks to finding the optimal sleeping air temperature, insomniacs have probably tried it all. One such approach is adding white noise – a sound-source that encourages relaxed states of consciousness and many other therapeutic benefits.

Using sound to facilitate sleep may seem counterintuitive, but this specific noise can actually block your noisy roommate and disruptive midnight sounds, as well as promote deep sleep.

White noise – heard as a “sh” sound – is the product of all possible sound frequencies occurring at once. Examples of raw white noise include ocean waves, the “hissing” sound made by older televisions on unavailable channels, and airplane background noise. Special white noise machines can also be used.

Benefits of white noise

The benefits of white noise go beyond sleep improvements. A recent study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience indicates that it can have positive effects on cognitive functions like learning and memory. It was able to stimulate the mesolimbic midbrain in studied participants – the area of the brain that corresponds to our “reward” system.

This research also found that white noise facilitated better connectivity between brain regions associated with dopamine (our “reward” neurotransmitter) and attention. A different study involving children (aged 7 to 12) with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) concluded that it improved cognitive function. Interestingly, it was not found to be helpful for children without ADHD.

For those who suffer with tinnitus – or chronic ringing in the ears – white noise has helped distract individuals from hearing the noises produced by their tinnitus, and the distress associated with the condition.

It has also been found helpful in the hospital intensive care unit (ICU) setting. In one study, researchers demonstrated that patients in the ICU who used white noise to sleep experienced less wake-ups during the night. It was found to be beneficial for sleep because it reduced the likelihood of waking to loud “peak” noises of a busy ICU due to an increased baseline of sound.

The downsides…

But there are some risks with white noise, however. In babies exposed to this noise, it may delay brain development. Research has explored the prolonged effects of white noise on baby rats, which found that their auditory cortex – the area of the brain that manages hearing and language acquisition – was delayed in development until the white noise was removed.

Before you rush to download a white noise app or purchase a unit at the closest hardware store, ensure to ask your primary healthcare provider whether it is the best option for you or your loved ones.

References:
http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn_a_00537#.WOuli1Pyufc
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0112768
http://www.aasmnet.org/resources/pdf/pressroom/Adult-sleep-duration-consensus.pdf
https://behavioralandbrainfunctions.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12993-016-0095-y
http://www.sleep-journal.com/article/S1389-9457(04)00224-2/abstract
https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003043.htm
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4050093/

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