You may never have experienced any sleep problems before, but when you suddenly need to sleep in a noisy environment things may change, quite literally, overnight. Noise from the street, a snoring bed partner, or night owl neighbors can keep you up at night and leave you tired in the morning.
Regular noises at night are frustrating and can lead to insomnia and its associated health problems. However, sound and noise are also a fact of life, and sometimes unavoidable. Especially when living in a bigger city, there is no other way than to accept that where human beings live, work and play, they make noise.
There are several steps you can take to get a good night’s sleep no matter what is going on inside or outside of your home or when traveling. The primary goal of your actions should be avoiding and blocking out noise as much as you can. If that is not sufficient, you may also need to train yourself to sleep in noisy environments.
In this article, we want to discuss some helpful tips on how to minimize noise pollution and how to train yourself to fall or to stay asleep in a loud setting.
How does noise affect your sleep?
Generally, nightly noise can prevent you from falling asleep in the first place, and sounds during the night can cause trouble staying asleep. A partner’s snoring, heavy thunder or loud street traffic are typical sources of noise which may result in you having a restless night. The noise tends to rouse you during the lighter, non-REM sleep which occurs in recurring periods throughout the night. But depending on the intensity and severity of the sound it can also disrupt your deep sleep and REM sleep.
However, people’ response to noise is a very individual matter. Some people are more sensitive to sound than others, and there are the lucky ones who can sleep even while being bombarded with massive sound. Research has shown that a person’s ability to tolerate noise depends on particular brain waves called sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are sporadic bursts of higher-frequency waves in your brain. The more sleep spindles you produce, the better you sleep while being exposed to noise. As you age, you may produce fewer brain spindles and will become more sensitive to sounds while sleeping. That might also be the reason why older people are more vulnerable to noise disruptions. Children are also prone to have trouble finding good quality sleep when it’s loud.
Although you may become more used to the noise in your environment over time, it is important to note that noise will almost always impact your sleep one way or the other. The reason for this is that your brain remains deeply engaged to external stimuli and continues to register and process any sound during your sleep. So even if you don’t wake up, the chances are high that noise keeps on creating restlessness and impairs your sleep quality.
However, not all noise is harmful to your sleep. Depending on the type of sound, the noise level, and your preference noise may even help you get a good night’s rest. White or pink noise, for example, is often used to diffuse outside traffic sounds while sleeping. Also, natural noise such as the sound of an ocean lapping at the shore has for many people a calming effect although it may come in quite loud. All this shows that the individual responses to noise vary significantly. It is merely the unwanted noise which you need to protect your sleep environment against to get a full night rest.
How does noise at night affect your health?
Anything that disturbs your sleep is bad for your health, especially if it occurs often and continuously. Therefore, regular noise exposure at night may turn your sleep cycle upside down and lead to insomnia and all the related health risks such as diabetes, obesity, and heart failure. Recent research has shown that there is a link between nighttime environmental noise exposure and cardiovascular disease. An increasing amount of noise can, for example, lead to abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation increasing your risk of heart failure, and stroke.
That is not surprising because, in general, high levels of stress impact your cardiac system. If you wake up irritated due to the loud snoring of your partner or you are unrested because of the outside traffic noise, your body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. The increasing sense of frustration about your struggle to sleep leaves your even more agitated and aggravates your stress level further.
If this state occurs only sporadically just for a short period, there usually is not much to worry about. However, continuous exposure to a noisy environment means a steady high level of stress hormones in your body which can have negative health consequences in the long run. And that is even if you sleep in a noisy environment but don’t wake up!
The reason is that in order to keep you safe, your brain is always listening, also when you are asleep. To detect potential danger, the brain focuses on what you hear rather than on how loud it is. Your brain may identify the noise as a potential danger which triggers your body to release stress hormones such as cortisol. Sound stimulates your brain and induces arousals, making it more difficult to get into a mode of relaxation and ultimately fall asleep.
What kind of noise are we exposed to during sleep?
There are many potential noise sources which can steal your sleep, ranging from sounds inside your home like from your partner, your child or your pet, from running appliances and electronics, as well as outside noise like wind or rain, traffic, or a neighbor’s dog. How meaningful and intense
Usually, new and unknown sounds tend to be more disruptive to sleep than more familiar ones. The reason is that our brain pays little attention to sounds that occur regularly in our daily lives. However, if the noise that might be trivial during the day occurs abruptly at night or in the early morning hours, it often causes you to wake up. A ringing phone, a door slamming, a car alarm, a dog barking or the excited chatter of people walking by your bedroom window – these are all everyday noises that can become very troublesome at night and shorten your overall sleep time.
Regarding unfamiliar sounds, the intensity of our response is closely related to the question if our brain detects possible danger in the noise which requires our immediate attention. Same with emotional noise such as a crying baby or the moans and groans of a sick person. Our brain labels these noises as meaningful and significant why they trigger our response and often cause us to wake up instantly.
When we refer to high volume sound we primarily think of outside environmental noise like traffic form cars, trains and planes, construction sites and in more recent years also wind turbines. Although our response to noise volume is very individual, as a rule of thumb, any sound which is more than 30 decibels (dB) is impacting your rest. Meaning that road traffic at 70 dB, high-speed trains at 90 dB or an airplane taking off at sometimes over 100 dB are indeed major sources of high volume noises. Even a normal conversation comes in at about 60 dB.
However, there are also many more familiar sounds inside your home which come in way over 30 decibels. One example is snoring. Snoring of your partner is an underrated noise factor as it often generates more than 70 decibels. Other examples of disturbing sound sources are the radio on the bedside table at 50 decibels, a family or roommates’ conversation next door to your bedroom averaging at 60 decibels, or a barbecue party in your neighbor’s backyard with peaks of up to 80 decibels.
Total silence in the bedroom is often not possible and sometimes not even desirable. The regular crying of your newborn baby rouses you, but it also gives you peace of mind and as a result, help you to sleep more soundly. Or if you have been living in an urban environment for a long time, you may haven gotten used to some of the city noise, and its absence can actually make it harder for you to sleep.
That’s why knowing the source of the sound can be a deciding factor for you what steps to take: is the noise an unwanted disruption to your sleep affecting your health or does it make your nightly rest more peaceful and rewarding?
How to deal with unwanted noise?
The best way to deal with unwanted noise is first its avoidance, second to block it out and third behavioral, mental training. In the case of high volume sounds, avoidance is the only way to handle it. We will also cover some behavioral, mental training, but this is only possible with specific noise. If you are living next to a 6 line motorway just getting used to the bombarding sound of urban traffic craze will not do you any good, and you will need to take some more drastic steps.
First, let’s look at possible ways how to block out noise by starting from simple to more drastic actions:
Shut the windows of your bedroom and your bedroom door: Let’s start with an obvious one. Keeping windows and doors closed will limit noise from outside. But did you ever have a closer look at your windows and doors to make sure they aren’t drafty?
The techniques which prevent cold air from coming through windows and doors also work for blocking out the sound. Filling window or door gaps with insulation foam, installing weather strips, placing window film on your windows, getting a door sweep or putting a door snake at the bottom of your door will all help to quieten your room. If you own your own home, you can choose a more drastic approach and install double-pane windows, also known as insulated glass units.
Turn off all electronics: Your bedroom should be an electronics-free zone as much as possible. However, the sound of electronics and appliances from other rooms can be highly distracting. Don’t forget to turn off your TV, smartphone, laptop or computer. Run laundry machines and dishwashers well before bedtime, switch off any other sound making device such as ice makers and make sure that the tap is not dripping – sometimes these small things are what prevents you from shuteye.
Invest in blackout curtains: Blackout curtains are not only useful for blocking out bright street lights that may prevent your body from producing the sleep hormone melatonin, but they can also dampen outside noise. Another nice side effect is that blackout curtains help to reduce energy costs by cutting the amount of sunlight or cold air entering the room and by preventing premature aging of your home furnishings and fabrics.
Replace unwanted sound with sound using a white noise machine: White noise soundtracks can help for both, to fall asleep and to stay asleep throughout the night even when snoozing in a somewhat noisy environment. The reason why it works is that the constant, soothing sounds of white noise create a sound-masking effect which diffuses other distracting noises.
Before investing in an expensive white noise machine try it out using your phone or your computer. There are many apps you can download and see which sound pattern suits you best and is most relaxing for you. Some people prefer familiar sounds, often from nature, such as gentle rain, breaking waves, crickets softly chirping, or wind rustling through leaves. MyNoise, for example, is a free app that offers many different sounds, including white noise and various natural sounds.
Soothing background sound like white noise can also be particularly helpful for children who have a difficult time falling and staying asleep. In addition to its masking effect of disturbing external sounds during the sleep, white noise can become a positive sleep cue for your child. Just bear in mind when using white noise on your child to keep it on a low to moderate level of max 50 to 65 decibels; otherwise, it could become harmful, especially for babies.
Use other masking or soothing sound sources to your advantage: If you don’t have access to specific white noise devices or apps, you can try to use other sources to your advantage which provide a gentle, pattern-less sound. This could be for example a running fan or even the air conditioner. And of course playing relaxing, classical music at a low volume also helps to mask potentially troublesome external sounds.
Use ear plugs: Popping in earplugs might not wholly block out noises around you, but they have at least a muffling effect and can be quite handy when trying to sleep while traveling, e.g., in a plane or train. When selecting earplugs, make sure they’re soft and flexible like for example silicone earplugs. Good quality ones can shape to your ear like custom-fit earplugs and let your even comfortable sleeping on the side.
However, some people can use and sleep with any earplugs whereas other’s (like me) have trouble finding the right ones which fit and are comfortable to use. If that’s the case with you too, you may want to consider to invest in custom-made earplugs. No doubt they are pricier than any of the over-the-counter earplugs, but you can get them made to fit perfectly into the contours of your ear.
Use noise canceling headphones: Although wearing headphones limits your sleep position options I found them very useful, especially when trying to sleep while traveling. Even if you’re not playing music, good quality headphones can drown out a lot of loud noise so that you feel being shut off from the outside world.
Therefore, noise canceling headphones may not be the first choice in case you still need to hear important sounds like an alarm or your baby crying. However, if you really want to put a hush all over your world, put your headphones on, play some white noise or relaxing music and you will soon be snoozing.
Insulate your floor and walls to muffle sound: The way noise works is by reflecting or bouncing off of surfaces. Meaning that soft covers absorb noise, while hard surfaces reflect and amplify it. This is why curtains and carpets as well as strategically placed furniture help to muffle sounds. If you live in a place with thin walls, you can cover your floor with carpets or rugs, and hang a blanket or piece of fabric against the wall.
Even better are sound absorbing wall panels which are becoming more and more popular since an increasing number of people is setting up home recording studios. The panels are available in different designs and materials which determines the noise reduction rating, and of course the price. As long as you are not planning to set up a professional recording studio, you can opt for low-cost panels made of foam.
Rearrange your furniture: Another trick is to move your bed to the part of your bedroom that’s furthest from the noise. In an apartment complex, this could be the opposite wall of the neighboring apartment, while within your apartment it could be further away from the door or the opposite wall to the living room. Also, place your bed away from outside walls when possible. Then, put blockers against the source of the noise by moving a couch or placing large bookcases or a wardrobe against walls acting as a buffer.
Moving outside to your garden: If you own your own home, you can plant trees or bushes outside your bedroom window. Foliage acts as a natural noise buffer between your house and any street traffic.
Talk to your neighbors if they are causing the noise
If people in your neighborhood cause the noise, the best way to solve the issue is to address your neighbors directly. They may not even realize that they are loud. A friendly and honest reference to the troublesome noise is often enough to fix the problem.
The direct route to your neighbor is also much better than calling straight away the landlord or the police. If possible, don’t approach them exactly when they are making noise, and you are annoyed. Wait a day or two and then have a peaceful conversation on the issue instead of confronting them angrily. Otherwise, you risk that the situation worsens and your neighbor makes even more noise. Let them know why the noise disturbs you – whether you have to concentrate, are not feeling well, or can’t sleep. If the behavior of your neighbor still doesn’t change, you can resort to more drastic measures.
How to deal with a snoring bedpartner?
It is not a secret that one of the biggest disturbing noise sources is the snoring of a bed partner. Snoring can reach up to 80/90 decibels (dB), as a reference: a vacuum cleaner is 70 dB, and a chainsaw about 100 dB.
If you share your bed with someone who snores, it’s essential to find out what is causing the snoring. It is believed that up 50% of snorers are suffering from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is a severe sleep disorder that should be treated. Symptoms are loud snoring, repeated breath interruption or choking and gasping when asleep and heavy daytime fatigue. As your partner may not be aware of this condition, it is vital that you encourage her or him to seek treatment and avoid more severe health implications.
If the snoring is unbearable, you might be thinking about sleeping in separate beds. While this may help you get some sleep, it can also harm your relationship. Where is a better place to bond with your partner than your bed?
In order to deal with a snoring partner you should first of all, start a conversation. Explain the situation that your partner understands that the noise is affecting your sleep and well-being. Secondly, when your partner is snoring and wakes you up, don’t just say “stop snoring” in a loud an annoying tone. It is more effective to wake him gently with a low-toned “pssst”.
To stop the snoring, it sometimes helps to change the sleeping position. Many people snore stronger and louder when they are lying on their backs. Ask your partner to try sleeping on the side or the stomach. If he or she rolls back during the sleep and begins to snore, try to turn your partner gently back to one side.
A somewhat unusual trick is to sew a tennis ball into the back of your partner’s T-shirt or pajamas. This way lying on the back becomes uncomfortable which keeps him or her in the non-snoring back position.
Which behavioral changes help when sleeping in a loud environment?
Some people may suggest to you that the best way to sleep in a noisy environment is to train your mind to deal with the noise. I make no secret that I am not a friend of this method, especially not as a permanent fix. The only possible way to avoid suffering from noise pollution is to get rid of its source or to block it out, period.
However, we all experience times when it is just not possible to stop the noise, e.g., while traveling on a plane or having to stay for several days in a noisy city hotel. In that case, the following relaxation techniques may help you to get at least a few hours of quality sleep. As they are generally a great way to wind down, you may want to make them a daily habit anywhays in order to release stress and improve your sleep.
The problem with unwanted noise is that it grabs your full attention and initiates a cycle of negative thoughts on how much the situation is driving you crazy. As a result, your body produces stress hormones which keep you awake. The first step to stop this vicious cycle is to accept that there’s noise around you. Acceptance without engagement or judgment is the prerequisite for your power to overcome your stress.
Once you have taken that first step of acceptance, you can now choose to ignore it by focusing on relaxing your body and mind. Here three easy techniques you can try no matter where you are:
The easiest way to do is to focus on your breathing by doing the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Here is how it works:
1. First, exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
2. Now close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of four.
3. Then hold your breath for a count of seven.
4. Finally, exhale fully through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Another excellent tool to control stress and help you fall asleep is progressive muscle relaxation. This technique was found by Edmund Jacobson in the 1930s and is based on his idea that mental calmness is closely related to physical relaxation. The way progressive muscle relaxation works is that you tense and relax your muscle groups one at a time as you travel systematically through your body from head to toe (or vice versa). Here is a simple way to start:
- Choose a muscle group, for example your forearms. While inhaling, contract the muscles of your forearms for about 10 seconds, then exhale and release the tension in that muscle group. You may want to imagine how the stressful feelings are flowing out of your body as you release the tension in your muscles.
- Now relax for about 20 seconds before you move on to the next muscle group (for example your upper arms). This way you can gradually work your way up or down the body contracting and relaxing your muscle groups.
Imagine yourself in a tranquil scene that makes you happy and relaxed, such as a pristine beach or an idyllic mountain lake. I often use a beautiful forest trail which I once took on a vacation in Ireland. When I am in bed, I imagine walking along this trail paying attention to every detail: I see the color of the plants, hear the rustle of the leaves under my feet and the twittering of the birds in the forest. The further I walk on the path in my imagination, the more tired I usually become until I fall asleep.
Make low noise a top priority in your life
We have covered many different areas in your life and environment where noise can have a profound impact on how restful your sleep is and what you can do about it. But let’s face it, whenever you feel that you have to do something against the noise in your environment to be able to sleep well, that shows that you are basically living or staying in a place that is too loud for you.
The best protection is, of course, to avoid the noise by moving away from it to a space that provides the silence you need. Obviously, you might not always be able to do this. However, in case you are thinking of moving to a different place or buying a property make low noise a priority in your selection process. Visit the area at various times during the day and night to find out what noise levels you would be exposed to.
We have seen how closely loud noise is related to stress, one of the main triggers for bad sleep. Often we do not even realize anymore that we are constantly exposed to a high degree of noise pollution. Try to be more mindful with the noises around you and seek out quiet spaces, especially on the weekends or when or vacation. This will allow your system to wind down, the most vital prerequisite to good quality sleep.
For noises you can’t get away from the best option is to block the disturbing sound out as much as you can. Also, keep in mind that you are making noises yourself like everyone else. But often you have the choice of how much noise you are generating with your activities. When buying a new car or new electronics such as a laundry machine or an air conditioner for your home, or a lawn mower or leaf blower for your garden, make low noise a priority and pay attention to the noise level the device generates.
Don’t wait for noise regulations coming in, but act yourself. I think it is always quite remarkable how even small changes can make an incredible difference in our ability to make things better. Let’s do all something which helps to decrease the overall noise pollution and have a more peaceful, relaxed life!