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What is White Noise and Does It Help You Sleep?

by BetterSleep
Mar 7 • 4 min read
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There’s nothing better than waking up refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, many struggle, with up to 30 percent of American adults reporting they don’t get enough sleep each night.

One cause could be the sleep environment. It may not be quiet enough, or the temperature is off. Or maybe the brain is over-active after scrolling on the phone too late. White noise is an audible sound frequency and a way to combat this and promote a restful night’s sleep as a sleep aid.

The steady, repetitive sound of white noise is thought to block out other, more disruptive noises such as cars, dogs barking, your neighbors shouting, and more. While some love and swear by it, others are not so sure. Let’s look at what it is and if there is any science to back it up.

What is White Noise?

White noise is a combination of various sounds between 20 hertz and 20,000 hertz, played at a level intensity. The sound is like a “shhh” sound, similar to radio static or a whirring fan. White noise is often used in settings such as a doctor’s office to help maintain privacy.

What is White Noise Good For?

White noise is a way to mask outside noises when you’re trying to sleep. If you live next to a busy road, you might find cars and lorries keep you awake. People walking and chatting next to your window can be extremely distracting if your bedroom is next to a busy path.

White noise machines give your brain something relaxing to focus on instead of busy, environmental noises. They not only help you fall asleep, but they can help you stay asleep, allowing you to increase your time in a peaceful slumber.

Why Is it Called White Noise?

Even though we can’t see sound, audio engineers color-code noise signals for descriptive purposes. White noise is a mix of every frequency heard by the human ear.

With the color spectrum, white light is the sum of all colors in the rainbow, with single colors filtering from it. Another example is black noise, which is used to describe silence.

This is because black relates to darkness and the absence of light. To sum up, white noise is called white noise because it’s the purest and simplest noise.

What Are the Benefits of White Noise?

There are many benefits to using white noise for sleep. Past studies have shown white noise to be an effective method for masking environmental noises, improving sleep, and helping to maintain a deep sleep. The many benefits include:

  • It helps to relax. It provides a soothing sound encouraging relaxation.
  • Switches off your mind. Active minds find it hard to switch off in silence. White noise can help to calm racing thoughts.
  • Blocks loud noises. The constant “shhh” sound of white noise helps to block environmental noises that may prevent sleep, such as cars, neighbors, and sirens.
  • Easy to use. Sleep apps like BetterSleep make it easy to have white noise at your fingertips, even when you travel.

What Does White Noise Do to the Brain?

According to research, white noise is processed by the brain similarly to other noises. However, it doesn’t get dealt with in quite the same way as song or speech.

One study found that the brain thinks that white noise is not as important as pure tones, but it’s more worthy of attention than random clicking.

This explains why white noise sounds help to soothe your brain to sleep. It masks random street noise or muffled talking in the room next door, but it isn’t irritating enough for your brain to register and keep you awake.

Can White Noise Be Harmful?

Expert guidelines set by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOSH) say that listening to noise of 85 decibels or higher can be damaging over time. Possible outcomes could be ringing in the ears or even hearing loss.

There are currently no official guidelines or studies on the best level to set your white noise machine for sleeping.

One study did have participants using white noise as a sleep aid, with the machine set to 46 decibels. All reported a better night’s sleep.

To start, try listening to white noise at 46 decibels. If this doesn’t feel quite right, increase each night gradually, but never go above 85 decibels.

How Can White Noise Help You Sleep?

A good night’s sleep is essential to health and well-being. Without enough, it can lead to impaired memory, inability to focus, and a slower reaction time that can lead to accidents at work or while driving.

And most importantly, not enough sleep can lead to a higher mortality rate. With this in mind, finding the perfect sleep schedule for yourself should be a priority, and white noise is a way to achieve this.

Here’s how a dedicated white noise machine can help:

Builds a Sleep Ritual

If you struggle to fall asleep or suffer from insomnia, building a sleep ritual can help. This signals to your brain and body when it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep.

A sleep schedule will look different for everyone, and there is no right or wrong. But, a few ideas include meditation, journalling, reading, listening to chilled music, and drinking a mug of chamomile tea.

White noise can be the last piece of your sleep routine puzzle. The soothing hum of white noise will act as the final signal for your brain to drop off into dreamland.

Let’s Your Brain Know it’s Time to Rest

White noise machines are a proven way to let your brain know it’s time to rest. The more you listen to white noise, the easier it’ll become for your brain to associate it with sleep.

Following a consistent bedtime routine is the best way to improve sleep health. Schedule a time each night to turn on your noise machine in the background, and sleep quality will improve in no time at all.

Keeps Your Bedroom Quiet

Are you sensitive to noise while trying to fall asleep? The sleep foundation says that noises and other sounds, such as barking dogs can cause a fragmented night’s sleep. Even if you don’t get woken up, the amount of time you spend in certain sleep stages can get affected.

This is where a white noise machine comes in handy. Different noises are not actually what wake you up. It’s the sudden change in sound that can cause problems.

White noise works to mask these sounds, playing a consistent hum that helps light sleepers sleep deeper and longer.

How to Choose a White Noise Machine?

If you’re thinking of investing in a white noise machine, here’s what you need to consider:

  • App or machine. First, you need to decide if an app or a white noise machine is best for you. An app like BetterSleep is convenient to use while traveling or at home. A white noise machine is often more extensive and will take up space, unlike an app that can be used on your phone.
  • Your budget. How much are you willing to spend to get a better night’s sleep? White noise machines cost $20 - $100 at the higher end. White noise apps often give you a free trial and can be used for an affordable monthly fee.
  • Sound quality. Check reviews for the products you’re looking at. Sound quality is going to vary, and machines will play either a digital or mechanical white sound. They both sound slightly different, and some people prefer one to the other.
  • Volume options. Research the lowest and highest volumes available on any white noise machine you’re considering purchasing. Volume control is essential to ensure you get the best sound quality and keep within a safe range.
  • Timer functionality. The majority of noise machines have a sleep timer. But check if the functionality aligns with how you plan to use it.
  • Extra sounds. If you’re new to white noise, make sure that the noise machine or app you choose has different sound options available. You may find that white noise doesn’t help you fall asleep but keeps you awake! Many apps and noise machines offer pink noise, ASMR, relaxing nature sounds, and binaural beats, which also help to improve sleep health.

Can You Get Addicted to White Noise?

If you listen to white noise every night for a continued amount of time, you might start to feel that you can’t sleep without it. This may lead to a form of psychological addiction. However, this is a harmless addiction and one that should improve your life immensely.

Can White Noise Help You Hear Better?

Research has shown that listening to white noise can make pure sounds even more precise. It has long been used to manage tinnitus, and recent findings show that listening to white noise led to an overall reduction in neuronal activity, which led to hearing a more distinct tone.

Pink Noise Vs. White Noise

Pink noise contains frequencies audible to the human ear, with lower sounds amplified and higher sounds diminished. The sound created is deep and even. Examples include:

  • Powerful wind
  • Waves crashing on the beach
  • Leaves rustling
  • Rain beating down

A 2012 study found that pink noise encouraged a deep sleep by calming brain activity in the participants.

Why is it Called Pink Noise?

Pink noise is similar to white noise in the way that it can filter out noises that distract you. It gives a soothing background hum that can help you get a better night’s sleep.

The term ‘pink noise’ comes from the pink appearance of light that is shown within this frequency.

What’s the Difference Between White Noise and Pink Noise?

Pink noise uses lower sound waves and deeper sounds than white noise. Because of its lower pitch, it sounds a little more soothing and gentle.

Pink noise uses a consistent pitch of equal intensity. This creates a steady, flat sound that’s great at filtering out higher-pitched sounds.

If you need a better night’s sleep, pink noise is well worth a try. Examples include steady rainfall, heartbeats, and waves hitting a beach.

Brown Noise Vs. White Noise

Brown noise (or red noise) lowers the higher frequencies even more than pink noise. The sound produced is a bit rougher, with examples including:

  • Thunder
  • Strong waterfalls
  • A low roar

While brown noise is a little deeper than white or pink noise, it sounds similar to the human ear. There isn’t much evidence to back up the effects of brown noise, but users say it aids relaxation and induces sleep.

Why is it Called Brown Noise?

Brown noise got its name from Scottish scientist Robert Brown. He studied pollen particles moving around in pools of water in the 1800s.

To predict these movements, he devised a mathematical formula. This formula was later used to generate electronic sound, producing a bass-heavy noise now known as brown noise. It can sometimes also be referred to as ‘red noise.’

What’s the Difference Between White Noise and Brown Noise?

Brown noise is similar to white noise but stripped of the higher frequencies. It contains even lower frequencies than pink noise and emphasizes bass notes.

Some find it easier to listen to than white or pink noise, especially when trying to drift off to sleep. Examples of brown noise include river rapids and distant rumbling thunder.

What is the Best White Noise App?

If you have trouble falling asleep, the BetterSleep app offers all you could need to drop into a deep, restful slumber. Mix and match over 150 soothing sounds to create the perfect snooze-inducing soundscape.

Conclusion on White Noise

If you’re interested in using white noise as a sleep aid, start adding it to your nightly bedtime routine. Healthy nighttime habits are the best way to sleep faster, more profoundly, and longer and to treat insomnia.

Try going to bed at the same time each night and stop looking at the bright glow of your phone at least one hour before bed. Set the timer on your app or noise machine and get comfortable. Turn off the lights and get ready to fall into a deep sleep.

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