How audio sleep aids can help you get a better rest
Plus expert picks for which ones to listen to before bed
Lots of us aren't sleeping well. According to therapist and author Mike Dow, insomnia is one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions in mental health. The negative effects of insomnia range from crankiness and difficulty concentrating to increasing the risk of dementia.
As children, many of us fell asleep to the sound of lullabies or bedtime stories, so we asked Dow to make some analogous suggestions for adults. But first he gave us more insight into the most common factors keeping people from a good night's rest.
What's keeping you up at night?
Dow explains that, in many ways, "insomnia is the inability to slow your brain waves." Our brain waves operate at different speeds that run, from fastest to slowest: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Conscious brain functions occur on the faster wavelengths, from gamma (an "aha" moment of insight) to alpha (associated with relaxation). Most normal conscious thought occurs on the beta wavelength. Sleep is associated with theta (REM sleep) and delta waves (deep dreamless sleep). In order to fall asleep, we have to slow down our brains from conscious beta speed, through relaxed alpha, all the way down to the delta waves associated with dreamless sleep.
We run into trouble, usually, because we get stuck in conscious beta-mode. Dow mentioned three major reasons this happens:
Anxiety: Even minor anxiety can keep us consciously ruminating in bed. Dow describes it as a kind of internal "worry track" that runs over all the things that are bothering us and nagging our minds.
Environment: Dark, quiet, and cool are ideal conditions for us to sleep. Unfortunately, these aren't always easy to come by. Artificial light is bad, but Dow singled out "screens from your iPhone, tv, and laptop". These emit a lot of blue light which can disrupt the hormonal cycles (melatonin production) that helps ready us for sleep. City dwellers may also live in noisier environments, filled with intermittent noises like sirens and cars which can disturb their rest.
Inconsistent habits: Dow emphasized the importance of habit and ritual when it comes to sleep. Our brains work by association and so creating a set of regular cues that tell us when it's time to turn in is important. But lots of people wind up going to bed at different times and under different conditions at different times. Dow told me that "social jet lag" is a common sleep disruptor. "If you get up at six am all week, but sleep until eleven on weekends, you're throwing yourself off schedule. It's like taking a transatlantic trip to London every weekend."
Audio sleep aids
According to Dow, here's how some common audio sleep aids can help slow down your brain for rest.
White noise machines
These are machines or apps that play a consistent sound. It's a bit like having a fan running or sleeping near a waterfall.
While technically making our sleep environment noisier (white noise), it has the same effect as making it quieter. Dow says that it isn't sound in general that disrupts our sleep, but intermittent sounds like sirens or snoring or closing doors. These sounds can disturb our rest even if we're not consciously aware of waking up. White noise blocks these disturbances by drowning them out. Therefore, he recommends keeping a white noise machine on all night rather than setting a timer.
According to Dow, lullabies work through the power of association and habit. So "if your parents used to sing you a lullaby to help put you to sleep, then your brain will likely pair that ritual with sleeping. The same is true of bedtime stories." It may not be the inherent properties of the songs themselves, but rather the power of ritual to create sleepy associations in our brain. "One major problem for people who have trouble sleeping is that they don't have rituals. They go to bed at different times, in different places, and do different things right before bed. We know that the brain works better when it has a ritual, especially when it comes to sleep."
A quick search for "soothing" and "relaxing" "sleep" music on YouTube, or your preferred music streaming service, will yield countless options. But remember you're trying to form a habit, so when you find something you like, stick to it.
With the explosion of podcasts, a lot of people have started listening to them as they fall asleep. According to Dow, this can go either way. Generally speaking, listening to human voices "should not work because there's a variation in speech patterns and even in music, meaning there's a lot of change in volume and even intermittent breaks and pauses. All of these things can keep us from really slowing down our brains."
Still, podcasts do seem to work for some people by distracting them from their even more distracting internal monologue. "If you're the kind of person for whom listening to someone speak can help you shut off your internal worry track, then they can actually be very effective. This is counterintuitive because studies show that more womb-like white noise type sounds usually work better."
Even if podcasts help you fall asleep, Dow advises putting the sleep mode on so it shuts off automatically after a fixed amount of time or at the end of an episode. Even if podcasts help a lot of people fall asleep initially, they can also disturb us again if we tune back into the sound of people talking later on.
Meditation is also a popular relaxation technique that people use to help calm themselves down before bed, and this can mean listening to a guided meditation. Dow confirmed that meditation can be effective in slowing our brainwaves from beta down to alpha, which is helpful.
The conscious brain can help us develop good sleep practices, but Dow believes that, through hypnosis, we can also get our subconscious brains to serve the same purpose, which is why his most recent book, Your Subconscious Brain, includes an audio hypnosis track. This combines subconscious brain-activation, mindfulness meditation, and guided visualization and helps to create subconscious mental associations that help people to sleep more soundly. Dow says hypnosis is particularly good for working at the "theta" level of brainwave frequency and can even help bring people down to delta waves.
Though not on Dow's list of recommendations, we'd be remiss to exclude the internet sensation known as ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. ASMR videos use audio triggers like whispering, tapping and crinkling to elicit tingling sensations and feelings of deep relaxation and even euphoria in its enthusiasts. Canadian ASMR artist and CBC Life contributor ALB in Whisperland just celebrated reaching 150,000 YouTube subscribers with a new video featuring whispers, tapping and crinkling of layers of tissue paper.
Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.