A white noise machine, air conditioner or whatever whale sound CD you listen to in order to fall asleep might be useful in the moment, but you’re probably just hurting yourself in the long-term. And as new research suggests, you might even be hurting yourself night after night, too.
Tons of people utilize some type of ambient white noise to help get to sleep each night, only to discover that they can’t fall asleep without it. Setting yourself up with any type of sleep-related dependence is generally a bad idea, since you’re basically guaranteeing future sleepless nights if certain conditions aren’t met. More than that, though, the sleep you receive even with white noise might not actually be quality, as a recent review of scientific studies regarding sleep and white noise from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine notes.
In it, psychiatric scientists found that the quality of evidence provided by prior studies to suggest white noise may be beneficial was “very low,” and that there isn’t enough statistical data to support such claims. More frighteningly, though, the researchers behind the review are concerned that the use of white noise for sleep could both be leading to poorer sleep quality and potentially even hearing issues.
As the head of the study, psychiatry professor Mathias Basner, explained to The Guardian, the main area of concern surrounding white noise is simply that there hasn’t yet been enough comprehensive research on the topic. Specifically, the need for our auditory systems to “switch off” as we sleep hasn’t properly been explored.
“Whenever we’re exposed to sounds and noise, the inner ear is translating that into nerve signals that are then interpreted by the brain,” he told The Guardian. “It is an active process, which generates metabolites, some of which have been shown to be harmful to the inner ear. You probably want to have a period where the auditory system can wind down, regenerate and prepare for the next wake period.”
This isn’t to say that we all need to ban white noise machines. In situations with disruptive outside noise, such as that experienced by many night-shift workers who need to sleep during the day, blocking other sounds can be essential to getting any sleep at all. However, for those of us who already have a quiet environment for sleeping, there’s no real need for white noise. Again, for some people, the potential risks of white noise are a trade-off they have to make, but it’s better to avoid damaging your eardrums if you can.