Waves crashing on rocks makes me sleepy

You asked: Why does the sound of water make me sleepy?

From white noise to rainfall, we explore the connection between sleep and sound
February 1, 2019

You try everything. You roll to one side, then to the other. You count to 10, then refluff your pillow for the 300th time. The stage is set for you to drift off into blissful sleep, but you can’t. In desperation, you reach for your phone to play soothing sounds in the background, and that works! You are starting to breathe more and more slowly as your mind starts to wander…

It is somewhat ironic to play noise to fall asleep, but it works for many people. Sleep specialist Steven D. Bender, DDS, clinical assistant professor and director of the Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Dentistry, discusses why sounds like rain make you feel sleepy.

The connection between your brain and sound

Whether we consciously know it or not, sounds can significantly impact how quickly we fall asleep and the quality of sleep we experience.

“From a psychological standpoint, there are certain sounds that can be soothing for certain people,” Bender said. “There are also certain sounds, like white noise, and other sounds with frequencies that will mask irritating noises.”

White noise is useful to reduce the contrast between background sounds that you are familiar with, like the sound of your ceiling fan, and the sound of a sudden car horn outside your window.

“Approximately every 20–60 seconds, what we call microarousals happen, during the sleep period,” said Bender. “Our brain stays engaged with our environment during sleep and becomes very heightened in a very repetitious way.” He says at these points of arousal, the brain is determining if it is still safe to sleep. For example, you may jolt awake if a stranger says your name while you are asleep in your bedroom, but you may not immediately wake up if your significant other says your name.

Sudden noise from your environment can trigger these microarousals to send the brain into a less satisfactory sleep. On the opposite hand, soothing sounds like rain falling or waves crashing on the beach can keep the brain feeling comfortable and at ease during sleep. This same logic applies to the brain as it tries to fall asleep.

Ways to improve your sleep

“What sounds you find calming depends on who we are and how we are brought up,” Bender said. “There is not one sound across the board that is comforting to everyone. You have to try different things to determine what your brain likes during sleep.”

If you are struggling to sleep, Bender says it is also important to maintain good sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene. This can be accomplished by shutting off electronics at least an hour before bed and avoiding eating or drinking up to three hours before you get into bed. He also says alcohol, smoking and caffeine can be detrimental to good sleep.

“It is important for people to try these kinds of non-medicated approaches before they reach for an over-the-counter medicine,” Bender said. “Try these sleep hygiene tips or even visit a sleep psychologist for help finding winding-down techniques that work for you.”

If you’ve tried all of these tips and are still having trouble sleeping, contact your primary care provider for additional guidance.

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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