Noise - Why It Could Be Damaging Your Sleep

Noise - Why It Could Be Damaging Your Sleep

We have all had those sleepless nights, woken up to the screams and shouts of those party-loving neighbours. Such sounds, which may seem trivial during the day, can become irritating during the night. But did you know that even low-level noise such as the sound of a busy road is enough to rob you of crucial sleeping hours without actually waking you up?

Worryingly, the WHO has found that one in five Europeans are exposed to such sound levels at night. Long term exposure to low levels of noise has been shown to contribute to the development of insomnia and cardiovascular diseases.

What is the role of noise in our sleep?

Our ability to hear helps us to socialise, work and communicate with the outside world. It also keeps us safe by allowing us to recognise important signals that highlight danger that are usually sudden and loud.

However as we sleep, our ability to hear weakens. This is because a special region of the brain called the thalamus which acts as a gatekeeper to our consciousness and sleep, partially closes its door to sounds at night. This allows us to then relax, fall asleep and stay asleep.

From an evolutionary point of view, to become completely oblivious to sounds would not provide any advantage to our survival, even though it could help us sleep better. With our eyes closed we heavily rely on our ability to hear to inform us of any danger, and we even have increased sensitivity during the light and REM stages of our sleep.

This is why sirens and alarms are designed to have a jarring effect: the body responds to loud and sudden sounds by activating your sympathetic nervous system. This is the body’s fight or flight mechanism which allows you to become alert and aroused, ready to deal with the threat.

But sensitivity to sound during sleep varies from person to another, with some able to sleep through their alarms, whilst others waking up to a pin drop. This is because the so-called ‘sound sleepers’ have brains that can generate more sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are specific brain waves where whose frequency determines the extent of how ‘soundproof’ your brain is to external sounds.

Interestingly, different types of sounds can also change how open the ‘sound gate’ to your brain is. For example, the sound of a crying child will wake up a mother even if she usually sleeps through her morning alarms. This is because our brain can also differentiate between sounds that elicit emotions and those that don’t.

Impact on sleep

If you live in a noisy environment then your sound gates are continually being pushed open, which has been shown to have a huge negative impact on our sleep. This explains why residents who live near an airport report much higher insomnia rates and excessive daytime sleepiness compared to those who are not exposed to aircraft noise.

Noise during the night, whether it is loud, quiet, high-frequency or low, stimulates our brain and reduces the quality of our sleep. Considering that sound plays a danger-detection role during our sleep, it should come as no surprise that long-term exposure to noise places our body on constant alert , or in a “flight or fight mode”. As such, long term exposure to sound during the night has been associated with high blood pressure and subsequent cardiovascular disease.

The effect of noise pollution, which is one of the most important environmental causes of health problems, has resulted in a loss of one million years of “healthy life” for Western Europeans. It is therefore important to control the amount of noise you are exposed to during the night. In most cases, we cannot remove the source of noise, whether this is a snoring partner or a busy motorway. Therefore, adapting your bedroom environment is the easiest and quickest way to help improve the quality of your sleep.


  1. Make your bedroom a cocoon

    Remember, sounds travel by bouncing off objects. The more your bedroom objects can absorb the material, the less sound will go into your ear. Invest in soft furnishing (e.g. heavy curtains, thick carpets) that absorb the sound. If you have neighbours who throw crazy parties every other night, noise cancelling plaster boards on walls and soundproofing materials under the floors can help create that silent cocoon.

  2. Block your ears

    If it’s your partner snoring that's preventing you getting good quality sleep, you can use earplugs or noise cancelling headphones.

  3. Mask the sounds

    Did you know that there are different types of sounds? White noise is a special type of sound that helps mask background sounds. It is similar to the static sounds from older television sets that had no signal. Even though there are many machines and apps that provide this specific sound signal, a running fan also provides this kind of patternless noise.

  4. Listen to calming music

    Lullabies are not just for children. Music has a powerful effect on your mood by releasing lots of ‘feel-good hormones’. This, in turn, relaxes your body and helps you get to sleep. You can also opt to listen to sounds that reflect the soothing sounds of nature.

  5. Change the way you relate to sound

    Often, it is not the actual noise that is the problem, but the noise inside your head about the noise in your environment. For example, “I know my noisy neighbour is going to come home soon” or “I know my partner will start snoring soon”.

    It can therefore be helpful to describe the sound of the noise objectively as you hear it, such as “I can hear a rattle, a snort, a whisper, a wheeze” or “It starts soft and gets loud”. Describing it in this objective and non judgmental way releases you from its emotional grip and increases the chance of you actually sleeping.

If you need help overcoming insomnia , we recommend our Sleep School for Insomnia App. It contains proven tools to help you fall asleep quicker, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed.

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