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White Noise Machines Might Be Doing More Harm to Your Sleep Than You Think

Some people swear by their white noise machines. While they might make falling asleep easier, it's still noise.

It’s easy to fall prey to the thinking that any sleep is good sleep. But not all sleep is created equal.

Sensory stimuli — including sound, light, temperature, and even smell — all have the ability to affect the quality of your sleep or even wake you up. For sounds that are sudden and/or loud, that probably seems obvious. If you’ve ever slept with a snorer, for example, you know it can leave you tossing and turning all night.

The effects of quieter sounds, including those made by white noise machines, are less obvious. But even if it doesn’t wake you up, it can still affect your sleep.

Before we get into that, though, it’s important to understand that white noise isn’t the same as other sounds. White noise is composed of many frequencies with the same amplitude or intensity. As a result, it actually masks background noise. For that reason, a lot of people use it to fall asleep and stay asleep in an otherwise noisy environment.

When you use a white noise machine, the offending sounds — including a partner’s snores, a noisy street, a television, a neighbor’s barking dog, or a storm — don’t go away. They’re still there. You’re simply less likely to hear them and wake up because they’re being drowned out.

While some research has suggested that white noise machines can be harmful for babies, the same isn’t necessarily true of adults. On the one hand, white noise machines might be able to help you fall asleep in the midst of disruptive background noise. On the other hand, they might affect the quality of your sleep.

Several studies have identified a link between nighttime noise and cardiovascular disease. The European World Health Organization has identified nightly noise as having the potential to seriously damage human health. The WHO estimates that sounds as low as 30 decibels can lead to awakening, arousal, and self-reported sleep disturbances. (White noise machines pump out sounds that range from 50 to 90 DB.)

Sounds above 55 DB have been found to cause irritation and sleep disturbances. They’re also linked to cardiovascular disease.

Keep in mind, though, that most research to date has focused on the effects of sudden or changing environmental noise. The fact that plays at a constant level may make it less damaging.

Unfortunately, for those people using white noise to drown out other sounds, white noise is still the best option.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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