Here’s how to protect your sleep on noisy nights
For Independence Day, my family and I get together with a great group of friends for dinner, then head to the beach to watch the fireworks. Fourth of July is a lot of fun for us here in Southern California. But it’s not exactly the sleep-friendliest holiday of the year. The loud noises of fireworks and partying late into the night can keep kids and adults (not to mention those anxious pets) awake.Although, I am pretty sure my bulldog can sleep through anything!.
Especially on a year like this, when the holiday falls right in the middle of the week a lot of people may need to get up for work the next morning, July 5 may arrive with a lot of sleep-deprived, over-tired folks.
With cracking and popping of fireworks fast on the way, this seems like a good time to talk about the most common noises that interfere with sleep—and how you can address them, so you and your family get the rest you need.
Why one night of poor sleep matters
I can just hear people saying, so what? Maybe I won’t sleep well on the 4th, but what’s the big deal? It’s just one night.
More and more, we’re seeing evidence of just how big an impact even a single night of poor sleep really is. Recent research shows that one bad night of sleep can:
- Negatively affect heart health, increasing heart rate and blood pressure
- Elevate stress hormone cortisol
- Disrupt the body’s circadian clock, throwing your sleep-wake cycle off-course, and causing negative changes to metabolism, appetite, immune function
- Increase blood sugar and reduce insulin sensitivity
- Put you at greater risk for accident and injury
New research also shows that a single night of poor sleep elevates levels of a brain protein that is involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the biggest misconceptions about sleep out there is that it’s only clinical sleep disorders and long-term, chronic sleep problems that are harmful to health. As the research above suggests, short-term sleep deprivation—as little as one night—can hurt.
I’m not suggesting there’s reason to panic over the occasional night of lousy sleep. They happen to all of us, myself included. But it’s always important and worthwhile to set yourself up as best you can to sleep well, each and every night.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most common types of noise that interfere with sleep.
SUDDEN, ABRUPT LOUD NOISES. Whether it’s fireworks on the 4th (or New Year’s Eve), a blaring siren on a typically quiet street, or a loud clap of thunder, these types of sharp, intense, quiet-shattering noises are the kinds that often rouse us from rest. Tomorrow’s burst of late-night fireworks is especially likely to wake you if you’re in the lighter stages of sleep. But we’re vulnerable to waking from loud noise in all of the sleep stages, including both non-REM deep sleep and REM sleep. And remember how sleep cycles work: we pass through all five stages of sleep—the lighter and deeper stages of non-REM sleep (sleep stages 1-4) and REM sleep, in each full sleep cycle we complete during the night. (A typical 7- to 8-hour night of rest includes 4-5 full sleep cycles.) That means throughout the night you’re moving through lighter sleep stages, when you’re especially vulnerable to the sleep disrupting effects of noise.
There’s evidence that some people are better able to withstand noise during sleep, depending on the individual activity of their brain waves. Research shows some people’s brains generate more of a specific type of brain activity—known as sleep spindles—during the lighter stages of sleep. People whose brains produce more sleep spindles during stage 2 sleep are less likely to be awakened by noises during this stage of light sleep, according to research. Sleep spindles appear to be something of a biological buffer against noise disruption during sleep.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: On nights like July 4, and on any nights when you’re apt to be awakened by intrusive noise, introducing sleep-friendly sounds to your bedroom environment can help buffer you from those other, unwelcome sounds. Whether it’s nature sounds or a form of white noise or pink noise, these intentional sounds create a steady noise environment less likely to be disrupted by abrupt and variable noises coming from elsewhere—but still give you the ability to hear important sounds, like a smoke alarm or a baby crying. My favorite sleep system, the iHome Zenergy, gives you the choice among white noise and different nature sounds, along with sleep-promoting light therapy and aromatherapy, all of which can be especially helpful on hard-to-fall-asleep nights like the 4th.
SNORING. This sleep-stealing sound doesn’t discriminate between holiday and non-holiday nights. But it is one of the most sleep-interrupting noises in the bedroom. Snoring is a sleep problem that a lot of people try to ignore, or just live with. Snoring is detrimental both to snorers themselves and to bed partners who are often kept awake by the noise. With an estimated 90 million Americans snoring—and about 37 million snoring regularly—that’s a lot of noisy bedrooms and sleep-deprived nights, for snorers and their bedmates. For bed partners of snorers, every night can be a bit like the Fourth of July, with lots of loud booms and pops coming from the other side of the bed.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Snoring is always a sleep issue that needs attention, including a conversation with your doctor. While snoring doesn’t always signal the presence of obstructive sleep apnea, roughly half of people who snore loudly are estimated to have sleep apnea. Left untreated, sleep apnea raises risks for cardiovascular disease, metabolic diseases including obesity and diabetes, depression and risks for injury and accident.
Bed partners of snorers face some of the same health risks as snorers themselves, because of their regularly interrupted sleep. They’re at significant risk for daytime fatigue, compromised performance and safety. People who sleep with snorers are also at risk for hearing loss, because of the close and chronic exposure to snoring noise. And there are often relationship problems that transpire between partners as a result of snoring: frustration and fatigue related to snoring often create tension, resentment and emotional distance between partners. It’s not exactly news that couples choosing to sleep in separate beds is on the rise—and snoring is the most common reason I see couples making this choice.
But sleeping apart isn’t the only choice. And it’s likely not the best choice if separate sleeping spaces means that the underlying sleep issue of snoring doesn’t get the attention it needs. To learn more about how snoring is affecting your sleep, take my snoring quiz. For my full rundown on snoring and ways you can fix a snoring problem, read this. One option I want to single out here: I been tremendously impressed with how well the oral appliance Zyppah is at reducing or eliminating snoring. I recommend it constantly to my patients, and I’ve seen it deliver excellent results. Talking with your doctor—or getting your partner to talk with their doctor—is another critical step toward ending the noise problem and addressing the root causes of snoring. In particular, people who snore chronically and loudly should share this information with their physician and ask to be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea.
Bottom line? Snoring is a noisy problem that is hazardous for both people in bed, and for their relationship. It should never be ignored.
PETS IN BED. If you’ve got a dog in your household, Fourth of July is probably their least favorite night of the year. Our dogs crawl to the farthest spot under our bed to wait out the fireworks. An anxious, pacing, whining pet might keep you up late this Independence Day. A lot of us sleep with our pets, and that can create noise and activity that poses problems for sleep.
Pets are just as likely to snore as human bedmates. They’re also up and moving around throughout the night, grooming themselves and, if you’ve got multiple pets, probably jockeying for the prime spot in bed—usually right next to you. All this activity creates noise and motion that may pull you out of sleep.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: I’m an animal lover, and our family’s pets are truly part of the family. So I understand the inclination to sleep with these sweet creatures. Research indicates that about half of dog and cat owners sleep with their pets. For many pet owners, co-sleeping with animals is a bonding experience, and a habit that provides emotional comfort. These emotional and psychological attachments shouldn’t be taken lightly or trivialized.
And still, pets bring noise and activity to bed, along with allergens (think: dirt, hair, mites, fleas, and other tiny, unwelcome critters). All of this is capable of disturbing your sleep. Every sleeper is different, and so is every pet. There’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for co-sleeping with animals. If you sleep with animals in your bed and you don’t sleep well on a routine, nightly basis, it is time to look at making some changes to your sleep arrangements.
Depending on your individual circumstances, health, and sleep patterns, you may not need to banish pets from the bedroom altogether. A 2017 study conducted by scientists at the Mayo Clinic showed that people who slept with their dogs in their bedroom—but not on the bed itself—were able to maintain a healthy sleep efficiency. Researchers found that the presence of dogs on the bed lowered sleep efficiency, creating more disrupted, less refreshing sleep.
One important thing to note: the people included in this study were healthy adults with no sleep disorders. If you’re coping with health issues or chronic sleep problems like insomnia or restless leg syndrome, having pets in your bedroom might still be too much noise disruption.
On the other hand, if you sleep with your animals and have good restful sleep, then don’t give it a second thought!
TV NOISE. In an ideal world, none of us would have televisions or any other electronics in our bedrooms. But we live in the real world, where it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of us fall asleep regularly to the sights and sounds of television. So, I’m going to give you real-world advice on this issue.
If having the TV on helps you relax and settle into sleep, that’s okay. It’s not so much the noise (and light) in this pre-sleep timeframe that’s problematic. But when the TV drones on late into the night, after you’ve fallen asleep, that relentless and constantly changing noise will wake you. Even if these awakenings are so brief you don’t remember them, they’re happening. And they’re taking you out of your normal sleep stages, pulling you repeatedly back into lighter sleep.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: It’s actually pretty simple to manage this issue so you can protect the quality of your sleep without giving up a pre-sleep TV ritual. First, a no-brainer: keep the volume down. Most important? Set the timer on your television, so that it automatically shuts off shortly after the time you typically drift off to sleep. And while we’re on the subject of TV, make sure your screen is positioned at a distance, so you’re not getting a face full of screen light while you’re in bed. Take the brightness down, and take advantage of the evening blue-light blocking filters many TVs now have—or invest in a screen-covering filter that blocks blue light for your bedroom television.
ENVIRONMENTAL NOISE. This category of sleep-disrupting noise is both broad and pervasive. Environmental noise is the accumulation of sound in our surroundings. It includes everything from car traffic to airplanes overhead, neighbors hanging out on their porch and people congregating in public spaces, car alarms, church bells, and construction sounds.
Environmental noise is in many ways the most difficult sleep-disrupting noise to address. You control the sounds that emanate inside your home. None of us individually have much control at all over the noise of our larger surroundings. (We all can advocate for noise-reducing practices and regulations in our communities, however.)
We’re increasingly attuned to light pollution and the need to reduce it in order to protect public health and sleep. We need to pay the same rigorous attention to noise pollution. Environmental noise can create a range of problems for sleep. In the short-term, a poor night of sleep resulting from a noisy environment leads to daytime fatigue, low mood, difficulty concentrating and other cognitive impairments. And, as I described earlier, even a single night of poor sleep is linked to heart problems, accident risk, and other negative health markers. There’s emerging research suggesting that over the long-term, the effects of environmental noise on sleep are directly linked to higher risks for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: To effectively protect yourself from the harm environmental noise can do to sleep, you need to use all the tools available to you. Curtains and rugs help absorb noise as it filters to your bedroom. Earplugs can significantly reduce the impact of environmental noise. If you suffer from tinnitus, however, you shouldn’t sleep with earplugs. Read my recent look at the relationship of tinnitus and sleep, here. Introducing continuous, sleep-friendly noise, with the iHome Zenergy or another sleep system, can help block the unwanted sounds.
There’s also evidence that using sleep-promoting supplements can help. Recent research indicates that melatonin may help improve sleep quality in a noisy environment. The study compared the effects of melatonin to eye masks and earplugs in a group of people sleeping in a simulation of a hospital’s intensive care unit—typically a noisy, bright environment. The study found supplemental melatonin improved melatonin levels and sleep quality, and did a better job at boosting both than either ear plugs or eye masks.
Go ahead and enjoy the sights and sounds of Independence Day, and cap off the celebrations with a great night of sleep, protected from whatever noises are in the air.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™