I used to be able to fall asleep anywhere. On the bus, the Tube, on a plane and sometimes even standing up if I was really tired. But during periods of stress and anxiety, which seems to be most days since the pandemic started, I have been struggling to get any solid shut-eye.
As a chronic overthinker, some days my brain is polluted with all of life’s uncertainties: “Am I going to get fired?”, “Can I afford my Peloton bike next month?”, “What is my purpose in life?”. It’s exhausting and the cruel twist is this contant state of panic means I struggle to achieve the healthy seven to eight hours of sleep per night my brain needs to function.
For years, I’ve followed the so-called recommended sleep hygiene tips — lavender sprays! Silk eye masks! Blackout blinds! Peaceful piano playlists — all to no avail.
One morning, during a 4 am TikTok doom scroll, I came across some videos extolling the benefits of something called “brown noise” for those living with ADHD. The hashtag alone has over 15.2bn views, and according to TikTokers, brown noise can help to silence your inner monologue (for those who have one) as well as external noisy distractions. I don’t have ADHD (at least to my knowledge) but I wanted to try it. And, dare I say it, TikTok was right.
After 15 minutes of listening to brown noise at bedtime I was sound asleep. Snoring and dribbling, even. I woke up to my alarm in the morning feeling revived, refreshed, and rejuvenated instead of sluggish, moody and tired. Could brown noise be the antidote for insomnia?
“Brown noise is a specific type of sound which contains very low frequencies (the bass) at a great volume and minimal higher frequency sounds,” says Dr Lindsay Browning, author of Navigating Sleeplessness and sleep expert at troublesleeping.co.uk. “In nature, a natural example of this would be the sound of ocean waves hitting the shore or the low roaring sound of the inside of an aircraft.”
According to Dr Browning, brown noise also has the ability to minimise external noise stimuli in our brain — essential for city-dwellers. “When we sleep, a part of our brain is also aware of the environment outside and responds to sounds,” Dr Browning continues. “If someone lives in a town or city where there is a lot of external noise, like traffic or sirens, which can cause people to wake up from sleep, either briefly disrupting sleep quality to wake up completely and struggle to get back to sleep, brown noise can help mask these external noises.”
But, she adds, “if you are sleeping somewhere quiet which doesn’t have loud external noises, then using brown noise could actually cause a degree of noise disruption to your sleep rather than be wholly helpful.”
It’s different to white noise, which contains all frequencies of sounds at equal volumes. According to Dr Browning, white noise can be unpleasant for some people. “Examples of white noise would be the static from a television or radio.” Then there’s pink noise which contains all the same frequencies as white noise, only with higher frequency sounds at a much more quiet volume, making the noise more pleasant to listen to. Something like the sound of steady rainfall.
While many TikTokers are praising brown noise for treating those with ADHD symptoms, Dr Browning says there isn’t enough research to prove this theory. However, a 2016 study suggests that white noise might benefit attention in ADHD. “The NHS does not recommend ADHD be treated with any form of noise therapy at this stage but rather through medication and therapy.”
Although anecdotal evidence suggests that people may find brown noise soothing, there is no solid scientific evidence to show that brown noise can help with any mental health conditions either. “If you are struggling with your mental health, it is important to speak to your GP for advice and treatment including medication and therapy.”
While using white, pink and brown noise may be helpful if you have a noisy sleeping environment disrupting your sleep, it’s important to improve your general sleep hygiene first. “Give yourself enough time to sleep. If you go to bed at midnight and wake up at 6 am, you won’t be able to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep for an adult.”
Other tips recommended by Dr Browning include ensuring your bedroom is cool overnight, giving yourself a winddown time so you don’t go to bed stressed, using your bed for sleep instead of watching TV and scrolling through social media, and avoiding bright lights in the evening which can disrupt your melatonin production.
Brown noise isn’t a catch-all, but it helps me block out my inner monologue — as well as any other external sounds — and is giving me a level of calm that I need right now.