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Living Well in the cITy

The Quest for a Peaceful Sleep

Trying to sleep in an urban environment, especially during daylight hours, can be near impossible for some people. Horns honking, people shouting, trunks loading and unloading. Random street noises. And for apartment dwellers there's the foot steps from the upstairs apartment on their cheaply installed laminate flooring. Or the neighbours who like to hang out in the hall. The piano lessons downstairs. Not to mention distractions within your own home: phones ringing, TV blasting, kids shouting...

All of these distractions are sounds that your brain is interested in. When you are trying to sleep, your brain will react to and process these sounds, whether you want it to or not. And for many people, these sounds will trigger our brain to wake us up once it is asleep. Some people can sleep through these distractions but others sleep lightly and wake right up as soon as they hear a dog bark or a child cry.

Sleep Machines

There are machines available to help mask these sounds. These sleep machines are not noise cancelling machines but machines that can flood a room with other sounds and noises that are less interesting to the brain and louder than the sounds distracting it, blocking and masking the distracting sounds. They generate a form of sound therapy to condition and enhance your sleep environment.

The main component of the masking sounds these sleep machines generate is noise. Commonly white noise is used to describe it but they actually produce noise that is a little more complex. To understand what these sleep aids do, lets start with a description of white noise. White noise is random sound with an intensity that is consistent across the entire audible spectrum. So sounds in the lower frequencies are just as loud as those in the upper frequencies.

We use the word white to describe it just as we use white to describe light that is composed of colours across the entire visible spectrum. When combined, the colours blend to appear white to our eyes and this is the same with sounds in our ear. The sounds combine to form white noise. The best way to describe white noise is as a hissing sounds. Do you remember what it was like to turn an analog television to a channel that was not in use? That was white noise on the screen and coming form the speakers. It is random noise.

But white noise is somewhat harsh. Other "colours" of noise are just as effective at masking sounds while being more pleasing to the ear. Pink and brown noise for example. There is an excellent example of what these noise patterns sound like at this website

So what these sleep machines do is create noise that blankets much of the audible spectrum, that is uninteresting to our brains and is at a level higher than that of the distractions that keep us awake. And they do this either mechanically, electronically or digitally.

Mechanical sleep machines use fans to force air through openings in the machine's housing, making a noise that sounds like wind blowing. Although very basic in design they produce a noise that is truly random, consistent and pure.

Electronic systems typically loop digitally sampled noise sounds, usually overlaid with nature sounds like rain falling, waves crashing, streams flowing or thunder crashing. More complex systems will let you layer the noise sources to create a sort of complex symphony to suit you listening and environmental needs. It is impossible to create truly random noise digitally. And to be effective, the samples that are looped must blend together otherwise your brain will detect the repeating nature of the sounds and be distracted by it.

Even smarter sleep machines will react to your environment by increasing their volume or varying the sounds in an attempt to mask random sound intrusions. There's no point in blasting white noise all night only to mask a few seconds of honking or hammering. But these adaptive systems can be expensive and can at times be confused and create noise that some may find more disruptive.

Tips for obtaining a good nights rest

If you have been having trouble sleeping, before purchasing one of these machines or even consulting a sleep clinic, consider the following tips for getting a good nights rest:

  • Keep regular sleep hours. Get your body used to going to sleep at the same time every night and wake up at a set time every morning. Try to avoid sleeping in. If you didn't get enough sleep through the night, it is tempting to take a short nap through the day to 'catch up' but this can contribute to problems falling asleep later at night.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment. Make you bedroom dark, quite and cool and your bed comfortable, obviously.
  • Use your bed only for sleep. Avoid working, reading, watching TV or eating in bed. Mentally you will associate your bed with activities other than sleep making it harder for your brain to unplug at night when you are lying in bed and trying to sleep.
  • Reduce mind stimulation an hour before bed time. Turn off the TV and loud music. And if you can, avoid the computer. Too much mental stimulation just before bedtime will rouse your mind and keep you awake thinking about what you just experienced.
  • Don't eat before bed, a few hours before. You body will be busy processing food when it wants to sleep and this is never a good thing.
  • Get some exercise throughout the day. If you spend you days sedentary your body won't feel the need for sleep as much as it would if it had been experiencing some exertion throughout the day.