This is a guest post by Dr. Erin Stair, M.D., M.P.H
During my training as a West Point cadet and Army officer, I was molded to function on no sleep. “Sleep is a crutch” was a common battle cry. Sleep was for the weak, and real soldiers aren’t weak! During one outdoor infantry training exercise, I remember being so sleep deprived that I woke up on top of a large rock, completely delirious, with my rifle pointed at my own platoon. Then it hit me- sleep matters.
Now as a physician and public health consultant, I really know that sleep matters. I work with a lot of wellness clients who struggle with either falling asleep or staying asleep. In this country, good sleep is hard to come by. Approximately 50-70 million US adults suffer from sleep disorders, and insufficient sleep is shown to be associated with higher rates of both physical and mental illness. To address these issues, at least 9 million Americans have turned to benzodiazepines and barbiturates. That means 9 million people are willing to endure troubling side effects, such as drowsiness, headaches, stomach pains, nightmares, constipation, or even a burning feeling in the limbs, just to capture a few hours of “medicated” sleep. Most recently, a study published in The British Medical Journal showed that taking sleeping pills for a prolonged period of time is associated with a fourfold increased risk of death. Such an observation begs the question, “Is the cure better than the disease?”
My philosophy as a public health specialist is to always try the most effective and least invasive approach available for a specific ailment, before turning to the big-gun pharmaceuticals. That said, what is really effective? And wouldn’t it vary from individual to individual? I have advised my wellness clients struggling with sleep issues to turn off all lights, phones and computers; to sleep in a cool room; to not drink coffee after 4 pm; to empty his or her bladder before going to bed at night; to sleep alone if need be; to not watch TV; to do deep breathing exercises, etc. Some of these tips were definitely helpful for my clients, but a lot of people wanted and needed something more- especially something that would calm them and free their busy minds of useless ruminations.
I have used different kinds of sound therapy programs before, mainly for people suffering from depression, PTSD and anxiety, and have had great success. I’ve used sound therapy personally and swear by it. But I never tried a sound therapy program for poor sleep. I had the software and a great team of scientists and consultants, so I figured, why not? Let’s give it a shot! So I sent an email to some of my wellness clients and blog subscribers, asking them if anyone who had trouble falling asleep would be willing to listen to an auditory program for 2 weeks. I was really surprised by the plethora of responses. By the time I sorted through the emails, I had a solid 41 volunteers: 23 women and 15 men (and 3 that preferred not to include gender information), between the age range of 21 and 64.
For the first week of the sleep exercise, I asked the participants to sleep like they normally would each night, and then complete and submit a 20-question baseline survey the following day. (This was a very extensive survey, and if you are curious about what we asked, you can find the questions in our Sleep and Beats report.) During the second week of the sleep exercise, each participant was asked to listen to one of two auditory programs each night, and then complete and submit a 20-question survey the following day. The two auditory programs were slightly different, but both were 60 minutes in length and contained scientifically-selected sounds arranged in very specific sequence. The scientifically-selected sounds included isochronic tones at different frequencies, relaxing nature sounds and binaural beats. The science behind binaural beats is vast and fascinating and can be further explored in our Sleep and Beats report. A binaural beat does not actually exist in physical space, which is why the more poetically-inclined scientists call it a “phantom beat.” In order for our brains to perceive it, two tones of varying frequencies must be presented via headphones to each ear. An integrated auditory signal (the binaural beat) is produced and will have a frequency equal to the difference in frequency between the two tones. It is theorized that when our brains perceive a binaural beat at a specific frequency, brainwaves with similar frequencies will be produced. This phenomenon is called entrainment. The latest research shows that in order to be most effective, the binaural beats should be presented in a specific sequence. In other words, the auditory stimulation should create an external frequency that is the same as the brain’s current internal rhythm, and then subsequently create the desired frequency. This method of delivery is called in-phase stimulation. Long story short, my team of doctors and I used auditory programs that created binaural beats with a frequency between 2-8 Hz.
Because the right headphones are crucial for the auditory programs to be effective, my team of doctors and I offered participants specialized headphones designed to be comfortable while sleeping or resting. 18 participants chose to wear the specialized headphones and 23 participants opted to use their own headphones.
All of the survey answers were collected and analyzed in Microsoft Excel and the statistical software, SPSS.
Results showed that, on average, 54% of participants experienced improved quality of sleep after listening to the sounds. Even more impressive is that 64% of the participants who wore the specialized headphones experienced a significant improvement in sleep quality, compared to 46% of participants who wore their own. We also looked at “perceived energy” as an outcome. 41% of participants who wore the specialized headphones had improved energy level compared to 21% of participants who wore their own headphones. Even more encouraging is that 94% of participants said they would recommend this alternative method for improving sleep quality to a friend.
My team of doctors and I also recorded the participants’ subjective comments throughout the entire exercise. The number one reason participants gave for trouble falling asleep was that they were worried about something. They also reported that the auditory program was very helpful for addressing that. The number one reason participants gave for having trouble staying asleep was that they had to use the toilet. Unfortunately, the sound program can’t really address that issue, but perhaps not drinking so much before bedtime can. (We’re not perfect.)
Since the results of the sleep exercise were so positive, the team at Blooming Wellness decided to offer the auditory sleep program with healing sounds, along with the specialized headphones, as a packaged deal through our website, Blooming Wellness. So far, the feedback has been great and, really, it is exceeding our expectations. Most importantly, we are thrilled to be helping thousands of people get a good night’s sleep. As I said in the beginning, sleep matters.
Featured image courtesy of Sleep Phones (http://www.sleepphones.com/).
-- Important: The Sleep Blog does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Instead, this website provides general information for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider if you have questions or concerns regarding any medical condition or treatment.