Sleeping is as crucial to our health as eating and breathing. And yet sound, restful sleep evades so many of us. Indeed, millions of women spend their nights staring at the ceiling unable to doze off, restlessly tossing and turning, or awaking well before their alarm. And chances are, most of them have tried dozens of strategies to catch more Zzz’s over the years. Now, researchers are pointing to a new form of sound therapy that might help: Using binaural beats for sleep. Here, discover how this works and how it helped one woman overcome her insomnia for good.
What is insomnia?
“Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep that affects millions of people worldwide,” says Shelby Harris, PsyD, Director of Sleep Health at Sleepopolis. According to a study in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, roughly 33% of adults suffer from some degree of insomnia, though the researchers note that other studies have put that number as high as 60%. And while it’s easy to diagnose, insomnia is far less easy to treat.
Over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids may seem like an easy fix, but they come with drawbacks. The biggest hitch: they don’t provide much benefit for middle-aged women when used long-term, says Daniel Hal Solomon, MD, of Harvard Medical School. “I often see women who start with a week’s supply of sleep medication, but a year later, they’re still taking them nightly,” he reveals. “While the medication may work temporarily, our research has found that long-term use doesn’t have a clear benefit.”
In addition to their potential side effects (including strange dreams, sleepwalking and next-day grogginess), it’s easy to build up a tolerance to these medications. As their effectiveness wanes over time, you’ll need to take more to get the same benefit.
Why women have trouble sleeping
Almost anyone can get insomnia, but experts have noticed two trends: “It’s more common in women than in men, and the risk of experiencing insomnia increases with age,” notes Dr. Harris. In women, that’s often because of the hormonal fluctuations that occur before, during and after menopause. This can trigger symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats and nocturia (frequent trips to the bathroom during the night) that disrupt sleep. (Click through to learn how to cure female bladder problems and hot flashes that can sap your sleep.)
Depression and anxiety, both potent sleep disruptors, are also more prevalent during menopause. Why? Women experience difficult-to-manage symptoms — such as irritability, weight gain and thinning hair — that can leave them feeling blue.
What’s more, postmenopausal women are more likely to develop sleep apnea, a condition in which your breathing starts and stops throughout the night. In fact, Certified Menopause Practitioner Barbara DePree, MD says research suggests 20% of women develop the condition during menopause, and up to 67% of post-menopausal women have sleep apnea. Fortunately, no matter what’s keeping you up at night, there are drug-free sleep remedies that can help.
How sound influences sleep
Tapping into the power of sound for a solid night’s rest works in two key ways. The first: It blocks out distracting noise that can make it difficult to doze off. “Sleep sounds can help improve sleep quality by masking any background noise during the night, since noise can interfere with sleep,” explains Dr. Harris. That includes things like wind rattling your windows or an errant dog bark.
The second: Cuing up the right sounds can lull you into dreamland. “Certain types of sound, such as white noise or pink noise, can help to promote relaxation and sleep,” notes Dr. Harris. Indeed, a recent survey found that white noise (noise that contains all frequencies, like the sound of an air conditioning unit), brown noise (noise with a deep sound, like rumbling thunder), and pink noise (noise with a low, consistent sound, like a river softly flowing) were the most popular for their sleep-promoting perks. (Click through to discover the benefits of a type of sound known as green noise and how sound sleep strengthens your memory.)
But new research shows there’s an even better bet when it comes to improved sleep: a unique type of sound therapy known as binaural beats.
How binaural beats improve sleep
“Binaural beats are a type of auditory illusion that occurs when listening to two different sound frequencies simultaneously,” Dr. Harris explains. You don’t actually listen to a binaural beat. Rather, it is the sound that you hear when you listen to two tones, each at a different frequency and each in a different ear, and your brain creates a third sound. You don’t need to listen using headphones, but if you do, make sure you are using both (if you are only listening with one headphone, you won’t hear the binaural beat).
How can this help you sleep? The idea is that listening to binaural beats will synchronize your brain waves to the frequency of the binaural beat. “This guides your mind to a relaxed state,” explains Amy Myers, MD, author of The Autoimmune Solution.
For example, if you are listening to tones that create a binaural beat at a frequency under 4 Hz, also known as a delta wave, it will help your brain more easily transition to a state of deep sleep. That’s because delta waves are the frequency of your brain waves during the deepest stages of sleep. (Check out the video below to hear the soothing sound for yourself.)
The benefits of binaural beats for sleep
Proof it works: A study published in the journal Digital Health found that folks who listened to 90 minutes of binaural beats before bed fell asleep 62% faster and stayed asleep 21% longer within one week. Plus, they reduced their nighttime awakenings by 49%.
What’s more, clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, says research has shown that binaural beats impact hormones crucial to sleep, triggering a 97% increase in melatonin levels. And 70% of folks also had significant reductions in the stress hormone cortisol — all without the side effects of sleep meds. “Binaural beats are low-impact, non- invasive, inexpensive and, for most people, easy to adopt and maintain,” Dr. Breus says. (Click through to learn how to lower cortisol in the morning for less stress all day and deeper sleep all night.)
Ready to give binaural beats a try and get the sweet, deep sleep you’ve been craving? Read on to find out how the sound therapy technique helped one woman break free from her insomnia when nothing else worked.
Binaural beats for sleep success story: Amanda Foley, 48
Amanda Foley stared at the ceiling, wide awake in the middle of the night. Her mind was reviewing the day’s events and running through tomorrow’s to-do list. Throughout adulthood, 48-year-old Amanda had found it difficult to quiet her thoughts at night, robbing her of sleep and leaving her feeling like a zombie during the day.
Amanda searched endlessly for a cure to her insomnia. After trying over-the-counter remedies, like melatonin and various supplements, she began taking a low-dose prescription sleep medicine. However, she was uncomfortable with the idea of being on medication for the rest of her life. But the only other remedy her doctor offered was cognitive therapy, and that proved ineffective for Amanda.
Finally, Amanda took a hiatus from her PR job to prioritize her health. I’ve got to find a solution, she decided.
How Amanda discovered binaural beats for sleep
After doing some research, Amanda decided to give meditation a try. But after trying several voice guided meditations, she grew frustrated, finding them a bit distracting to fall asleep.
Then she read an article on binaural beats, where you listen to two tones with slightly different frequencies in each ear at the same time. As she learned, some studies show binaural beats induce delta activity in the brain, which is associated with the deepest levels of relaxation. This leads to faster sleep, a decrease in the number of awakenings and better sleep quality.
Intrigued, Amanda decided to give it a try. And when she found an app that combines both meditation and binaural beats, called Synctuition, she signed up for the 7-day free trial. (There are some free binaural beats apps such as Binaural Beats Therapy for Android and Binaural Beats by Adlai Holler for IOS, but note that they do not include meditation.)
Binaural beats helped Amanda sleep through the night
Each night, Amanda settled into bed and queued up a session. The sessions run around 25 minutes each. They begin with a voice presenting a concept to meditate on (such as gratitude, breathing, love or confidence) before starting the sounds. Synctuition’s meditations are designed to follow one another in a specific order as the intensity of the binaural beats increases. However, you can skip around and experiment to find what is most effective for you.
At first, Amanda would make it to the end of a session, but then felt relaxed enough to finally fall asleep. Impressed, after the free trial, she signed up for a paid membership ($15.99 monthly, $95.90 annual or $399 lifetime).
With continued use of the app, Amanda found herself falling asleep earlier in a session. After about one month, some nights she was fast asleep before the introduction meditation ended. Best of all, she stayed asleep throughout the night.
Today, Amanda is totally free of sleep medicine and sleeping better than she has in her life. Although she no longer needs to listen to the app to sleep, she continues to use it daily for overall wellness. “I feel better than I ever have and have an entirely new outlook on life,” she says. “I wake up every day feeling energized and ready to enjoy the day!”
For more ways to improve your sleep:
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.