Binaural beats are a fascinating piece of technology that claims to reduce stress and anxiety while increasing your state of relaxation. These beats are created by combining different sound frequencies to produce a singular tone, and they’re popular on both music streaming applications and YouTube alike. Let’s take a closer look at one area impacted by binaural beats: sleep.
While it’s true that sound can influence our stress levels and even our cognitive performance, many questions remain about the efficacy of these slow-wave sounds. What do binaural beats actually do? Why should you use them during sleep? And can you really boost your brain health with a little help from isochronic tones?
Let’s drop the beat and break down this fascinating topic in greater detail to learn everything there is to know about binaural beats and how they can impact your sleep.
What Are Binaural Beats?
As sophisticated as they may sound, binaural beats are nothing more than two different frequencies playing at the same time. With one frequency in each ear, the brain perceives them as a singular tone. Promoted by psychologists, researchers, and healthcare professionals alike, many claim these beats can improve working memory and long-term memory, as well as strengthen connections within the many networks of the brain.
The theory behind such an idea goes something like this: When a different tone is played in each ear, your brain will perceive an entirely new tone that’s essentially the difference between the two separate tones you hear. Your brain is “tuning” itself into a new frequency.
To accomplish this task, you’ll need a pair of headphones. If you start to play a binaural beat that sends a 280-hertz tone into your left ear and a 300-hertz tone into your right ear, your brain will naturally process and absorb a 10-hertz tone. While you won’t be able to hear this tone (10 hertz is so low that you can’t actually hear it), your brain will still be affected by it and benefit from the inaudible auditory beat.
Why is this exposure to sound waves that we can’t hear so beneficial? Science suggests exposure to binaural beats can create changes in our brain’s state of arousal. Listening to different tones that create a singular low-frequency tone will trigger our brain to transition into a state of slow-wave activity — the perfect state for relaxation — lowering anxiety and making it easier to both fall asleep and stay asleep.
Different Types of Brain Waves
To better understand how binaural beats interact with your brain, we need to take a brief detour to discuss brain waves and what they represent in terms of our emotions, mental activity, and state of consciousness.
Brain waves are created by a pulse of electricity that comes from neurons as they communicate with one another. When we think, experience emotion, or act on how we feel, we trigger neural communication. brain waves are influenced by how we feel and what we do in the world around us.
There are four primary types of brain wave frequencies that will be influenced by your emotions and your world. Binaural beats can influence these brain waves as well.
Beta-frequency brain waves are associated with elevated levels of alertness and arousal. When beta brain waves are dominant, we’re ready to focus, to make decisions, and to think analytically.
As you analyze an issue in the office or amongst friends, chances are high that you’re in a beta-dominant state. Beta waves are fast and have a higher frequency (between 15-40 hertz), and higher levels of beta-frequency waves are associated with anxiety.
Alpha-frequency brain waves are associated with relaxation. As brain waves that are both slower and lower in frequency (between 9-14 hertz), alpha waves occur when you’re calm and collected, but still alert and aware of your surroundings.
Alpha waves are additionally associated with a meditative state and with your ability to be creative. Those who practice yoga have likely experienced this alpha state.
Theta-frequency brain wave patterns are associated primarily with deep relaxation and some stages of sleep, including lighter stages on non-REM (NREM) sleep. Because REM sleep is more wakeful, it’s mostly composed of beta-frequency waves and other activities that are associated with being alert and awake.
Deeper forms of meditation produce theta waves, which are slower and have a lower frequency (between 5-8 hertz) than Alpha waves. If you need a prime example of theta waves, simply think of that moment in bed when you’re drifting in and out of sleep. Everything is fuzzy, dreamlike, and difficult to remember. That’s when your theta waves are most active.
Delta waves are slow-wave, low-frequency brain waves (between 1.5-4 hertz) that can be found during deep sleep. These are found during the deepest stages of meditation and dreamless NREM sleep.
Binaural Beats and Brain Waves
After learning a bit more about the four brain wave frequencies, two things might become apparent. First, faster and higher-frequency brain waves are associated with states of arousal. These brain waves suggest you’re awake, alert, and prepared for whatever comes next. And second, lower frequency waves are associated with deeper states of relaxation or sleep.
Truth be told, we’ve known for decades that different sound waves can produce or encourage different brain wave patterns. We refer to our brain’s process of aligning with certain frequencies as entrainment.
The process of brain wave entrainment suggests that we can, in fact, be influenced by the effects of binaural beats. By exposing our brain to low-frequency tones, we can encourage the brain’s output of alpha, theta, and delta-frequency brain waves that lead to a state of relaxation or healthy sleep.
How Binaural Beats Can Improve Sleep
Brain wave activity during your sleep state is different from brain wave activity when you’re awake. But as it turns out, lowering brain wave frequencies through binaural beats can also compel your body to alter three hormones that are associated with sleep and well-being: DHEA, cortisol, and melatonin.
DHEA is a master hormone of sorts that helps the body produce other hormones as needed. When we sleep, DHEA suppresses cortisol — the hormone that stimulates alertness and provokes stress when released by our body at elevated levels. By utilizing binaural beats, we can actually increase DHEA levels, which will in turn regulate other hormones that could otherwise keep us awake.
Cortisol, on the other hand, tends to rise and fall with our circadian rhythm. These levels rise in the morning when we wake and fall at night as we sleep. If our cortisol levels are too high at night, it can render us unable to sleep — at which point, we may experience insomnia. Binaural beats have the ability to lower cortisol levels just in time for us to drift off to sleep.
Finally, melatonin is the hormone known for promoting and regulating sleep. Melatonin levels will rise dramatically in the evening as our body and mind wind down. Binaural beats can help our body increase melatonin levels to ensure we receive a full night of high-quality sleep. We can even use supplements of melatonin or magnesium to fully ensure our body is ready to get the sleep it needs.
As we can see, binaural beats are capable of more than simply lowering brain wave frequencies. They can help boost our sleep-promoting hormones as well.
Risk Factors Associated With Binaural Beats
By and large, binaural beats are a safe and noninvasive method for helping us fall asleep. That being said, there are a couple of risk factors associated with binaural beats that you should be aware of.
For instance, those who are prone to epileptic seizures should refrain from using binaural beats as the frequencies may trigger abnormal neurological impulses that cause epileptic seizures. Additionally, binaural beats can affect heart rhythms, so those who have a pacemaker or other cardiac issue should speak with a doctor before using binaural beats for sleep or relaxation.
If binaural beats aren’t for you, consider using sleep music or a white noise machine to fall asleep. These options still promote a calm and relaxing atmosphere in a noninvasive manner.
Get Some Sleep With Binaural Beats
From sleep medications to sleep therapy and beyond, there are many tactics we can use to help us get some shuteye. As a noninvasive and inexpensive approach to falling asleep, binaural beats have the ability to help many of us get the sleep our body craves.
If you’re considering using binaural beats, speak with your healthcare provider to ensure this approach is right for you. From there, all you need is a pair of headphones to help you get the sleep you need.