I'm a person who needs a solid eight hours of sleep to function like a normal human being—anything less, and I'm destined to spend the following day feeling a) exhausted b) confused c) unproductive, and d) kind of mean (sorry, everyone).
And because I'm a person who needs plenty of zzzs to feel my best, I'm always on the lookout for ways to improve my sleep game. One of the most interesting techniques I've come across: binaural beats. These have been steadily growing in popularity as a must-try for improving focus and concentration, boosting memory, and—yup—getting a better night's sleep.
But what, exactly, are binaural beats? How do they work? And how can something that comes out of your headphones dramatically increase the quality of your shut-eye?
What even are binaural beats?
"Binaural beats are a technique of combining two slightly different sound frequencies to create the perception of a single new frequency tone," says clinical psychologist and founder of The Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, Ph.D.
More specifically, a sound played in the left ear is heard as a single tone, and a sound played in the right ear is also heard as a single tone. When played together, the brain produces a perceived third sound, known as a binaural beat, says Garrett Stevens, president of Hemi-Sync.
Binaural beats: How do they work?
So how exactly does that sound help you fall asleep faster? Basically, our brain produces its own frequencies—gamma (40Hz+), beta (13 to 40Hz), alpha (7 to 13Hz), theta (4 to 7Hz), and delta (<4Hz)—and each of these frequencies aligns with a particular emotional and physical state. So, for example, your brain produces brain waves at a specific frequency when you're excited and full of energy, but produces brain waves at a completely different frequency when you're ready to fall asleep.
The jury's still out, but there's some evidence that binaural beats work by changing the frequency of your brain waves in a process called entrainment: By creating a binaural beat with the right frequency, you can "trick" your brain into producing the brain waves you need to experience a specific emotional or physical state—including sleep.
Now, if this is sounding a little out there, we totally get it (really… so a pair of headphones is all I need to change my brain waves?), but it's plausible that this may be effective. A recent study found that participants who used binaural beats during sleep (with frequencies between 2 and 8 Hz) for eight weeks reported both improved sleep quality and post-sleep state, while participants who didn't use binaural beats reported no change.
Let's be clear: Binaural beats' value is still extremely speculative at this point. There's very little actual evidence published in reputable journals to indicate that binaural beats do anything at all. But it's possible, and there are more studies being performed about what they do every year—so if you're willing to be your own little guinea pig and don't mind a lack of hard evidence, this could be a fit for you.
Binaural beats: How can you use them to improve your sleep quality?
Ok, so now that you know what binaural beats are and how they work, let's talk about how you can use them to increase the quality of your shut-eye and catch more (and better!) zzzs.
Your brain wave activity during sleep is largely distinct from your brain activity when you're awake. (REM sleep is one exception to this—during REM, your brain is active in ways very much like when you're awake)," Breus says. "During non-REM sleep, the slower, lower frequency theta and delta waves dominate, compared to the alpha and beta waves that are prominent when you're alert and active."
A therapy, such as binaural beats, that slows brain wave activity, helping to produce low-frequency waves, is likely to aid relaxation and sleep, Breus says. The beats entrain your brain over the course of a 30-minute to one-hour session by taking you from a waking conscious state of high beta brain waves down to theta and then deep delta brain wave frequencies that are associated with deep sleep," says Niraj Naik, founder of Trypnaural.
Look for a track that produces the binaural beats necessary for sleep (ideal brain waves are in the aforementioned delta range—about 0.5 to 4 cycles per second, Stevens says), pop in a pair of headphones, and let your brain do the rest.
If you tend to feel wound-up before bed (and those anxious feelings are what's keeping you up at night), you can also incorporate another binaural beats session into the day to potentially help you relax, which will come in handy when it's time to go to sleep.
Binaural beats: How can you get the best results (and get better sleep in the process)?
Ok, so clearly binaural beats are a must-try. But how can you get the most out of the experience (and squeeze as much sleep as possible out of your headphones)?
- Meditate. "A daily meditation practice, whether before bed or at some other time in the day, can help one to fall into a relaxed state more readily," Stevens says. This can promote relaxation on its own and may increase the potential effectiveness of the binaural beats—helping you get results faster.
- Use headphones. In order to produce binaural beats, you need to listen to a different frequency in each ear. And while it's technically possible for binaural beats to work while listening through standard speakers, it's much easier to get the right tones in each ear using headphones.
- Watch your overall health. "Maintaining an overall wellness program that also addresses diet, exercise, and avoiding drugs or alcohol can also play a role in increasing the effectiveness of binaural beats," Stevens says.
- Be patient. In most cases, the improvement to sleep quality should happen fairly quickly, Stevens says—but that doesn't mean binaural beats are an instant fix for sleep issues. It can take time for your brain to adjust, so if you don't see results immediately, be patient. Give yourself at least a month of regular, consistent use before judging the effectiveness of binaural beats on your sleep patterns.
There are plenty of things I've turned to for better sleep, but my headphones were definitely never one of them. Now that I know about binaural beats—and how they may completely change your brain waves to improve the quality of your shut-eye—I think it might be time to swap the Zzzquil for some Beats by Dre and see what happens.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer and accidental marathon runner living in Portland, OR. Keep up with her running adventures on Instagram @deannadebara.