Noise Pollution and Sleep

I had very noisy neighbours once. I’m not talking about people just living their lives and producing some sounds in the process. These noisemongers could not boil a potato without causing a racket. They had loud, piercing voices that seemed to defy concrete. Furthermore, they were especially fond of watching action movies at all hours of the day or night, with their evidently enormous audio system turned up to full blast. To make things worse, they had two dogs that took over during the day. The dogs were barking incessantly when they (the neighbours) were not at home. Talk about noise pollution!

It was bad enough while I was also trying to watch a movie or listen to some music. It became especially annoying when trying to sleep. Thanks to noise pollution emitted by my dreaded neighbours, I was losing sleep. My quality of life was unravelling. Consequently, I ran out of neighbourly love rather quickly and took action.

Noise Levels Are Increasing

Humanity is a noisy bunch. Our means of transport, motorised tools and implements, and entertainment habits are becoming increasingly noisy. Noise appears to perpetuate itself, as we have to speak louder or turn up the volume to compensate. Thanks to technological advancements and cheaper manufacture, noisy machines and sound systems are ubiquitous. They are pushing up the din of urban and suburban life with a few more decibels. For example, massive car sound systems used to be expensive, but now anyone can get neighbourhood-shaking bass in the car at a princely sum.

“Thanks to noise pollution emitted by my dreaded neighbours, I was losing sleep. “

Noise pollution, like light pollution, does not feature as high on the international panic agenda as, say, global warming. There is a form of quiet, general consensus that people who complain about noise levels are squeamish and overly sensitive. Yet noise pollution robs us of one of our most basic needs: restful sleep.

Noise pollution is ever increasing.

People who complain about noise levels are squeamish and overly sensitive.

Why Do Unwanted Sounds Keep Us Awake?

A fundamental problem with sound and sleep is the way our nervous sytems work when we are asleep. It is easy enough to close our eyes and block out unwanted light, but with sound it is a different story. Not only is it impossible to for us to “shut” our ears in the same way, but our brains are wired to keep monitoring the soundscape even when we are asleep. This is probably a throwback to more primitive times, when detecting danger early enough was a matter of life and death. It still serves us well, enabling us to hear, for example, an intrusion attempt, or our children crying.

The annoying part is that we often wake up needlessly. There is no logical reason why someone’s party sounds should prevent us from sleeping, but it does, and it annoys us. When we are annoyed, our bodies respond with a stress reaction and release a cocktail of chemicals to enable us to deal with the situation. We momentarily become more alert and physically stronger – the last thing we need when trying to fall asleep. Thie “stress cocktail”, particularly the hormone cortisol, suppresses the secretion of melatonin. One might as well give up then – the chances of falling asleep when we have depleted levels of melatonin are not very good.

To make things worse, sleep deprivation also causes a rise in cortisol levels, which, in turn, makes it even more difficult for us to sleep. And there we have it, folks, a vicious cycle.

How Noise Pollution Disturbs The Sleep Cycle

We have five stages in our sleep cycle, ranging from light sleep in stage 1 to deep sleep in stage 4 and REM (rapid eye movement) in stage 5. It takes us roughly 90 minutes to complete the entire cycle. During a typical night’s sleep we go through 4 – 6 sleep cycles.

The type of sleep we get in the earlier stages of the sleep cycle is beneficial, but to get the full “rested” effect it is imperative to get the deep sleep of the fourth stage. During this stage our bodies do repairs, screting growth hormone. Additionally, our nervous-, cardiovascular- and endocrine systems are rested and fine-tuned. It is unquestionably a very important part of our rest that we cannot afford to neglect.

Disturbing noise keeps us locked in the light sleep stages as the auditory processing in our brains does not slow down sufficiently. In such a situation we never reach the restful and revitalising deep sleep of stage 4.

The Effects Of Sleep Deprivation

Apart from making us short-tempered, sleep deprivation carries some very real health risks. The main culprit is the “stress cocktail” our bodies secrete. These chemicals are intended to only be present in our bodies for a very short time, until we had dealt with the real or perceived threatening situation. Our endocrine systems are then supposed to return to its normal state. When we are chronically sleep-deprived, our bodies never completely leave this heightened state, and this is where it becomes destructive.

Sleep Deprivation Carries Serious Health Risk:

On the list are:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Nervous System and Brain Degeneration – Altzheimer’s
  • Diabetes
  • Autoimmune Disorders – Fibromyalgia
  • Various Types of Cancers

As horrifying as that sounds, one should also not overlook the immediate negative effects of sleep deprivation. When we feel tired, we simply cannot be at our best. A productivity slump is most likely the first effect we will experience, as our physical and mental stamina decreases. It becomes difficult to complete a day’s work, and the quality of our work suffers along with decreased concentration levels. Our relationships with others will suffer as well, as it is impossible to be attentive and in a good mood when we don’t get enough sleep.

The crux of the matter is that sleep deprivation has a devastating effect on our quality of life, in the short and long term. If noise pollution stands between you and a good night’s rest, it is most definitely worth it to take action.

Dealing With Noise Pollution

How do you deal with noise pollution?
Noise pollution will have a negative impact on your sleep quality.

• Physical Isolation

As we cannot “switch off” our hearing systems, the best place to start would be to isolate ourselves from the noise in some physical way. If you are able to sleep with them in your ears, get a pair of earplugs. If you have the choice, invest in heavy curtains. Double glazing in your bedroom will significanly lower ambient sound levels. For those of us who can afford them, there are systems available that convert sound energy to heat or movement, completely sealing a room off from extraneous sounds.

The problem with physical isolation is that it mainly blocks high frequencies. Low frequencies actually travel quite well through solid materials like masonry or concrete. It takes considerable cost and effort to block low frequencies completely. When frequencies are low enough, they become inaudible to humans, although we can still feel them in our bodies.

If physical isolation doesn’t work well enough, you will have to move on to the next step: stopping the noise pollution at its source.

• Complaints And Negotiation

It is important to document every step, from your first complaint to your final screaming match. (Just kidding about the screaming match.) When the culprits ignore your plight, you can phone your local police station to register a complaint. (Even though they won’t necessarily solve the problem, you will need proof that you complained.) Most metros have a noise- and air pollution control unit or something similar who will assist you if you are persistent enough.

• The Legal Route

As citizens we also have legal recourse. It could be a drawn-out, expensive process, but familiarising ourselves with a slice of the laws governing noise pollution can give us an advantage.

South African law distinguishes between two types of noise pollution: disturbing noise and noise nuisance. Disturbing noise is objectively measurable, and refers simply to sound being too loud. We measure sound levels in decibels (dB). If a sound exceeds the ambient sound level by more than 7 dB, it is considered disturbing noise. The sound source could be anything – machinery, voices, music, etc. – as long as it is too loud. Someone’s inappropriately loud, banging house party at 3 AM is a good example.

Noise nuisance is somewhat different as it is subjective and usually happens over a longer period of time. It does not necessarily have to be extremely loud, but it needs to be irritating and disturbing – hence “nuisance”. Examples include dogs barking, people shouting or loudly talking, noisy cars or motorcycles, or someone playing loud music ceaselessly. The subjective nature of noise nuisance can be tricky. The owner of a constantly barking dog might not find the noise disturbing at all, while it may drive others insane. It also gets complicated when you have to “prove” the detrimental effect the noise has on your quality of life.

The noise pollution coming from my ex-neighbours fit both categories, so it was not too difficult to bring them to book – with the help of other affected parties. Under the weight of numerous complaints and after a brief stint at the attorneys, they finally got the message and left. Quietly. Everyone around them could, at last, get a glorious night’s sleep.