Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Apr

How Noise Impacts Your Health

Do you feel inundated with clamor? Bothered by loud, obtrusive ruckus? Unnerved by the incessant racket of your neighborhood, your city, humanity and all its instruments in general? (Yes, I’m surprised there’s no pill for it yet.) Blame the blaring contraptions our species has come up with. Blame the obliviousness (or grating intentionality) of some people who impose their noise on everyone else, especially at the most ridiculous times of day: contractors’ jackhammers going at 6:00 a.m., the snowblower grinding next door at midnight, the leaf blower at any time of day (in my humble opinion), muffler-deficient cars (with thumping bass) at all hours. Then there’s the incessant traffic, the planes, the trains, not to mention the neighbor’s yippie dog that won’t ever shut up. Is it any wonder the word noise comes from nausea? If you’re one of the ones who can’t seem to get far enough away from all the din, rest assured that 1) you’re in good company (Do I see hands?) and 2) your efforts are all in the name of good health – both mental and physical.

Some of us are naturally less sensitive to noise than others. Maybe we grew up in a noisy, busy household and built a tolerance to it. Maybe it’s just our personalities to feel energized by hustle and bustle. Alternatively, others of us go to every length to avoid it like the plague. We have noise canceling earphones or an array of fountains, nature CDs, or white noise machines to block out whatever clamor we can. (I survived the cacophony of college with a 14-inch window fan running day and night.) We make time alone just for the silence of it. When it comes to noise, type and time matter as well. The low hum of a favorite coffee shop might not even register, but on certain days the sound of the neighbor’s whistling can bring us to the end of patience.

A friend of mine recently turned me on to a book called In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. Prochnik’s a self-proclaimed noise-a-phobe who sets out to probe both the culture of noise and science behind silence. His quest takes him everywhere from urban streets to university labs to a Quaker meeting to Trappist retreats. The stakes are high, experts tell him: one-third of us, Prochnik learns, demonstrate measurable hearing loss.

And it’s not just our ears that feel the toll. Noise, experts explain, causes stress that can result in serious health risk. A New York Times article last week reported ominous findings of a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Noise, and the stress and sleep disruption it imposes, appears to be responsible for 1.8% of heart attacks in Western Europe and 2.7% in more densely populated Germany. As difficult as it is to assign causation in these types of studies, here’s what we know. Reviews of existing studies examining occupational noise show a clear link to hypertension, as does air traffic noise for blood pressure increase (even while subjects were sleeping!), for both adults and children. Furthermore, noise has also been shown to increase catecholamines, the “fight or flight” hormones. We all know what comes of the chronic stress hormone cascade…. Although the research linking noise exposure to heightened heart attack and stroke risk has been mixed, it’s not much of a jump to accept that chronic noise exposure contributes to compromised cardiac and overall health.

Noise, experts have found, takes an additional toll on our mental health and cognitive functioning. Exposure to air traffic noise, one of the most studied of areas, appears to increase the incidence of physician visits for psychologically based symptoms and the intake of related medication. Research subjects exposed to noise tend to perform more poorly on “complex tasks.” Children fare worse still with impaired reading comprehension and long-term memory. When it comes to run-of-the-mill household noise, children raised in louder, more chaotic homes demonstrate more difficulty in language acquisition and delay in cognitive development. They also show more anxiety.

Interestingly, nature sounds show a contrary, therapeutic influence. Research from Johns Hopkins demonstrates that nature sounds (in addition to natural scenes) substantially reduce patients’ experience of pain during bone marrow extraction (one of the more excruciating medical procedures even with the local anesthetic typically offered). Although “a physician’s skill in pain management” influenced the success of the nature-focused “distraction” techniques, even with the most skilled practitioners, significant differences were reported between patients who had the procedure with the nature enhancements and the control group in a normal procedure room (3.9 versus 5.7 on the pain scale). A previous study had shown up to a “five-fold” pain reduction during bronchoscopy procedures.

Research supports the positive effects of nature sound not just for acute illness and pain management but also for everyday stress recovery. Bird sounds, even more than water fountains, reduce people’s perception of urban noise.

However distorted the noise of contemporary culture, we’re clearly intended to be an auditorily oriented species. As Prochnik discovers in his interviews with audiologists, physicians, and other experts, hearing is one of our most complex and fundamental senses. He calls it “the sensory factor determining sustainability.” In other words, our ability to hear predators and interpret the auditory cues of our environment was perhaps the most crucial for survival. It’s not the auditory experience that’s skewed, it’s the content we’re taking in. To some experts, we’re actually auditorily deficient these days. Paul Shepard, in Coming Home to the Pleistocene, cites work by anthropologist Walter Ong that contrasts the more natural “‘acoustical event world’” of the wild with the “modern ‘hypervisual culture’” of today. We’re inundated with noise, but we’re starved for the sounds our brains evolved to perceive and process. As Prochnik explains, it’s like we stuff ourselves with junk food noise but still hunger for the sound that truly nourishes us. Our “aural diet,” he says, matters more than we understand.

One researcher has devoted his work to changing that. Bryan Pijanowski, Associate Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, recently published a paper that lays out a framework for a crucial new field called “soundscape ecology.” The sounds of biological (biophony) and non-biological, natural sources (geophony), he suggests, can help counter typical urban noise, but they can do something much more fundamentally significant (Primal, if you will). The recovery of natural sound – the original soundtrack of our evolutionary roots – can help reconnect us with our natural world – and the nature-based aural experiences which inspire both peace and order on a neurological level.

That’s music to the Primal ears, I’d say.

Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think and how noise/natural sound play out in your everyday life and well-being. Have a great day, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I agree entirely. At my office we have a room that is for special tasks, or when there just isn’t enough space on the floor for all the people. Think about 40 people in the size of a room about as big as a large living room or two apartment living rooms. The noise is almost unbearable, so I typically volunteer to go into that room. I love it when I get to come home and hear the birds chirping or squaking in my backyard. I also eat my lunch outside on the ground so I can get some sun and get away from the noisy break room. Whenever I can’t go into that room or it’s raining outside, my day (and mood) are considerably worse.

    Amy wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • Oh man, I share an office with just 10 other people and am feeling overwhelmed by the constant jib-jab; I’d be going nuts having to deal with 40!

      Jules wrote on April 14th, 2011
  2. sort of related: i changed my alarm clock from one that makes a sudden, really loud buzzing noise to one that gradually fades in with chirping birds. i have noticed that i am now waking up much more refreshed and definitely less disgruntled. most of the time, people take these things for granted and think it doesn’t affect them, but it really does make a difference.

    batty wrote on April 14th, 2011
  3. Great post. You might also want to check out “The Book of Silence” by Sara Maitland.

    Jim Arkus wrote on April 14th, 2011
  4. Thank you so much for this post. I’m presently job-hunting outside my current very urban home and it’s partly to get away from ALL THE FRICKIN’ NOISE. Everyone tells me I’m just overly-sensitive to noise and I was starting to feel like I was crazy or something for being made so anxious by having to hear my neighbor’s TV set for 4 hours every night and people slamming their apartment doors all the time. Thanks for the confirmation that I’m not nuts, but instinctively seeking to protect my health. I really hope I get that job in a town of 65,000.

    Miss Annie wrote on April 14th, 2011
  5. Could never get into those nature sounds CD’s. I was always aware of the fact that the noise is coming from a speaker and not a bird or a waterfall.. and that took something away from it.

    randallfloyd wrote on April 14th, 2011
  6. This study shows that noise induces significant increases of serum calcium and magnesium:

    Jer wrote on April 14th, 2011
  7. Interesting article — accounts (along with the more natural darkness) for why I sleep more soundly on hiking and camping trips.

    Nicky Spur wrote on April 14th, 2011
  8. I’m reminded of the short story Harrison Bergeron, wherein the protagonist, whose excellence cannot be tolerated in an egalitarian society, is forced to wear earphones that disrupt his thinking with intermittent blasts of noise, as well as weights that weigh him down and glasses that blur his vision. Once he is free of these contraptions, though, he finds himself all the stronger for having learned to tolerate them. Perhaps there’s a hopeful analogy here for those of us who manage to escape the handicaps of modern life in favor of a primal lifestyle.

    Timothy wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • Tangentially, those types of stories annoy me. My experience tells me that people who think their excellence is not being tolerated in an egalitarian society are in reality lacking in social skills. Everyone can find use for a smart person in any kind of society, but nobody likes a wiseacre.

      I was one of the top two scorers in the state of Missouri for the 1986-87 Duke University Talent Identification Program, so I do not say this idly. If I don’t beat people over the head with it, they appreciate my smarts. When they think I am trying to lord it over them, oh Lord, here comes the drama. And I can’t blame them. No one likes being pushed around.

      Dana wrote on April 14th, 2011
      • I understand your sentiments, for sure. This particular story is about a world where everybody is forced to conform to the lowest common denominator: smart people are made to wear noisy earphones, etc. It’s allegedly to protect the feelings of those less well endowed by nature, but is really a means for an unburdened few to control the masses.

        However relevant that may be to our current world, my point was that when you become used to your handicaps, removing those handicaps can leave you stronger than you would have been without them. For example, it seems to me that formerly overweight people can become exceptional athletes: they’re used to the daily struggle of carrying all that weight, so when it’s removed they have an abundance of energy and a deeper appreciation of the blessings of fitness. Perhaps the same is true of noise-crazed urban dwellers who are finally liberated into the peacefulness of nature.

        Of course, the opposite can also be true, if we become so accustomed to our handicaps that life without them seems disorienting and uncomfortable.

        Timothy wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • Harrison Bergeron…. I haven’t thought about that story in years. I’ll have to get it out and have a read-through.

      Jenni wrote on April 15th, 2011
  9. My two younger kids are noise-sensitive (they both have a pair of Peltor earmuffs that go with us everywhere). I know they get it from me. I prefer to watch TV on mute with closed captioning, which drives my husband crazy.

    Brenna wrote on April 14th, 2011
  10. Mark or others, any thoughts on earbud headphones? I listen to my ipod while doing all my primal activities (hiking, HIIT). Am I injuring my hearing in doing so? Any suggestions?

    John G. wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • As a doctoral student of audiology (aka hearing doctor), this is an awesome article to read. I can’t imagine a world without sound and noise, but it doesn’t need to be so LOUD!

      @John, you’re fine with earbud headphones as long as it isn’t too loud. So, how loud is too loud? MP3 players can get up to 100 dB – very dangerous. Prolonged exposure to sound over 85 dB can be dangerous.

      My recommendation is to see an audiologist to get custom-fit earbuds. At our university we charge about $40 – they can block out external noise and the tight fit means you need less volume.

      Protect your ears!! If it’s too loud, turn it down, walk away, or use earplugs (not cotton… that doesn’t do anything). Hearing aids will HELP but won’t RESTORE your hearing once it’s gone.

      Allison wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • I used to wear my headphones loud and a friend told me a trick that you should take your music, turn it down half-way, and then turn it up 1/4. You sort of trick your ears into wanting the music quieter than it originally was, but louder than it is half-way…

      Mari Davidson wrote on April 14th, 2011
  11. I tell everyone about this noise reduction thing-a-majig I bought on amazon, it’s ugly, but amazing (1,300+ reviews). I use it to get a good night’s sleep, but many use it in an office setting, or whenever they need to get away from all the din.

    Walker wrote on April 14th, 2011
  12. Foam earplugs saved my life. I live in a quiet rural place half the year, and one of the noisiest American cities the other half: Houston. Houston’s freeways mostly do not have walls or hills around them to buffer the sound, and there are a lot of them. Also airplanes and trains add to the ruckus.

    I sleep with foam ear plugs always when in Houston. Otherwise, every five minutes between about 9 pm and 11pm, one of Southwest’s incoming flights wakes me up.

    Still, my stress levels in Houston are noticeably higher than when I’m in the country. I think it’s the noise.

    shannon wrote on April 14th, 2011
  13. I agree that certain kinds of noise are more stressful than others. The country can be quite noisy at times: in the summer frogs and cicadas make a lot of noise, as do cows for that matter. But these noises, although they may be just as loud and as constant as, say, traffic noises, are not stressful, perhaps because humans evolved with them. It’s the constant vibration of machines, such as cars, that upsets my peace.

    shannon wrote on April 14th, 2011
  14. Sounds like that book might turn me into a noise-o-phobe. I can certainly attest to being more noise-sensitive when tired or stressed.

    This study shows something related – that constricted living spaces may lead to increased risk of Alzheimers, presumably due again to increased stress…

    racingsnake wrote on April 14th, 2011
  15. I can always tell when I wake up on a winter morning and it has snowed, before I even look outside because it is completely quiet! The snow muffles all the noise. It is ONE time I am really grateful for winter. :)

    Crunchy Pickle wrote on April 14th, 2011
  16. Oh, wow… Can’t believe you’re blogging on this today. Music to my ears, lol. I was very annoyed yesterday by a woman at the gym SCREAMING into her cell phone, despite the sign stating cell phone use is forbidden. A couple people (me included) asked her to stop, but she wouldn’t stop talking, even for the gym employees. I am normally not a violent person, but I was really thinking of grabbing that cell phone and smashing it into the wall. Maybe I’ll get some nature tracks for my iPad when I have to work out at the gym.

    Bevaboo wrote on April 14th, 2011
  17. thanks for helping me to feel not so alone in my love of quiet. I carry earplugs and they help.

    Myra wrote on April 14th, 2011
  18. I live right next to a huge construction site that’s been building a new, giant hospital over the past 5 years.
    My husband and I are going nuts. He more than I. All we’ve been hearing for 5 hears is engines running and back-up beepers…that are left on even when the workers go to lunch and nobody sits in it.

    We went camping last summer to get away from the noise. Went about 80 miles deep into the woods with nothing around us but trees, the creek and birds.
    I SWEAR I could hear back-up beepers!!!

    Thankfully they’re finally done with the hospital and the noise is gone. Except, it will open in 1 month and the true hell of helicopters, massive onslaught of cars and flood lights at night will start :-(

    It’s time to move.

    Suvetar wrote on April 14th, 2011
  19. Lets not forget about being forced to listen to canned music 8 hours a day.

    Karin wrote on April 14th, 2011
  20. Yes to this post. Absolutely!

    I am bombarded by noise on a daily basis. My co-worker’s never ending playlist of ICP. I mask it most days with the more soothing talk still in my headphones, but still occasionally find myself overwhelmed.

    A little while back I found a need for regular tech-fasts. The complete absence of tv, radio, computer, cell phone… it’s a complete rejuvenation for both the eyes and the ears.

    I feel the need for another tech-fast soon.

    Deanna (Diana Renata) wrote on April 14th, 2011
  21. Can’t relate to this post today…I’m severely hearing impaired, and wear hearing aids. Even with them, I have a hard time hearing. I would gratefully give anything I had to be able to hear my grandkids laugh, a bird sing or a cricket chirp again…

    I think the opposite can be said…that a loss of nature noises is just as stressful as too much noise…any thoughts??

    Ricki wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • He’s still talking about a loss of nature noise either way, so… yeah. That’s got to be hard.

      Dana wrote on April 14th, 2011
  22. I prefer to take my weekend in the middle of the week. It’s much quieter and this time of year I am spared the screaming, maniac parents over at the little league field across the way.

    Also another thing I like to do is when I am watching TV (rare nowadays) I turn the mute on during commercials. It’s a huge relief, the sudden silence one experiences. It becomes obvious that the sum of the sound of TV (music + sound effects + voices) is constant racket.

    chipin wrote on April 14th, 2011
  23. This reminds me of Earth Hour. My wife and I and our two boys love to have “No electricity parties” which is when I cut the main breaker to the house. I always remember having a quiet peace come over me when there is no humming and buzzing from all the appliances and HVAC system. Silence IS golden! :)

    Shane wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • The lack of actual electricity/EMF probably adds to your feelings of peace…

      The Primalist wrote on April 14th, 2011
  24. I do so agree! We moved to a rural location – tiny village of 100 houses and we don’t even live in the village – to retire and after 4 years we still sit outside and marvel at the peace and quiet!

    Jean wrote on April 14th, 2011
  25. I would love to just have peace and quiet again. I now live in a house on a major city road and I cannot open the windows on that side of the house without drowning out the sounds of everything happening inside. And inside the TV is almost always on. Not even necessarily always watched. It used to be that if I wanted to listen to anything I’d just turn on the stereo, but I miss being able to not have any racket at all.

    It’s one reason I’m thinking of moving back home–because where I come from is way out in the country. I can even get it *dark* at night without having to use blackout curtains.

    I wish I understood what is up with all the scientific studies to figure out what to do about all these problems of domesticated industrial life. “Oh, I know! Let’s invent a drug! Or a machine!” How about let’s just stop doing the things that make us miserable and sick? There is historical precedent for getting fed up with civilization (i.e., massive agriculture and city-building, not “human society”) and just walking away. The Maya did it.

    Dana wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • So did the Hopi.

      chipin wrote on April 14th, 2011
  26. I can totally relate to this article , having suffered from 10 years of noisy neighbours playing music at all hrs,. I was stressed out. This of course was at my parents house until I escaped to London . Even now when I visit the folks for a few days I can’t relax as I expecting the noise to start, I had to resort to sleeping pills while at their home. Shoudl I have to? No of course not, but it’s engrained into me and won’t go away, I come away more tired than I went there.
    Thanks for this article

    Tony wrote on April 14th, 2011
  27. Just as I am reading this, a car goes by blaring bass-heavy music. I could never understand the need to force everyone to listen to your cacophonous din. Not only that, it must be a hell of a lot louder in your car. Music that loud can’t be enjoyable. (sigh) I wish I lived in the country.

    Trishie wrote on April 14th, 2011
  28. Good information, I have worked in machine shops for 33 years, noise is normal to me, what is interesting is how i have gotten so used to it. I can actually tune out the loud and have normal conversations with my colleages. I am sure I have some hearing loss, just ask my wife. but when I am in the woods i don’t miss a sound, and i do like the silence.

    rking wrote on April 14th, 2011
  29. I have a sensitivity to noise and when it gets overwhelming I wear ear covers to block out the sound. My spouse got one of those nature alarm clocks where you wake up to the sound of birds…big mistake. Now when I naturally hear birds outside in the morning it annoys me because I think it’s time to wake up.

    Nomad1 wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • Made me laugh :p must be a pretty realistic-sounding alarm clock.. Might be time to get a new one.. It’s pretty bad when u get annoyed at the sounds of birds chirping.. Unless maybe it’s crows – those are loud!

      The Primalist wrote on April 14th, 2011
  30. Love this article and so glad to know I am in good company. I NEED some peace and quiet every day or I feel out of sorts!

    Mark Anderson wrote on April 14th, 2011
  31. I carry foam earplugs with me everywhere always. I sometimes have to put them in at restaurants (why do they think that industrial design — with the high echo-y ceilings and noise-reflective vents/pipes and NO sound dampening is “cool”? (That’s not ambiance, that’s CHEAP!) I always use them at the movies. Interestingly, I used to come out of my water aerobics class feeling tired and stressed (the din, the kids screaming, and the loud music our teacher sometimes plays). Since I started wearing earplugs IN class, I come out calm and energized, not stressed or angry.

    I recently bought Joe Baker’s 72-min-long “seaside waves” MP3 — and playing it at night allows me to sleep (most nights) next to my snoring husband, or take a nap during the (slightly noisy) day. I’m very conscious of protecting my hearing too – most people don’t seem to be!

    Elenor wrote on April 14th, 2011
  32. I was pondering the modern forms of communication some time back and felt that it was counter to our evolution. We spent thousands of years integrating all our senses, sight, smell and sound (and touch of course) and yet in today’s world communication is often devoid of the queues we are most likely to be honed to – just text on screens.

    The recognition that we are attuned to a particular soundscape is fascinating and fits in with my thinking above, we need the correct auditory queues to communicate and function well and it doesn’t surprise me at all that constant bombardment from modern noise is disturbing to health.

    Over the last 18 months of Primal living I’ve been drawn more and more to silence and a calm environment.

    Kelda wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • That should of course have read cues! Poor sleep doesn’t aid spelling it would seem!

      Kelda wrote on April 14th, 2011
  33. I LOVE my peace and quiet.. TV’s almost never on.. I just enjoy silence… And like Mark, I also used a fan to block out noise at university..

    The Primalist wrote on April 14th, 2011
  34. I work in an open plan office, and our floor space is huge, so I always hear low level chatter throughout the day but it actually doesn’t bother me. At home I do appreciate peace and quiet though…. even though my husband doesn’t, he turns the TV on the second he walks in the door. :p

    I keep my fan in the bathroom on when I am trying to sleep, it helps me sleep alot better because I am a really light sleeper and any little noise wakes me up.

    Mark wrote on April 14th, 2011
  35. I ditched the TV a few years ago and my mental health has been vastly improved from just eliminating that one source of constant bombardment!

    Robin wrote on April 14th, 2011
  36. I grew up in a noisy home, and then lived with a rock guitarist. After that, I worked in a loud, crazy, frenetic Wall street banking environment. These days, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate quiet. If we are out somewhere and it is noisy, we usually leave and find some quiet. Great article, and definitely fits in well with Primal living.

    Suzan wrote on April 14th, 2011
  37. Reminds me of an interesting TED talk I saw a while back.

    David wrote on April 14th, 2011
  38. Gotta love ear plugs! For the last ten years of my career in the Navy I was a flight engineer/crew chief on C-40’s. Before I started wearing them I would notice after particularly long missions, especially the ones lasting five to seven days, I would be a little tone deaf (rushing air & pressurization system noise, engine drone)and a little extra tired. At first I chalked it up to long days in the tube, little exercise and weird sleep patterns from crossing so many time zones everyday. I know for a fact that these all contributed to my tired feeling but I never gave noise any consideration till I read an article about it, ironically, while I was cruising over the Med on my way home. So without even finishing the article, I got up and reached into our box of about 250 sets and stuck some in. It took awhile to get used to the volume needed to communicate (because to me it sounded like I was screaming) and having them in my ears so long but once I did what a difference! It eliminated all the ambient noise and it made a huge difference communicating person to person or via comms, hell even reading was better. After that I never flew again without them in my ears and it made a remarkable difference on how I felt when I was done flying for the day. I’ve had them in there for upwards of 12 consecutive hours and it didn’t bother me that much but I eventually went and got some rubber ones sized to my ears and then it was perfect! Now when I fly, ride motorcycles or even drive over long distances I always wear them and I always feel good when I stop! Combine that with a sleep mask and I sleep like the dead!

    Matt P. wrote on April 14th, 2011
  39. I’ve read in “Peopleware” that noise catastrophically decreases creativite abilities and prevents “getting into the flow”, that is achieving high concentration and efficiency rate.

    Tomasz R. wrote on April 14th, 2011
  40. I think people know this intuitively… I certainly have noticed how great I feel whenever out in the wild hunting or fishing. So good, in fact, that I’m going to have to repeat last weekend’s fly fishing trip this weekend! The steelhead are a runnin’.

    Ginger Thickbeard wrote on April 14th, 2011

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