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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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April 14, 2011

How Noise Impacts Your Health

By Mark Sisson
96 Comments

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!

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86 Comments on "How Noise Impacts Your Health"

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Amy
Amy
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Jules
5 years 7 months ago

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!

batty
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Jim Arkus
5 years 7 months ago

Great post. You might also want to check out “The Book of Silence” by Sara Maitland.

Miss Annie
Miss Annie
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
randallfloyd
randallfloyd
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Jer
Jer
5 years 7 months ago

This study shows that noise induces significant increases of serum calcium and magnesium:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11235829

Nicky Spur
5 years 7 months ago

Interesting article — accounts (along with the more natural darkness) for why I sleep more soundly on hiking and camping trips.

Timothy
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Dana
Dana
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Timothy
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Jenni
Jenni
5 years 7 months ago

Harrison Bergeron…. I haven’t thought about that story in years. I’ll have to get it out and have a read-through.

Brenna
Brenna
5 years 7 months ago

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.

John G.
John G.
5 years 7 months ago

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?

Allison
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Mari Davidson
Mari Davidson
5 years 7 months ago

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…

Walker
Walker
5 years 7 months ago

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.

http://www.amazon.com/Marpac-SleepMate-980A-Electro-Mechanical-Conditioner/dp/B000KUHFGM/ref=sr_1_1?s=hpc&ie=UTF8&qid=1302800888&sr=1-1

shannon
shannon
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
shannon
shannon
5 years 7 months ago

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.

racingsnake
racingsnake
5 years 7 months ago

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…
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/222166.php

Crunchy Pickle
5 years 7 months ago

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. 🙂

Bevaboo
Bevaboo
5 years 7 months ago
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.
Myra
Myra
5 years 7 months ago

thanks for helping me to feel not so alone in my love of quiet. I carry earplugs and they help.

Suvetar
Suvetar
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Karin
Karin
5 years 7 months ago

Lets not forget about being forced to listen to canned music 8 hours a day.

Deanna (Diana Renata)
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Ricki
Ricki
5 years 7 months ago

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??

Dana
Dana
5 years 7 months ago

He’s still talking about a loss of nature noise either way, so… yeah. That’s got to be hard.

chipin
chipin
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Shane
Shane
5 years 7 months ago

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! 🙂

The Primalist
5 years 7 months ago

The lack of actual electricity/EMF probably adds to your feelings of peace…

Jean
Jean
5 years 7 months ago

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!

Dana
Dana
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
chipin
chipin
5 years 7 months ago

So did the Hopi.

Tony
Tony
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Trishie
Trishie
5 years 7 months ago

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.

rking
rking
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Nomad1
Nomad1
5 years 7 months ago

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.

The Primalist
5 years 7 months ago

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!

Mark Anderson
5 years 7 months ago

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!

Elenor
Elenor
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Kelda
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Kelda
5 years 7 months ago

That should of course have read cues! Poor sleep doesn’t aid spelling it would seem!

The Primalist
5 years 7 months ago

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..

Mark
Mark
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Robin
Robin
5 years 7 months ago

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!

Suzan
5 years 7 months ago

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.

David
David
5 years 7 months ago

Reminds me of an interesting TED talk I saw a while back.
http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_the_4_ways_sound_affects_us.html

Matt P.
Matt P.
5 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Tomasz R.
Tomasz R.
5 years 7 months ago

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.

Ginger Thickbeard
Ginger Thickbeard
5 years 7 months ago

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’.

Aila
Aila
5 years 7 months ago

Yes! Similar to Batty, I got a dawn simulator for Christmas, which wakes me up with gradual light and the sound of birds announcing the morning. It’s a lovely way to wake up!

Still, there is nothing like the peace of nature – deep silence, rustling leaves, the hooting of an owl…I do believe that there is something deep within us that resonates with these sounds; that is why a post like this strikes a chord with so many…

Easygojoe
Easygojoe
5 years 7 months ago

I get a fresh pair of earplugs every morning at work as I work around heavy equipment. The noise is just intolerable without them. I use them to sleep sometimes as well.

I am amazed at the number of co-workers who don’t use them.

emma
emma
5 years 7 months ago

omg, my ex boyfriend used to listen to music and watch tv at the same time. i couldnt stand it!!
now i live in the city which can get pretty noisy on fri and sat nights so ear plugs are pretty handy. and essential for travelling when you dont know where youll be sleeping…

James
5 years 7 months ago

Great post! I think it is vital for all of us to turn down the volume on the noise that surrounds us everyday and just have peace and quiet. Hikes are what I like to do to get away and listen to nature versus annoying noises.

Matthew
Matthew
5 years 7 months ago

I have a pair of ear plugs from etymotic. They give a flat cut, designed for listening to music, but they are great for other loud situations.

I agree with Mark about the leaf blowers. I HATE them. The sound travels very far. I also think a broom works better.

Aidan
Aidan
5 years 7 months ago

Digital audio quality is a big-but-little-known issue that impacts psychological and even, in extreme cases, physical health. Get some good earmuffs to protect your ears when you don’t need to listen carefully, get good headphones with strong magnets and large drivers, preferably from German makers, and listen only to FLAC and APE. Find the sources of our audio. Even FLAC and APE can come from faulty digital sources.

Mpeg compression in audio, video, and image can be very damaging. It’s just cheap, easy, and effective. Just like grains!

Tamara
Tamara
5 years 7 months ago
Everyone blames airplanes for noise problem related issues, but I know that highway traffic noise as well as living close to train tracks can disturb sleep the same as air traffic. I personally love listening to airplanes as I grew up on an airport as some do not mind trains or church bells etc. My neighbors in Europe hated my Harley which was stock ppes etc, but my American neighbors loved the sound of my much louder Harley lol (back in USA then) I still dislike highway noise as well as trains and miss the days of sleeping with my… Read more »
Jeremy Priestner
5 years 7 months ago

I am always struggling with noise since I spend the majority of my day (10+ hours) in public areas. I’ve tried both ear plugs as well as headphones, however, both feel very unnatural to me.

After reading your post, I am beginning to think that trying a fan or nature sounds might be a better solution. I will give them a shot, thanks!

Regretting Eating Cookies
Regretting Eating Cookies
5 years 7 months ago

I hate loud noise to the point that my social life suffers at times.

Justin
Justin
5 years 7 months ago

Makes perfect sense. If I was a caveman id imagine birds would be like a natural security system. When theyre chatting and singing all is good in the hood, but the first indicator of danger would be the birds (who are so vulnerable on the ground) taking flight to desert an area at first notice of predators. So obviously disneyesque singing birds allows our primal genes to relax to fullest

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