Entrainment is music to insomniacs’ ears

3 minute read

Playlists sing lullabies for sleep-deprived grown-ups.

Following on from yesterday’s excellent Back Page offering on the importance of quality sleep for keeping the brain shipshape as the body ages, today we’ve decided to look at new research on how to go about actually achieving a better night’s kip.

With reliable research suggesting up to 40% of folks (in the US at least) suffer from insomnia each year, the field is rich with opportunities for spruikers of all manner of remedies, pharmaceutical and otherwise, to address this issue.

It transpires, however, one of the simplest and most effective methods of combatting insomnia is only a playlist away, if American psychiatrist Jesse Koskey, from the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is to be believed.

In a review paper published in The Carlat Report, Koskey tells us listening to music reduces the overall severity of insomnia, improves sleep quality and helps to initiate sleep.

He says the effect of listening to the right kind of music is comparable to using prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem, or benzodiazepines such as diazepam.

But it has to be the right sort of music. As in, anything that thrashes along at 100 beats per minute (think 2am at the local disco) is probably not going to do the trick. However, popular music apps such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music, all offer “sleep music” playlists of slower, ethereal numbers  which our boffin suggests produce an effect known as “entrainment”.

Put simply, entrainment is when a body synchronises with its environment or with another person, such as falling into step when you are walking with a friend, or in the case of nodding off to sleep, with music.

Music which played at around 60 beats per minute, or the same tempo as a chilled-out heartbeat, “can entrain the rest-and-digest part of your nervous system, leading to a slower, more relaxed heart rate” as well as reduce blood pressure, Koskey said in a media release.

Of course, the calming qualities of music have been known about for eons.

“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” English playwright William Congreve penned back in the late 17th century.

But thank to this research, we know a bit more about the “how” it works, and why it’s good for us.

And the only downside? Earworms. It’s entirely possible you may fall asleep to a tune that will stay lodged in your brain for hours after you wake up the next day.

Still, it seems a small price to pay in exchange for a tranquil night under the doona crunching out the zeds.

We’ll all sleep easier if you send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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