Why Rain Can Help You Sleep

Rainstorms can be a huge bummer when it comes to planning fun summer activities, but did you know that nighttime shower can actually be beneficial to your sleep? Serving as a sort of “pink noise,” research has found that the sound of rain can help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep as well.

For a lot of people, the sound of a passing storm is just inherently relaxing. “Rain is predictable, calming, stable and non-threatening,” explained Dr. Shelby Harris, a behavioral sleep-medicine specialist, in Vogue recently. When you’re safely protected at home, the noise can evoke a sense of coziness—which can, in turn, promote a relaxing effect and make it easier to fall asleep.

But how does it really work, on a neurological level? Well, first and foremost, it’s important to understand how different sounds are interpreted in our minds. Brains are biologically hard-wired to react to the sudden onset of a noise. Known as the “threat-activated vigilance system,” this is likely an evolutionary response—a signal to our brains that there is a potential threat approaching and we need to stay alert. But, unfortunately, in today’s world, there are plenty of sudden noises that can occur that pose little to no threat to our safety—such as a car horn, a toilet flush or even the sound of a neighbor laughing. 

In fact, research has shown that it’s actually the speed with which the sound appears that triggers this threat response—even more so than the actual volume of the sound. One study found that hospital equipment alarms set at a low volume of around 40 decibels (comparable to a whisper) woke participants from shallow sleep 90% of the time and from a deep sleep 50% of the time. In contrast, the steady sound of a helicopter and traffic at 70 decibels (comparable to a shout) did not wake the participants as frequently. 

So what does any of this have to do with rain sounds? Well, the sound of rain falling typically lands at a frequency of about 0 to 20 kHz. At these levels, the sound can effectively mask the impact of those more sudden, jarring noises. In that way, it operates like “pink noise.” 

Though perhaps still lesser known than white noise, pink noise has gotten a lot of press recently for its sleep benefits. While white noises mixes sound frequencies to deliver a static-like sound, pink noise uses a lower, more consistent frequency—with added depth and lower waves filtering out higher pitched sounds that can jar you awake.

"White noise consists of a large spectrum of all frequencies that are audible to the human ear," explained Dr. Shelby Harris. "In contrast, pink noise —though similar in sound to white noise with its consistent “whoosh”-ing noise that blocks external noises—has less of the higher frequencies. Essentially, it is deeper than white noise.”

By balancing out the difference between ambient and sudden sounds, pink noise has been shown to lower brain activity to help you fall asleep faster and stay in a deeper, more stable sleep longer.

In a 2016 study at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, researchers found that nature sounds like rainfall and thunder not only promote relaxation—they also “physically adjust the way our brains work, reducing our body’s fight-or-flight instinct.” The study also found that, while artificial white noise machine sounds can help dampen external noises, they also promoted patterns of “inward-focused attention,” which can be linked to depression, anxiety and PTSD. Alternatively, nature sounds promoted more external-focused attention—which allows for greater overall relaxation.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for Mother Nature to provide you with this nightly lullaby—today, there are plenty of meditation apps and streaming services that will allow you to recreate the sounds of rain pattering against your window no matter what the weather is outside. And, thankfully, artificial rain sounds can be just as effective as the real deal. 

Here are a few rain sound options to help you sleep tonight: 

Read more here, here, here, here and here.