Eleven strategies to improve sleep when you have tinnitus
There are few things in life more frustrating than tossing and turning in bed when you just want to fall asleep.
You stare at the clock, mind racing as the seconds tick by, knowing that every minute awake is borrowed against how you’ll feel tomorrow. It can be so stressful.
But when you live with tinnitus, the medical term for ringing in your ears, the sound never stops, and sleep can quickly become a major everyday problem.
The noise alone can keep you up for hours, while the anxiety of it all makes it hard to stay asleep once you actually get there. And it’s a vicious cycle—sleep deprivation can make tinnitus worse, which in turn makes it harder to fall asleep.
But if you’re struggling with tinnitus, that doesn’t mean you just have to suffer each night. With the right approach, you can fall into a deep, restful sleep, much more quickly.
Here are 11 strategies you can use to fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and improve the overall quality of your sleep each night.
Tinnitus sleep strategies:
1. Use a better sound masking strategy
If you still have some of your hearing, sound masking is the easiest-to-implement sleep improvement strategy for tinnitus sufferers. The idea here is very simple: play background noise (ideally at a level just under the volume of your tinnitus) to lower the perceived volume of the sound and help you ignore it so you can get to sleep. Research shows this can indeed lead to deeper sleep.
Not everyone is able to mask the volume of their tinnitus, but even when you can’t drown it out, it can still be helpful because masking creates a wall of sound that blocks out quiet noises that might have otherwise awoken you. It also prevents you from having to wake up in complete silence, which is a challenging environment for many tinnitus sufferers.
Any sound you find relaxing can work well here—masking doesn’t have to mean white noise. Ambient music, nature sounds, desk fans, and other environmental sounds are all excellent options, just to name a few. In fact, it’s a good idea to find at least several sounds that work well for you, should any of them stop helping at any point.
You also have several options to play the sounds from dedicated white noise and sound machines to headphones designed to be worn to sleep, pillow speakers, and more!
My personal preference, however, is to use a portable Bluetooth speaker combined with one of the hundreds of sound therapy apps available in the app store on your phone. This option provides a virtually infinite number of masking sounds for you to try, and offers a much higher quality of sound compared to simply using the speakers on your smartphone.
2. Write down all of your thoughts
One reason that many people struggle to fall asleep is racing thoughts. The endless and rapid mental chatter we often experience is usually the result of trying to hold too many thoughts in our mind at once.
We mentally juggle all the random tidbits, ideas, and information that we want to remember (whether we realize it or not), and that makes it difficult to fall asleep. When you add tinnitus into the mix, the intrusive thoughts and anxiety only make the problem worse.
But you can quiet your thoughts and calm your mind by taking a few minutes to write down all of your thoughts on a piece of paper before you get in bed. When all of your ideas are all safely written down, you’ll find that you can actually release them from your mind and fall asleep much more easily.
In addition to writing down the random thoughts bouncing around your head, it’s especially helpful to write down both a to-do list for the next day as well as any negative or intrusive thoughts related to the tinnitus. This can really help to release it all from your mind.
3. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
This strategy isn’t necessarily a quick fix for people with tinnitus struggling to sleep, but it’s an important step to improve sleep consistency. Simply go to bed and set your alarm to wake you up at the same time every day. If you wake up earlier than you intended because of your tinnitus, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s about getting your body used to falling asleep at a specific time every night.
When you go to bed and wake up at different times each day, it can create a physiological state similar to jet lag, which can prevent you from getting the deep restorative sleep you need.
4. Structure a relaxing evening routine
One of the most helpful things you can do to fall asleep faster is establish a relaxation routine that you follow each evening before you go to bed.
Many common nighttime activities like watching TV or playing on your phone can actually make it harder to fall asleep. Instead, create a routine that promotes relaxation and calm to help deal with the stress and anxiety of tinnitus. Anything that relaxes you mentally or physically is going to be helpful here. The goal is to do whatever you can to calm your over-agitated nervous system.
Whatever relaxation techniques you choose, just be consistent and follow the same routine each night. Pretty quickly, your brain will start to associate the routine with falling asleep, and you’ll find yourself feeling tired and yawning before you even get in bed.
5. Be smarter with your screens
The human body maintains an internal day/night cycle known as the circadian rhythm. When we are awake during the day, sunlight causes our bodies to secrete daytime hormones. And then at night, in the absence of sunlight, the brain secretes a hormone called melatonin, which signals that it’s night, and time to go to sleep.
Unfortunately, the bright blue light spectrum emitted from our phones, televisions, computers and many other screens mimics sunlight and causes the brain to stop secreting melatonin. As a result, watching TV, playing on your phone, reading on your iPad, or working on your computer can all worsen sleep problems.
Ideally, you want to turn off all backlit screens for at least 90 minutes before you go to bed. This is your best way to ensure you get a good night sleep.
But you can also employ blue light blocking technology if you don’t want to give up your screen time, and you have a few options here. The simplest option is to get a pair of glasses that block the blue light spectrum. You can find many inexpensive blue light blocking glasses on Amazon, or you can opt for more expensive options like the famous Blublocker brand.
The other option is to install an app on your mobile devices and computer that will dim the screen and apply a red tinted filter that turns off most of the blue light spectrum. Use F.Lux for Computers and Twilight for Android Devices. Apple devices typically have a blue light filter setting called Night Shift that you can set to turn on automatically or manually. Many newer Android devices have similar settings as well.
6. Make your bedroom pitch black
A pitch-black bedroom can often make it much easier to fall asleep and also stay asleep longer in the morning. The challenge is that many bedrooms have a lot of ambient light coming in from a variety of sources, such as night lights, cable boxes, alarm clocks, streetlights outside, and poor curtain coverage, all of which can disrupt the quality of your sleep.
You want to make your bedroom as close to pitch-black as you possibly can. The easiest and least expensive option is to simply purchase a sleep mask. But you can also replace your curtains with blackout curtains, which are available at most department stores, instead.
Pro Tip: Make sure to cover all sources of light, including lights on the TV or cable box. One very simple way to do this is to use black electrical tape, which generally doesn’t leave any kind of adhesive residue when removed. This works really well in hotel rooms, too. I always keep a roll of electrical tape in my backpack when I travel for this purpose.
7. Replace night lights
Night lights often utilize white or blue light that can make it harder to fall back asleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, even if it’s just to use the bathroom. The good news is that red light will not disrupt your sleep at all. So if you use night lights in your home, you can replace any white, clear or blue bulbs with red night light bulbs to block the blue light spectrum, or you can simply purchase red night lights.
8. Turn down the thermostat
Studies have shown that the room temperature for optimal sleep is actually between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, which is much colder than most people would guess. The reason has to do with an internal process called thermoregulation.
In his best-selling book “Sleep Smarter,” author and sleep expert Shawn Stevenson explains: “When it’s time for your body to rest, there is an automatic drop in your core body temperature to help initiate sleep. If the temperature in your environment stays too high, then it can be a bit of a physiological challenge for your body to get into the ideal state for restful sleep.”
When your room temperature is much warmer or colder than the optimum range, it can impact your ability to fall asleep. But you also don’t want to be cold. You want to feel entirely comfortable under your blanket, so wearing socks might be a good option if your feet tend to get cold.
You also don’t have to drop your thermostat down to 60 degrees if you’ve been struggling to sleep with tinnitus. Instead, just try turning the temperature down a few degrees the next time you go to sleep—it might just do the trick.
9. Reduce caffeine intake
Caffeine is actually a common tinnitus trigger for many sufferers, but even when it’s not, it can make it very difficult to fall asleep if you take it in the afternoon or evening. It also degrades the quality of your sleep whether you realize it or not.
If your tinnitus is really bothering you, it might be a good idea to cut out caffeine entirely for a while because caffeine stimulates the nervous system. With bothersome tinnitus, your nervous system is already in a state of over-agitation, and caffeine will often escalate your stress and anxiety levels.
At the very least, it’s a good idea to cut back on your overall caffeine intake and avoid it entirely for at least eight hours before going to sleep.
10. Brainwave entrainment for rapid sleep induction
Brainwave entrainment is a fascinating technology that can not only help you to fall asleep faster, but induce specific changes in your mental state, and how you feel, using nothing but sound.
To understand how something like this is possible, you first need to understand that how you feel changes your brainwave activity in a very specific way. In fact, there is a predictable (and measurable via EEG) brainwave pattern associated with just about every possible mental state.
But interestingly the opposite is also true—you can change your mental state, and how you feel, by influencing your brainwave pattern to change with an external stimulus. This effect is known as brainwave entrainment and can be achieved with sound, flashing light, and even vibration.
By simply synchronizing your brainwave frequencies to the frequencies that correspond with falling asleep, you will start to feel relaxed, sedated, and tired in a matter of minutes. And all you have to do is press play. It’s that easy.
If you want to give this a try, I created a pay-what-you-want (read: free-if-you-want-it-to-be) album of brainwave entrainment tracks called Rewiring Tinnitus Sleep Relief where every track is engineered to help tinnitus sufferers to fall asleep faster.
Note: You need to have some of your hearing in at least one of your ears for brainwave entrainment audio to have an effect.
11. Don’t just toss and turn
If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to fall asleep for a while, whether you haven’t slept yet at all or you’ve woke up in the middle of the night and just can’t get back to sleep, don’t just toss and turn for hours on end. It’s a bad strategy that never works the way we hope it will.
Instead, get out of bed, go to the kitchen and make yourself a very light snack. Digestion requires a lot of physiological energy and eating a small snack will usually help you to feel tired. After you eat, go and sit on a comfortable chair or couch in another room. Put on some music or background noise to mask your tinnitus and read a book for a short while (a real book, not an eBook).
As soon as you start to yawn or feel sleepy, go straight back to your room and get in bed. This complete change in routine often makes it much easier to fall back to sleep.
Final thoughts on sleep and tinnitus
Lastly, seeing a sleep specialist can be useful to rule out other problems, such as sleep apnea, which is common in people with hearing loss.
But most importantly, if you are struggling with the sound of tinnitus, I want you to know that there is hope and you are not alone.
Improving the quality of your sleep is an important first step toward relief, but it’s only one step on a much longer journey.
The good news is that despite what your doctor may have told you, there is something you can do about your tinnitus. There are many treatments and coping strategies, and lasting relief is entirely possible through sound therapy and a mental process called habituation.
You can get to a place where the sound no longer bothers you—where your brain just tunes it out like it does all other meaningless background sounds. And as this happens, sleep will steadily improve.
But for now, I hope you’ll give these strategies a try! A single good night sleep can really make life with tinnitus a whole lot less difficult and improve your mental health.