Though we may like to be rocked off to sleep by our favourite hit songs, sleeping with earbuds in is not necessarily a good habit to get into for several reasons.
Firstly, listening to all kinds of sounds throughout the night (even at low volume) increases the risk of hearing problems (1). This is not only due to the prolonged listening period but also to increased fragility of our eardrums: as blood flow decreases when we’re asleep, the ears are less resistant to noise disturbance. This can result in premature hearing loss as well as ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus) (2).
Since music is known to reduce feelings of stress, it should logically make it easier to fall asleep. Paradoxically however, several studies have shown that playing your favourite playlist just before you drop off leads to worse-quality sleep.
This is because of involuntary musical imagery, better known as ‘earworms’ (3-4). In other words, a particular song remains stuck in your head, to the point where it’s still playing on a loop when you wake up. This problem is more likely to occur when attention is lower (as in the evening).
These nocturnal earworms can be quite invasive, potentially extending the time it takes to fall asleep, causing more wakefulness during the night and destabilizing the sleep cycle (with a shift from deep sleep to lighter sleep).
There are various reports, which although exceptional, also give pause for thought. A case of fatal electrocution was reported in a Malaysian teenager who had fallen asleep wearing his earbuds plugged into his phone on charge. Another young man, wearing Apple’s famous AirPods, accidentally swallowed one of his wireless earbuds during the night (his smartphone located it in his stomach in the early hours). Fortunately, he was none the worse after it passed through his system with the aid of laxatives.
Last but not least, there’s a continuing debate around the impact of wireless technologies on health. While no scientific study has so far established a link between radio waves (such as Bluetooth) and brain or acoustic nerve tumours, the theory has not been completely rejected due to the proximity of the earphones to the auditory canal (5-7).
To take care of your ears and keep your hearing sharp, it’s a good idea to adopt a few common-sense measures:
To curb hearing loss, it’s also wise to adopt a diet rich in antioxidants (red berries, green and orange vegetables, tea, cocoa …), as well as in vitamins C (citrus fruit, peppers, kiwi fruit…) and E (vegetable oils, almonds …) which help fight oxidative stress (12). These will counteract the harmful effects of free radicals on the hair cells of the inner ear, which are crucial to sound perception.
In addition, magnesium appears to be closely linked to glutathione, a powerful cellular shield (particularly auditory cells) (13). It also supports normal nervous system function by mediating the transmission of sound signals via the auditory nerve (14). To ensure a good intake, focus on whole grains, nuts and dark chocolate.
Certain plants can also boost auditory protection by addressing the vascular component in order to improve oxygenation of ear tissue. One such plant is gingko biloba, also known as the ‘tree of the 40 shields’, which helps maintain good peripheral circulation and especially auditory health (15). It can be found in targeted synergistic supplements (the comprehensive formulation Hear Loss Formula contains gingko, magnesium, vitamins D and E as well as cutting-edge compounds such as alpha-lipoic acid and quercetin) (16-17).
Less well-known, the lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) helps maintain good mental health, especially in elderly individuals, due to its content of vincamine, an alkaloid effective at oxygenating the brain. Its effects on microcirculation have attracted so much scientific interest that it now features in supplements targeted at auditory health (like the natural formulation OptiHear, in which it’s combined with gingko and zinc for enhanced efficacy at fighting oxidative stress in ear cells) (19).
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