Is Listening To Podcasts As We Fall Asleep Bad For Our Brains?

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened but at some point in the last five years, the way I fall asleep changed. Instead of reading before turning off the lights or just staring at the ceiling in the dark like a haunted Victorian widow, I started a nightly routine of untangling my headphones and listening to a podcast. The pod itself varies: right now it's Threedom, a podcast where three comedians chat absolute nonsense, but it could be anything as long as it’s engaging and entertaining. I’ll listen until I realise I have no idea what I just heard, then half-heartedly pull my earbuds out while pressing the pause button before drifting off.
It’s now such a normal part of my routine that if I can’t find my headphones, I will be driven by a sudden spurt of energy to locate them. I will fall asleep to silence only begrudgingly at this point. And when I do, it feels like I’m cosplaying a character in a period drama, so alien to me is the silence. But is falling asleep this way actually good for me, or is it just a habit? And is it having an effect on my sleep?
Falling asleep to podcasts, in and of itself, is not novel. There is limited research about podcast-listening habits but according to 2019 data from Edison Research, more than half of the nearly 6,000 people surveyed in the US say that listening to podcasts is a way they relax before falling asleep. Even more compelling is the number of sleep podcasts and audiobooks available: go into any podcatcher app, search ‘sleep’ and you’ll end up scrolling through a wealth of titles. This is to say nothing of the boom in apps like the mindfulness app Calm and audiobook provider Audible, which have thrived off sleep stories and soundscapes.
It's even reflected in small things like podcast apps having a sleep timer. With a quick selection, you can decide when you want the podcast to tune out based on when you think (or hope) you will have dozed off.
According to Dr Lindsay Browning, a chartered psychologist, author of Navigating Sleeplessness and founder of Trouble Sleeping, listening to podcasts can be a useful habit, especially if you struggle with anxiety or falling asleep. "Podcasts can be helpful to distract someone from their busy mind in the short term, as they give you something to think about that is not the subject that is on your mind." However she adds that it is not unequivocally a good habit. "When people start to get into a habit of not sleeping, and they start to become anxious about their sleeping problems, listening to something in bed can actually make things worse," Lindsay tells R29. "Your brain can start being kept awake by actively listening to the podcast instead of sleeping, plus the noise of the podcast can wake you up once you drift off."
This is why sleep podcasts and sleep stories are designed the way they are, she says. "Sleep stories (of which some are ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, based) are designed to be stories with little content but rather soothing sounds and describing gentle scenery designed to relax you as you fall asleep." The stories are deliberately made to be as uninteresting and non-engaging as possible so that you do not try to stay awake to listen to them.
These podcasts are not what I enjoy, though. Comedy and entertainment podcasts are explicitly engaging – that’s why I listen to them in my waking hours too. This seemingly goes against the rubric of a sleep aid. But they, too, can be useful in their own way. "If you have something on your mind or you are worrying about something," Lindsay adds, "then an interesting or entertaining podcast (such as a comedy podcast) can help to distract you from whatever you are worrying about." The idea is that you might fall asleep if you are not thinking about other worries. She points out that there are potential positives and scenarios in which each of these may be useful, "however for people struggling with ongoing poor sleep it is not advised to listen to anything at all when trying to sleep."
As with most sleep aids, it turns out there are both positives and negatives to listening to podcasts and videos to fall asleep. On the one hand, they can distract you from thoughts and worries that would otherwise stop you relaxing, especially if you are anxious about not sleeping. On the other hand, they could increase your anxiety about sleep if you choose something that doesn't fit your particular mode of thinking.
You could start to become anxious that the sleep story has not finished and you are still awake, or that the comedy show is nearly ending and you have not yet fallen asleep. Plus, this can go against the teachings about proper sleep hygiene. Lindsay points out: "When you are in bed listening to a podcast, you are giving your brain mixed messages – you are doing it because you are in bed and want to sleep, however, your brain is actively trying to stay awake so that it can listen to the interesting podcast. In fact you are teaching your brain to fight sleep and that your bed is not a place for sleep but rather it is a place for being awake and listening to podcasts."
In this sense, falling asleep in silence while staring at the ceiling, haunted Victorian widow-style, might be best – sound can interfere with our sleep after all, and encourage us to wake up. However if you can’t hack silence (I know I can’t), what you listen to and how it works for you is ultimately a personal choice, though there are some rough guidelines you can follow. Craig Richard, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University and the author of Brain Tingles, a book about ASMR, previously told VICE that his anecdotal research identified four key pillars for an ideal sleep podcast: "a calm host voice; focused attention on the listener; kindness (meaning the listener doesn’t get mad at the host); and generally banal content." 
Ultimately, if you find that listening to podcasts helps you to sleep, then there is no need to stop doing something that works for you. If, however, you find that listening to podcasts is no longer helping you drift off, then you might want to address the cause of your sleeping issue. And don't worry that you are filling your brain with mush or choosing something too 'weird' to listen to – if true crime podcasts send you to sleep, it's unlikely to be doing anything psychologically damaging. All that matters is that it can prevent real-life worry or anxious and paranoid thoughts running wild and therefore stopping sleep. Any podcast can be a stepping stone between full, panicked engagement and serene disengagement, making sleep a bit less stressful. Which is something we all could do with right now.

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