I never thought listening to vivid descriptions of crime, murder, and World War II would be the solution to my chronic insomnia. But, here we are.
Nowadays, falling asleep can feel like an unending nightly battle with our phones and always-on culture. Which is why the rise of podcasts designed to help you fall asleep is so unexpected, turning a big source of our insomnia (cellphones) into the tool we need to doze off.
The most famous one, Sleep With Me, blew up over the last few years, topping Apple’s podcast charts week after week. It’s success led to a whole cottage industry of podcasts for insomniacs. Whether you prefer bedtime stories, dreamy meditations, or ASMR brain tingles, there’s a pod for you. Still others (like myself) prefer podcasts that aren’t designated for sleep at all, soothed into slumber by our unusual fascinations.
Anecdotal evidence from those who’ve tried to figure out why podcasts help induce sleep suggest that they’re ideal for insomniacs who struggle with racing thoughts, anxiety, and over-active brains. Since, unlike disembodied relaxation sounds or white noise, podcasts provide something to focus on that’s engaging enough to quiet down your brain, but not engaging enough to keep you awake.
“You’re distracting your mind from the stressful thoughts that raise your alertness,” Sleep With Me host Drew Ackerman told Vice. “I often feel as if Ackerman’s ramblings work by tricking my brain into believing it is drifting off, emulating the peripatetic workings of the dreaming mind,” the New Yorker‘s Nora Caplan-Bricker agreed.
But some sleep specialists told Caplan-Bricker that this is also why podcasts still aren’t a better solution than developing better sleep habits overall (like staying away from your phone). There’s no scientific research yet explaining exactly why podcasts are such popular sleep aids, according to recent news reports. They might do the trick, but distracting your brain into sleep might also cause a more fragmented kind of rest. That’s why we recommend using the sleep timer feature in your preferred podcast app, or maybe even investing in a cheap sleeping mask with built-in audio.
Regardless, podcasts are still a far better alternative to addictive medications, counting sheep, or not getting to bed at all. Arguably, it’s better than falling asleep in front of the TV too, since at least there’s no huge blaring screen to stare at.
The best podcasts to fall asleep to have two common factors: soothing host voices, and relatively banal or meandering topics and narratives. But within that are vastly different preferences that depend on what kind of insomniac you are, and why podcasts work for you.
Maybe your always-on brain needs to be tricked into relaxation. Maybe you’re lonely and feel soothed by the unique intimacy of podcasts. Or maybe (like me) podcasts bring you back to childhood, drifting off to the sound of far-away voices talking about stuff you don’t need to worry about.
So here’s a list of our favorite podcasts to fall asleep to, divided into categories suited for different preferences. (Note: Many of these podcasts are incredible for active listening too, so be sure to listen again when you can give them your full attention.)
Best for: Insomniacs who, for some inexplicable reason, take comfort in the weird or can’t kick their true-crime addiction even while unconscious.
Unquestionably one of the most iconic and reassuring voices in the game, Phoebe Judge’s Criminal finds unexpected and sometimes even delightful first-hand accounts of crime. She’s a compassionate but bold interviewer, always finding the heart in every wrongdoing.
Covering everything from the paranormal to the historic, Astonishing Legends‘ Scott Philbrook and Forest Burgess feel like listening to your dad excitedly babble about some weird new thing he just got into. Long-winded and heart-warmingly earnest, their multi-part deep dives create a safe space for your mind to half-listen to thoroughly researched topics you’d never bother learning about on your own.
From the first tinkling piano chords of this podcast’s intro music, you know you’re in good hands. Andrew Menke built a career around reviving and revisiting fables and legends, reminding listeners about the power of the oral storytelling tradition.
Best for: Those who like a more traditionally comforting story to tuck them in at night.
The tried-and-true method, host Drew Ackerman tells nonsense stories with a droning cadence tailored to bore you into unconsciousness. Often, they’re grounded in current events, topics, and even TV shows (like Game of Thrones), he has a unique talent for making just about anything unfollowable.
A more transcendental approach, Seymour Jacklin tells short, fantastical, original tales that focus on the journey instead of the destination. Like Jacklin’s British accent, it’s a much more ornamental affair than the other bedtime stories, with delicate classical music playing in the background.
The classroom sleeper
Best for: People who can’t help but feel their eyelids grow heavy during lectures, no matter how interesting the topic.
There’s something inherently dreamy about old Hollywood, even when host Karina Longworth does such a thoroughly researched job of demystifying its picturesque ideals. This is definitely one you’ll want to come back to when you’re more cognitively able to receive its fascinating lessons on the forgotten history of entertainment’s golden age.
The poetic daydream
Best for: Romantics seeking meaning in everything, especially all that blurs the thin lines between waking and dreaming.
With a similarly soft tenor to Roman Mars, Dylan Matthews immerses you in much stranger and unseen parts of our unknowable world. While most episodes are grounded in reality, each is a sumptuous soundscape of auditory hallucinations exploring the thin line between what’s real and imagined.
Krista Tippett wants to get to the bottom of everything human, from the spiritual to the scientific. Every week she interviews a new person who can speak to vastly different aspects of life’s biggest questions. The podcast and interview style are best suited to people who enjoy something conversational rather than a crafted narrative.
Kaitlin Prest brings you in closer than any other host on this list. Covering all things intimacy from an achingly human perspective, each episode feels like falling asleep on your lover’s chest, listening to the unique rhythm of their body. The Heart is a feat of auditory storytelling, and ideal for those who can’t sleep because of how empty the bed feels next to them.
Mindfulness and ASMR lovers
Best for: Brain-tingle-loving insomniacs looking to get out of their heads by getting more in tune with their bodies.
If whispering doesn’t do it for yah, this podcast’s library boasts a much wider variety of ASMR triggers, including ambient noises. The episode above, for example, is the audio captured by putting headphones in a flowing river. The host does soft-spoken rambles too, though he sounds decidedly less engaged in what he’s saying.
Sometimes the best way to submit to sleep is to submit to a guided exercise first. Intended as an addition to your bedtime ritual, this one isn’t about distracting or exhausting your brain into sleep. It’s one of the only podcasts on our list that might actually help you develop better sleeping habits through guided meditations from the lovely-sounding host who goes by Nicki.
This content was originally published here.