Something that inevitably comes up in every story about what I call auditory memory loops (AMLs) is the issue of sleep.
For some of us, it is just a matter of getting our heads quiet enough for a few minutes to let us fall asleep. For others, the crazy broken record shows up in our dreams too, hicupping through that same 15-second music clip for hours upon hours until we wake up in a tortured panic.
If my cortisol hypothesis has any merit, then the very act of losing sleep is, in fact, feeding the AMLs and creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
So we need to find ways to do 2 important things: (1) reduce stress, and (2) get sleep (and they are related). Yes, I know: it’s easier said than done.
We have to reduce stress, but what exactly is stress? Let’s define it as “circumstances or conditions that elevate cortisol levels.”
Remember that our bodies were engineered to pump out cortisol to give us a burst of energy so we could get away from that saber-toothed tiger chasing us. But that burst comes at a price. To release emergency energy reserves, cortisol burns tissues. And it’s not all that particular about which tissues it burns. Could be brain, heart, liver, kidneys, muscles, whatever. It’s a great thing if it helps you live to hunt and gather another day, but bad when the least little thing causes the same reaction.
It’s like burning your furniture if the weather’s freezing and the power’s out and your house is buried in 20 feet of snow. It’s the right thing to do under the circumstances, but not something you can afford to do on a regular basis. In our modern world there are too many little situations that our bodies react to as if they were life and death: an angry email or phone call, clogged plumbing, showing up in the same dress as someone else. Not quite the same caliber as being eaten by a tusked predator, but our bodies react the same way.
And if we keep the stress levels high enough for long enough, our adrenal glands will burn out and then we’ll feel tired all the time. (Adrenal burnout can be reversed by the way.)
So what raises cortisol levels?
- Life situations that excite us, either negatively or positively. Happy things, like a wedding or new baby, can be just as “stressful,” in terms of releasing cortisol, as facing an IRS audit or divorce.
- Poor diet. If we eat nothing but junk food, too many carbs, not enough fruits and veggies, our bodies panic and release cortisol. If we skip meals or starve ourselves or purge to stay thin, our bodies release cortisol.
- Too little or poor quality sleep. When we don’t get enough of the right kind of sleep, our bodies produce cortisol because sleep is supposed to recharge our batteries. Without proper sleep, we may have to run on backup fuel (cortisol).
- Too much exercise. When we exhaust all the normal stores of energy, cortisol cranks up to try and keep us going. Even with normal exercise, the push to get past “the wall” can tell our bodies that we have an emergency that needs an extra shot of energy.
- Illness, injury. When our bodies are harmed or damaged, cortisol kicks in to provide extra healing energy. (Illness can also reduce or drain cortisol.)
- Disease. I’ve listed this separately because there are certain diseases/conditions that cause an overproduction of cortisol. In Cushing’s syndrome, for example, patients may have tumors either on the cortisol-producing adrenal glands themselves or on the pituitary gland in the brain that sends out messenger hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce too much cortisol.
I think those are the main ones. So what can you do to reduce each kind of stress?
- Learn to meditate
Obviously you can’t control the negative things in your life, and don’t want to eliminate the positive stressors, but meditation may help you reduce the amount of stress your adrenal glands think they need to respond to. When you feel yourself getting wound up, stop, sit in a quiet place and let go for a few minutes.
- Get moderate exercise
I’ve never been able to meditate, but I accomplish the same thing by walking. Not power-walking or doing errands, but just peacefully walking down a country road or park path. I find that I have to walk at least 30 minutes before the craziness of life finally starts to drain away.
- See a hypnotherapist for relaxation techniques
You may not be able to “will” the AMLs away, and trying to will only create more stress. It’s like willing yourself not to think of a pink elephant: you focus on it even more. But a good hypnotherapist may be able to help you create a peaceful mood whenever you need it.
- Simplify your life
If you are stressing because you have too much going on and can’t do justice to it all, then let go of some of it.
- Make peace with the stresses you face and the things you can’t do or choose not to do
If you’re stressed about money, then consider how to reduce your financial needs. If you can’t find a fancy job in your chosen field, take a different job doing something fun, even if it pays a lot less. And if you are stressed because you can’t do everything on your plate, forgive yourself, allow yourself some freedom and pleasure, and ask those around you to help you find some peace in every day.
Yes it’s hard to sleep with a 24-hour disco in your head. And I know the usual advice about doing relaxing things and keeping to a routine every night isn’t the answer for this 800-pound gorilla. So how do you get to sleep, stay asleep and get restful sleep? Beats me. But here are some ideas from the rest of us:
- Do about 30 minutes of light exercise before bed
Crazy? I thought so, till a doctor told me that getting some light exercise, like walking on a treadmill (I walk in place while watching TV), will burn off excess adrenaline (related to cortisol) that you’ve produced during the day. That way, you’re not all juiced up when you’re trying to fall asleep. Just don’t let your heart rate get over about 100.
- Take melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime
This is the hormone your body produces while you sleep to help make repairs and balance other hormones overnight. In the past, melatonin supplements were great for about 4 hours’ sleep, but then you were awake again. Now, many manufacturers offer a 3 mg time-released product that gives you at least 6 hours. Some people take 6 mg or more, but check with your doc and work up on dosage to see how you like it. (I personally find that my melatonin sleep isn’t quite as sound as with the Zyrtec.)
- Take over-the-counter sleep meds
But try not to take more drugs than you need. If Tylenol PM has Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Benadryl in it, then just take Benadryl (or generic diphenhydramine) by itself instead. No point ruining your liver with the Tylenol if you don’t need pain relief. Most OTC sleep meds are antihistimines like Benadryl anyway. So look at the ingredients and see if you can find a different product (allergy/sinus or sleep product) that only contains the sleep-inducing chemical /antihistimine.
I find that Zyrtec helps me get to sleep and stay asleep the longest. But it doesn’t cause drowsiness in everyone. If it does work for you, you can find the generic cetirizine a LOT cheaper online.
- Take a cortisol reducing herb like Relora at bedtime
For people with stress-related AMLs, Relora may just take the edge off the noise and relax you enough to fall off to sleep. (Relora may also reduce your appetite.)
- Sleep in complete darkness
Studies have shown that our bodies can pick up even the tiniest bit of light (like the light on a power strip or TV) and that light will suppress the amount of melatonin we produce at night. For the most restorative sleep, try sleeping with a comfortable sleep mask or get the room as dark as possible.
- Try chanting or humming just one note
When my AMLs were bothersome at bedtime, I ran a large floor fan in the bedroom to mask out little noises like the heat/AC kicking on, ice cubes dropping in the icemaker, etc. But I also discovered that I could manage the music enough to fall asleep by picking one note from the the fan’s hum and then concentrating on that note…effectively “humming” it in my mind. It’s like the chanting in certain types of meditation. If my mind had to be sticky anyway, I could try to give it a peaceful, one note “song” to stick to.
- Other solutions
I didn’t mention the more dramatic solutions like taking sleep-inducing prescription drugs with all their crazy side effects and dangers. I also didn’t mention hitting yourself in the head with a hammer to knock you out at night, or taking IV sedation that’s used for surgical anesthesia. They might work, but the consequences can be undesireable at best.
Diet, Health and Exercise
These are pretty obvious. Eat moderately-sized healthy meals on a regular basis. Get all the nutrients you need, either from food (ideally) or supplements. Don’t over exercise. And if you are ill or injured, give yourself extra time and babying to recuperate.
If you crave carbs, are overweight no matter what you do, and have excessive thirst, consult an endocrinologist and have him/her test your blood sugar and your cortisol levels.
You may be stuck with the AMLs but you don’t have to let the stress feed them and make them worse. Be good to yourself, find ways to sleep, eat properly, exercise moderately and relax every day.
And if you have any solutions that work for you, please share with the rest of us!
Happy chanting. Ommmmmmmmmmmmm…