LCDU Brisbane: You cannot low-carb your way around poor sleep

This past weekend saw Anastasia and I take a quick road trip to Brisbane to each present at the Low-Carb Downunder series that was wrapping up there.  It was a series largely based around Jimmy Moore’s visit to Australia-fair, but included various speakers at each of its stopping points, many of whom were some variant of low-carb, WAPF, or paleo.  It was an interesting mix, and overall, I’d say we all shared much common ground.  But we also had our differences too – even those who come from the same [paleo] tribe, so to speak.  Clearly, all of the speakers there had their own niche area of expertise and experience.  Some felt like they were pushing the edge of the envelope a bit far, and those people probably felt that others weren’t pushing it far enough.  Hopefully people don’t attend these things expecting all of the speakers to agree with each other all of the time.  Certainly that is never the case.

I took part in my first panel discussion there.  An interesting experience – allowing me to hear more from some of the speakers – but largely, it allowed me to hear from the average punter trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Audience questions were submitted and put to the panel for answers.  Due to the nature of the panel, the answers we gave were often little more than sound-bites… perhaps not much better than a 140-character text message.  I found myself wanting to answer “depends” most of the time, as almost all of the questions were very much context-specific.  For example, I was asked early in the piece, what my recommendations were, in grams per kilogram of body weight, for protein intake.  The answer I mostly wanted to give was “it depends”.  The actual answer I gave was that I generally don’t count grams of any macronutrient.  I avoid quantitative measures of food at all costs if I can help it.  Counting stuff is so not paleo and really quite tedious.  Eat food. The best quality you can get for your situation.

One thing that did become apparent, from questions around the likes of kidney health, acid-base balance (seriously? yawn.), and sustainability, was that people just coming into this and looking at low-carb/paleo for the first time, clearly think it is basically a carnivorous diet where we all sacrifice a cow each, every week.  The reality is, however, that I eat more vegetables on a paleo diet than I ever did as a vegetarian, and more than I have ever seen any vegetarian that I have consulted to over the last 12 years in practice eat.  We have a fridge full of brightly coloured vegetable things all the time.

The talk I delivered was focused on sleep, or more specifically, the lack of it.  I purposefully chose to stay away from addressing a food-topic as a) there was a lot of that going on already, b) Anastasia was already [superbly] addressing the fundamentals of what is a paleo diet, and c) I don’t particularly care for diets focused on macronutrients, even though I technically eat low carb myself.  What I am increasingly more interested in is the non-food stuff that impacts on our lives, our health, and – on our food choices.

I feel that people are putting all of their health eggs into the nutrition basket.  When your health is broken, and you have spent a lifetime of eating crap [which we learned stands for Cereals - Refined And Processed], then changing your diet is one of the best things you can do and is a really good place to start.  It Starts With Food after all.  But it doesn’t end there.

There was a time (and perhaps that time still exists in many people’s minds), that we believed that dietary fat caused increases in body fatness.  Therefore all we needed to do was restrict dietary fat. Problem solved.  In our enlightenment we have railed against this reductionist approach.  “It isn’t the fat!”, we cried.  “It is the <insert whatever other singular macronutrient you champion here>”.  The very same reductionism continues.

We acknowledge that food is a big issue for many eating a C.R.A.P diet – we all eat too much of the wrong TYPES of fat, we all eat too much very poor QUALITY protein (and not enough good quality stuff), and yes, we also all eat too many carbohydrates, largely coming from the same POOR QUALITY sources that contain the fats and proteins we need to eat less of.  In short, too many carbs, the wrong types of fat, and poor quality protein all stem from eating a diet underpinned by processed foods.  So it doesn’t matter what your religion is – the church of carbs, fats, or proteins (or dare I say it – calories – which would have to be like the Catholic Church wouldn’t it?), you are all preaching against the sin of eating shit food.

But I also believe, once you begin to dial in a diet based around good quality food, that many other factors rapidly elevate in importance.  Eating good food only gets you so far.  And as those initial gains begin to stall, you either address this “other stuff” or you “do the diet harder”.  Guess which one most people choose.  Faced with turning the TV/computer/phone off and going to bed earlier – or –  eating even less carbs, guess which one holds the most appeal?  After all, eating less carbs got you this far already.  If reduced carbs is good, even less must be waaayyy better.

Oh, and exercise.  But none of that chronic cardio business – that’s a mugs game.  Instead you will combine your even lower carb with even more high-intensity interval training…. like 4-6 days per week worth of it.  Surely that guy who keeps on suggesting that the whole point of high-intensity exercise is that you are supposed to do LESS of it (not more – as in longer, more frequent WOD’s… chronic HIITing, much?), is wrong…

In no particular order, and by no means an extensive list, the “other stuff” that I believe becomes almost as (if not more) important as the food includes;

  • Sun exposure
  • Slow movement
  • Socialisation
  • Stress Resiliency
  • Seasonality
  • Sleep
  • Sex

I hope to write on each of these topics more extensively in the future, but in brief;

  • We need to get out in bright light early in the day, and not just for vitamin D production
  • We need to build our physical activity on a foundation of slow, skilful movements
  • We need regular doses of healthy socialisation (face-to-face, with people who do not undermine us), appropriate to our personality type (introverts vs. extroverts)
  • We need to undertake strategies to bolster ourselves against predictable and unpredictable stressors and actively disengage in order to relax and recharge (these strategies likely include all the other things in this list)
  • We need to live seasonally – in line with natural rhythms
  • We need to engage in regular, good quality sex and other forms of physical contact to reinforce the bonds with those we are closest to, and…
  • We need to be as proactive about planning and participating in good quality, seasonally-adjusted sleep, as we do (or should) with our food and fitness choices.

It was this last point that I directed most of my Brisbane talk toward.  There are so many things pulling us away from going to bed early and getting more sleep, be they family, TV, work, internet, and so on.  Some of us will go to the enth degree with our eating and fitness.  We’ll angst over the use of microwave ovens.  We’ll research whether intermittent ketosis and carbohydrate re-feeds help us increase muscle mass whilst still shedding fat.  But dammit – we just won’t go to bed at 9:30pm.  Going to bed early seems not to be the answer to any question people are asking about improving their health.  Yet it is.

“Sleep”, as a workplace wellness presentation I run in my day job, is easily one of our more popular workshops.  And in it you invariably hear of how much difficulty people are having with sleeping, fatigue, and tiredness.  They seek your advice, hoping for the one magical thing you can offer them.  But woe betides you if you suggest going to be earlier and sleeping longer.  “I can’t do that.”  “I have kids.” “That is the only time I get to myself.”  “My favourite TV programme is on then.

There are a myriad of excuses, all of which boil down to people not willing to sacrifice something in order to get more sleep.  The choice is there – people just don’t want to take it.  Sleep is treated as an expendable luxury…. something we can do without… something we can catch up on later.  Indeed, we champion and admire the person who can stay up late, get 5.5-6 hours’ sleep a night, and still make the morning session at the gym.  Many of us want to be the guy surviving (as opposed to thriving) on a sleep deficit.  The people who go to bed early are seen as a little bit square – and perhaps just a bit boring.  Read this for more insight.

Interesting when you stick your nose in the research database and run searches on sleep deficit and carbohydrate metabolism.  I’m not going to write an extensive literature review here else I’ll be up all night myself.  But the short story is that even a small amount of reduced sleep (typically under 6-7 hours), sees your appetite go up, your feelings of fullness and satiation go down, your willpower weaken, and anything sugar has your name written all over it.  If you are losing weight whilst sleep deprived, odds on it is coming disproportionately from your lean body mass rather than the fat mass you are hoping for.  Not sleeping enough is making you a skinny fatty.

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So all of this begs the question: is “carbohydrate intolerance” due to eating too many carbs or not getting enough zzz’s?  I don’t think the answer is one or the other.  It will no doubt be a bit of both.  But what of the low-carber who has enjoyed some early success with all their eggs in the low carb diet basket, but yet has still not addressed their low number of hours’ slept each night and the overall quality of the sleep they do get?  They find themselves starting to slip backward and are increasingly battling sweet temptation.  What do they do?  Easy.  They wind the carbohydrate intake down even further and keep staying up to watch Seinfeld re-runs and Twatterbooking/Facespacing their latest life drama.

So as much as we like to promote memes like “Abs are made in the kitchen” and “You cannot out-exercise a bad diet”, both of which hold a degree of truth and which counter the focus on eating whatever you like as long as you account for the calories through exercise, they don’t tell the full story or promote the full solution.  If your sleep quality and quantity is poor, and you are in a state of chronic sleep deprivation (which will vary, more or less, by season), you can’t fix that sleep deprivation in the kitchen… or the gym.  You can’t low-carb your way around poor sleep.  And that is the reality check I wanted to deliver to the audience at the Low-Carb Downunder conference.

The brevity of the speaking slots meant I didn’t get the chance to go through too many strategies to improve sleep quality, so I chose to highlight just three.  I chose these three as they are a lot less proximate to the things that people normally think about when it comes to good sleep hygiene.  Most people tend to focus on sleep at the time that they are jumping into bed (normally at the last possible moment), rather than on something that needs to be planned many hours in advance [we pack our food for the day, well in advance of needing it, and we pack our gym gear in preparation for a workout that won’t occur for another 8-10 hours, but we don’t think of sleep 12 hours before climbing into bed.]

I asserted the following for a good nights’ sleep;

-          We need to see bright light in the morning to set up a good cortisol (wakes you up) – melatonin (puts you to sleep) rhythm

-          We need to reduce caffeine intake several hours prior to winding down to allow whatever is in our system to be metabolised

-          And we need to kill all the sources of blue light at least a couple of hours prior to bed else we might as well be staring at the sun (blue light = melatonin suppression = delayed sleep onset)

I closed off my session with a quick reminder about what the bedroom is for and to emphasise some of our other “S’s”…

The bedroom isn’t an office or a television/computer games room/internet café.  It isn’t the place (or perhaps more appropriately – the time) to bring up all your anxieties and angsting over relationship and/or other issues with your partner – especially if you know it is going to increase tensions.  It is a place to engage in some intimate socialisation with your partner, which might lead to a bit of slow movement, which might even lead to good sex, and providing everyone has played their part, a good nights’ sleep.

Overall I got the impression that my message was well-received – or at least my Queensland audience though it easier to smile and nod than to try to understand my Kiwi vowel sounds.

Save for a few hiccups in some of the communications in the weeks prior to this event (I’m never a fan of having to reconfirm things or chasing others for something they forgot), it was a good event and one that pulled many people together, creating a sense of community around what it is we are all trying to achieve – good health.  And it has left me even more enthusiastic about getting out there with our latest venture/adventure.

TPG and PME relax after the low-carb gig with lemonade and sandwiches.

TPG and PME relax after the low-carb gig with lemonade and sandwiches.

17 thoughts on “LCDU Brisbane: You cannot low-carb your way around poor sleep

  1. Pingback: LCDU Brisbane: You cannot low-carb your way around poor sleep | Paleo Digest

  2. About the exposure to blue light: there’s a free program called f.lux that adapts the amount of blue in your computer monitor to the time of day. I’m not particularly fond of the look — everything starts to look pinkish at night — but I feel like I sleep better if I use it when I work on the computer after dark. Curious to see if anyone else has tried it and had any results.

    • My roommate and I also use f.lux and love it! I don’t even notice the colour change at night, it just ends up looking natural to me, but if I have to turn it off briefly (say to do colour work in Photoshop) it REALLY hurts my eyes!! We even watch TV shows (on our computers) with f.lux turned on.
      There’s also a similar app for Android phones called NeyetLight, which essentially does the same thing. I always have it on when using the phone at night – can’t stand to use it otherwise.

  3. “all their eggs in the low carb diet basket” – brilliant Jamie. Quote of the year!
    One of the best things I ever did was to get the tv out of the bedroom.
    How do you go about resetting your sleep after being woken at 2am? Four nights later and I’m still waking up and it doesn’t involve 3 cats and a mouse anymore!
    I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more from you about sleep and its importance to our wellbeing.

    • Thanks, Prue. I think it is a quote born out of frustration with people wanting diet to fix absolutely everything. Food has become the new exercise in that regard. Yes food is VERY important. But it isn’t all-encompassing important.

      The sleep reset… hmmm… you might need to play around with light exposures. Maybe that cortisol – melatonin rhythm is out of sync. You get a cortisol pulse around 4am, so maybe yours is happening too soon?? Bright light late in the day?? Or it could be that you have simply come out of a good couple of deep sleep cycles. Being awake for up to an hour or so after the first deep sleep sequences at night isn’t out of the ordinary. Either way, you just need to teach yourself to relax and go with it. Even a bit more stage 1-2 sleep is better than none at all.

  4. Harry is going to live this! He is finishing up ‘Lights Out’ and is going to write a guest post for me. Wants to call it ‘It Starts With Sleep’ but we don’t want to piss anyone off! Anyway, great post…always love to read what you have to say!

    • Thanks, Penny! Really hard to separate sleep and food. Then when you get into it, to get good sleep, you need to be out in the sunlight during the day. But to have good skin resiliency whilst out in the sun, you need a good diet. Plus all of your sleep hormones have a dietary building block. You can see how thickly intertwined it all is!

    • “sleep when baby sleeps” is by far and away the most useful bit of parenting advice we were ever given. It can be hard to do, because it’s so tempting to use the time to catch up on all the other household and mundane chores that fall behind, but it’s necessary.

      The second-most useful bit of advice was “don’t take any advice too seriously”

  5. Love the pic of you and Anastasia having lemonade and sandwiches. ;) Hope to get a chance to see you guys in person at a future event in Sydney!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on participating in the LCDU seminars. I attended the ones in Sydney (wish I could’ve seen your talk!) and I also found it a really interesting event. There was a really varied group of people giving talks there, each with their own take on things, but overwhelmingly the take-home message boiled down to “eat real food” and “think about where your food comes from” and I think that was the most important part of all.
    There was a huge number of older people (50+) in the audience in Sydney, many of whom were overweight and probably suffering under their doctor’s crappy advice, and I was really happy to see them there, open to this way of thinking.

    From the audience questions in Sydney, I got the impression that most people were just so indoctrinated with the idea of low-fat that the part they were having the most trouble with was the idea of eating more fat, of eating good fats, of how much fat they could safely eat, etc. So I was wondering, is it perhaps that people are already used to the idea that vegetables are healthy, so we don’t need to spend enough time selling them on eating more veggies? And that what we’re trying to do is convince them to eat more meat and fats WITH their veggies? (Okay, I know Jimmy Moore’s NK experiment is on the more extreme end of the scale, but he still eats veggies, and it’s working for him, so…)

    I’m really interested in your ideas regarding the “other stuff” that we need to keep an eye on to achieve optimal health, rather than just focusing on diet. But I also think it is easier to naturally segue into improving these things when improving one’s diet, too.

    I had so many (physical and mental) health problems when I ate a SAD diet, that most of the “other stuff” was beyond me as well. (I was a train wreck!) But when I cleaned up my diet, a lot of my health improved and I naturally was able to start improving the other things.
    For example, I suffered from severe insomnia most of my life since childhood. I can’t tell you how much school I skipped due to exhaustion from nights of insomnia, and when I was working a regular hours job it was a killer too. It’d take me a minimum of 2 hours to fall asleep every night, and often more like 3-6. On bad nights, I’d get maybe 2 hours of sleep before the morning alarm, and wake up feeling so nauseous from lack of sleep that I’d have to call in sick, or at least take the morning off. (And yes, I tried lots of natural and non-natural means to cure it. Nothing worked.)
    When I switched to a LC/paleo-type diet, this problem resolved completely over the span of a few months, and I no longer get insomnia at all. I fall asleep naturally, and wake naturally. The end result is I’m finally able to achieve normal, restful sleep, and I think being able to do so has improved my health further.
    Eating a LC/Paleo diet also finally gave me enough energy to consider regular exercise, which was something I’d always struggled with prior to that. In fact, I actually had the energy to get up early before work and cook breakfast, do a 10 minute training session, and still get to work on time, when prior to that I’d dragged myself out of bed every day 20 minutes after the alarm and had just enough time to get dressed, brush my hair, and run to the train station, buying crap for brekkie along the way.

    Anyway, I think my (far too rambly) point is that fixing the nutritional aspect is something that really helps, and allows us to properly consider fixing the other stuff that is also important, especially for those of us who have been really messed up by our prior poor dietary choices! But the important thing is, as you said, to realise that ALL these things need to be addressed; to not just go “if the diet isn’t working, do it harder”. Unfortunately I think the general concept of “if you’re failing at something, the problem is YOU” is far too indoctrinated into our society and needs to be hugely reconsidered.

    P.S. I’m one of those weird people who falls asleep after drinking a cup of coffee. I actually don’t drink it that much as a result, but if I think I’m going to have trouble sleeping any particular night, a nice cup of coffee will knock me out within half an hour. XD

    • Good food and good sleep are deeply intertwined. You can’t really address one without addressing the other. I guess my point is not so much about which one to give priority first (I still think you would start with food), but once you start to get a bit of traction, a bit more energy, are sleeping a bit deeper, etc., don’t use your new-found energy and recuperative powers to stay up later and later. And certainly don’t just push harder on the dietary side of things when you are knowingly letting the total sleep time slip.

      Keep an eye out for when we get to Sydney. We’d love to meet you in person too.
      :)

  6. Truly a great presentation in Brisbane, thanks so much! I have such an issue with wanting that ‘quiet time’ after the kids are asleep that I end up staying up later and later. The next day is when I feel like I’m trying to swim though treacle. You may or may not choose to note the time this comment was posted…

    • Thanks, Karen! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Yes – that is where the trade off is… a moment of relaxation vs. how you will feel the next day. People have to call it as they see fit, but my advice would be that sleep almost always trumps “quiet time”. One is nice to have, the other is absolute necessity.

  7. Very important and all too often overlooked part of the puzzle!
    As a fellow New Zealander following your blog from California, I also want to say keep up the excellent work.

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