Sleep and sleep research has become a huge area of interest for me. A few years back I wrote a sleep seminar which I deliver into corporate audiences – a seminar which is easily our most requested physical health topic (an indication of an underlying issue perhaps?). I spoke of sleep during the Low Carb Downunder tour and how people are often too focused on food and miss that their health problems might not be entirely food-related. We also spend some time discussing the importance of sleep, as one of the Whole9 factors, at the end of our Whole9 South Pacific workshop. If It Starts With Food, we believe that sleep runs a VERY close second (then I’d likely add in sun exposure for third place and healthy movement in a distant 4th to those first three factors – not a popular take amongst those who think they can just diet and exercise their way around everything).
Not trying to conduct a relationship over a different time zone over the last year, as well as not having a TV, has afforded us the ability to wind down at a reasonable hour and turn in for bed at a time that allows us a consistent 9 hours of sleep, minimum, most nights (this was our goal for the past winter months). Indeed, as soon as the sun drops, and with the house lights low, unless we end up increasing our internetness exposure late at night (sometimes, someone on the internet is just wrong and needs to be told so), we know that we are on borrowed time. Throw in a good meal and relaxing music and our parasympathetic nervous systems dial themselves all the way around to “veg out” mode and we are done (see the three F’s of parasympathetic nervous system activity in my AHS presentation). Recent travel to the U.S., and the associated time zone shifts, left us feeling like we had been dropped on our heads – only Keith Norris (aka Wolverine) style doses of double espressos kept my lights on and brain semi-functioning.
It was at the recent Ancestral Health symposium that sleep came more into focus than it ever has at previous symposia. I had the pleasure of co-hosting a workshop on seasonal health with Dallas Hartwig, where we discussed the importance of sleep, as driven by light and dark exposure signals, and the implications of this from a seasonal perspective (In summary: Summer = shorter night lengths, driving, hormonally, the need for slightly less sleep, and Winter = longer night lengths, hormonally increasing the need for sleep). I also got the chance to listen to sleep researcher, Dan Pardi, deliver a fantastic talk on sleep, and converging on the very same aspects of sleep and problems with sleep deprivation that I had been discussing with other audiences elsewhere for years.
Dan’s talk was very well-received, but what shocked me was the number of paleo/primal types at AHS saying that Dan’s talk had spooked them into taking their sleep a bit more seriously. It isn’t that these people didn’t realise how important sleep actually is – I am sure they all know this. But sleep still wasn’t a priority in their lives. As a group I think we lead the way on food and nutrition, and for the most part we have very healthy attitudes around movement & exercise, and around sun exposure too. But like the rest of society, this paleo community, for the most part, really sucks at shutting the computers down, switching off the lights, and going to bed. Perhaps this TED talk on why we sleep might just serve as a critical reminder of why sleep NEEDS to be a top priority for people’s health.
Acknowledging that you need to prioritise it is the first step. But after that, people need practical strategies. Good sleep rhythms are inextricably linked to light exposure. Get too much (blue) light at night from sources such as computers, tablets, and phones, and it feels like you have just consumed a double espresso right before bed. You can lie there tossing and turning and wondering why you can’t slip into a deep coma for the night. Conversely, not getting enough light exposure in the morning can have implications too.
The hormone melatonin carries much of the responsibility for putting us to sleep at night. Melatonin is made from serotonin. Serotonin synthesis requires light exposure, a few mineral co-factors (mostly they types where animal foods are the richest sources), and the amino acid, tryptophan, derived from high-protein food sources. ‘Great’, you think , all you need is a high protein dinner just before bed and you get everything you need. Except – the light. There is no point in trying to boost brain serotonin levels, as a precursor to melatonin, right before bed because the synthesis of serotonin from tryptophan requires bright sunlight exposure in the eyes. What is better is a high-protein breakfast followed by exposure to bright warm temperature light, as per this recent study.
What I have outlined above, is a strategy for improving sleep which begins many hours before bed. In fact, as a strategy, it is one which begins when you get out of bed in the morning. Other strategies, such as not over-dosing on espresso late in the day (to allow for caffeine – which is relatively slowly metabolised for most – to drop in your system) and shutting down blue light devices early in the evening, are ones which need to be enacted long before you return to the bedroom. Unfortunately, however, far too many people worry about their sleep quality and quantity about 5 minutes before they absolutely must go to bed in order to at least scrape together 6 or 7 hours before the alarm clock will blast them back into consciousness. I think it is high time, if you are really concerned about health, that people elevate sleep to the status it deserves.