Sleep well to Eat well!

NOTE: this is a re-post of an article I wrote for PaleoChix, with a few added resources listed at the end. I hope it sheds light [ahem] on a very important subject that affects what and how you eat, whether you know about it or not!

What do cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease and high blood pressure have in common? Well, for starters, they can all kill you. There have been countless millions of dollars spent trying to find the causes and the cures for them. And the frequency with which people are being stricken with them has risen astronomically over the past century. There are lots of treatments for them, chemical, surgical, and psychological, and “everyone knows” that these diseases are most likely due to environmental or genetic causes which one day we will discover, right? Just like “everyone knows” that the USDA Food Pyramid is the healthiest way to eat, and that the 30 minutes of “moderately intense” activity (such as walking) three times a week recommended by the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine the way to maintain our health and reduce the risk for chronic disease, right?

Well, no, not really.

In his book, “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival”, T.S. Wiley tackles the subject of the abysmal and worsening state of our health from a completely different perspective. It all begins with sleep. According to Wiley, with 9-plus hours of sleep a night, we can lose weight, curb our craving for carbohydrates, eradicate depression, lower blood pressure and stress levels, reverse Type II diabete, minimize the risk of heart disease, and help prevent cancer.

I’m not going to regurgitate the entire book, but I’ll give you the highlights and encourage you to order your copy as soon as possible! Here are the basic ideas.

We are designed to live according to a circadian rhythm and a seasonal rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is that of light and darkness, day and night. “We and everything else alive, from plankton and fungus to elephants and ants, are synchronized to the orbit and rotation of the earth in and out of the sun’s light to assure us a food supply. All things great and small have internal sundials that measure time with molecular clocks in every cell that switch enormous cadres of regulatory genes on and off.”

Two major players in the light and dark hormonal cycles are melatonin and prolactin. Melatonin is secreted at night time, and amongst its many functions, it directly affects how much prolactin is secreted during the day. Prolactin is the hormone that controls appetite. “Our celestially-driven internal light-responsive genes actually “clock” how long melatonin is produced, to give prolactin the “weather report” to time our appetites in synch with the spin cycle.” How much time we spend in darkness affects how much melatonin we produce, which in turn affects how much prolactin in produced the following day (which determines how much we will want to eat!).

But that’s not all! “Light and dark cycles control insulin so you can store fat for hibernation or dormancy. … Insulin secretion is controlled by the food you eat, but the food you want is controlled by your immune system responding to perceived seasonal variation in the light.”

The seasonal rhythm gives us summer (a time of abundance and feasting) and winter (a time of scarcity and famine), and we have a summer metabolism (eat as much carbohydrate as you can) and a winter metabolism (live off your stored carbohydrates). We are “designed to live on both carbohydrates and fats, depending on the landscape and the season.” According to Wiley, “There is no scientific evidence that you were ever meant to live solely on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are converted and stored to see you through lean times. Protein and fat in the form of other living things would be available wherever you were living, no matter what the season – unlike carbohydrates, which would grow and be available only during the warm weather growing season. So summer eating – carbohydrate consumption driven by the number of hours of light – is a physical imperative to secure sugar storage for famine, and it’s driven by the timing of the light.”

Our modern lifestyle puts us into a state of “endless summer”
Humans began to extend the day through the use of fire many, many years ago, but it is with the advent of electricity that we have had the ability to “live in the light” twenty-four hours a day. In the modern, developed world, we routinely stay up late into the night, long after the sun has set, thanks to electric lights. We’ve even added new sources of light all around us – television screens, digital displays on clocks and DVD players, ubiquitous streetlights, and more. When we DO go to bed, our rooms are not truly dark, thanks to all the little light sources around us, and the truth is that most of us don’t stay in bed sleeping very long at all. The result of the extension of our “daylight hours” far into the night is that our bodies think that we are living in an endless season of summer. Can you see where the problem begins?

Here’s how this relates to what we eat: “Light and dark cycles control insulin through carbohydrate craving but also, more directly, through your stress mechanisms. … when the lights are on, your cortisol stays up because it’s a blood-sugar mobilizer – and it helps you to be ready instantly to run or fight. Continuously high levels of cortisol – which are mobilizing your blood sugar – means insulin stays up too, to disperse that blood-sugar to your muscles. So just watching TV late into the normal sleep period keeps your insulin up longer than nature wants it to be, causing insulin resistance – and you know what that means. You get fat just by smelling a cookie.”

The solution is simple!
Wiley’s prescription for health starts with sleep. “If you want to control your appetite, you must sleep as many hours as you would in nature according to seasonal light exposure. That means for six or seven months out of the year you need a minimum of 9.5 hours in total darkness every night to keep your hormones from switching to summer mode.”

“If you can accomplish Step 1, you will lose weight naturally and pretty fast. It happens because when you’re rested, you’re able to resist carbohydrates. It should be much easier than ever before to stop eating sugar, drinking or smoking.”

Although not Paleo per se , Wiley’s eating guidelines resonate well and are summarized here:

• Protein is essential. Eat it every day, at every meal. … No protein, no neurotransmitters or immune function.
• Fats are essential. … No fat, no hormones – and that means cancer. Don’t eat any fat that didn’t start out alive – make sure it’s from a plant or an animal.
• Don’t eat packaged or processed foods.
• Don’t eat anything labeled “low-fat” or “nonfat”. These foods contain sugar and other chemicals as additives to fool your palate into believing they have fat in them.
• Only eat as many carbohydrates are you need in a day, in season. If you are going to a place where food is scarce, or you intend to sleep through the winter in your own locale, feel free to ear all of the natural carbohydrates you want. Otherwise, summer is an all-you-can-eat proposition and winter is no more than 45 grams a day.
• Eat only fresh fruits and vegetables.
• Drink a decent amount of plain water, the original beverage. You don’t have to drown yourself, but living on high protein, it’s a good idea to drink at least five eight-ounce glasses of water a day.

I haven’t done this wonderful book (and the tremendous volume of research it draws upon) justice, because Wiley goes into great depth in describing how all this relates not just to our diets but to the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more of those ailments that afflict so many of us. But I hope I’ve given you enough “food for thought” to prompt you to get your own copy and read the whole thing yourself. You won’t regret it, I am sure.

Extra Resources:

A brilliant and timely piece by Mark Sisson on Sleep

A very good piece by me 🙂 which has links to some great resources on sleep, exercise, nutrition, getting to sleep etc…

And yes, this is an INSANELY LONG post, but one last thing: Natural Calm (a magnesium supplement) was recommended  at the Paleolithic Solutions seminar, and I decided to try it. I have been sleeping like a log all night, every night ever since, which I haven’t done in at least 20 years. I found it at Whole Foods. You might want to give it a try, but NOT if you have a job in which you might get called out to respond to something in the middle of your sleep (an observation made by a firefighter who said he slept so deeply with it that he could hardly get up when called out in the middle of the night.)

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