Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Missing Link in Optimal Health?

Today I want to introduce a radical idea: perfect nutrition is not a panacea.  Other things affect our health and wellbeing at least as much as what we stuff into our faces, but these things are boring to blog about, and don't photograph well. 

One of the biggest influences on health is sleep, and I personally am an enormous sleep failure. Snoozing seems so last century, when modern life has so many interesting ways to occupy those nighttime hours. In the search for optimal health, it's tempting to focus hard on nutrition, searching late into the night for the special diet that will resolve all hidden food sensitivities, banish undereye circles, restore flagging energy and make sleep as unnecessary as refined sugar.    

Recently I was doing just such nutritional investigation, searching phrases like 'tired all the time' (this is so common that it is now referred to as the TATT syndrome) and 'tired eyes'.  Basically, I've concluded that the things I've tried in addition to eating well, like giving up caffeine and alcohol and exercising regularly have not increased my daily energy levels as I'd anticipated. The irony does not escape me that at sometime after midnight, I clicked through to this post by Jamie the paleo guy and realised that there is something I've forgotten about, big time.

He does ramble on a bit at the start (pot, kettle?), so you might jump down to the paragraph that got my attention:

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 AndProcessed], 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.  
Oh? food can't fix everything then?  The rest of the post focuses on non-food factors which affect wellbeing, such as supportive relationships, moving your body and various aspects of the sleep-wake cycle. The last part really got me thinking, because this is my lifelong struggle.  I've lived with insomnia from at least the age of 7, when I remember lying awake all night in a haybarn of sleeping brownies.

Since then, I've become annoyingly familiar with the 'can't sleep at night, zombie all day' phenomenon, which often segues into caffeine overconsumption, no exercise and sugar splurges. At times I've wondered if I'm some weird nocturnal throwback human.  During the night, any little thing wakes me, and I can't sleep if there is, for example, a distant light glowing under the door or I can hear a faint stereo from next door - I become hypersensitive to everything once I try to sleep.  The only time I've had deep, amazing sleeps and perky mornings is when I return to NZ with jetlag. Jetlag rocks! For about 10 days, then I slip back to my usual rhythm.  

After digesting Jamie's post, and doing a bit more research, I devised a course of action for fixing up my circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycle).  The circadian rhythm is linked to melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland and increased levels instruct your brain that it is night.  Melatonin also functions as a powerful antioxidant, scavenging damaging free radicals and reducing production of them, stimulating activity of antioxidant enzymes and making other antioxidants more efficient . It's no scientific secret that melatonin and the circadian rhythm have a big impact on both physical and psychological health. In my undergraduate degree I could have taken an entire paper on the psychological impact of it, but I thought it sounded .... like one of the less important papers. :-/  

Some important factors for getting the melatonin flowing at the right times are:

Bright sunlight exposure early in the day. There may be some link to vitamin D production (which happens on skin exposure to UV light), but that's probably not the whole story as it's visual exposure that matters here - the pineal gland responds to light hitting the retina.

Reduction of blue light exposure as night falls. This happens naturally as the sun sets.

Things which disrupt melatonin production include many of our favourite modern conveniences, such as electrical lighting, TV's and computer screens (including phones). I found one study suggesting that electromagnetic fields in general suppress melatonin production. This caused the authors to speculate (scientific enquiry is careful to "speculate" about contentious topics) about whether the reduced antioxidant activity of melatonin could be linked to the increased cancer seen in people that live in areas of greater electromagnetic field exposure. 

And so, to my plan. This is what I've done:

*Installed f.lux on my computer. This brilliant program adjusts the monitor brightness and level of blue light to match the natural movement of the sun. It's also a great piece of software: no ads, no pushy takeover of your search bar, no unwanted extras and it's a small file.

*I'm endeavouring to avoid TV and bright artificial lights after sunset. It's only been three days, but this has caused unexpected changes in my modus operandi. For example, It's easy to write or play my guitar in low-light (or candlelight) or socialise but not to read - so I'm more creative and relaxed. Because I know I won't be able to work into the night, daytime productivity is increased.

*Open the blackout curtains (necessary in our area) as soon as I wake up, allowing natural light to enter our bedroom.

*Get up and go outside as soon as I'm awake.

*Avoid caffeine after 12 noon and alcohol after 8.00 p.m.

*Go to bed earlier (say 10pm). This is proving easy without the usual distractions of laptop and phone.

What's not on the plan:

*Melatonin tablets. I've had moderate success with these in the past, but it's hard to find a dose that doesn't kick back on me mid-morning in the form of impaired concentration.

*Update: Bought some Blue Blocker glasses

So.. what have been the results? Promising so far. The tired eyes are much improved, I'm falling asleep faster and this morning was surreal. I got up, futzed around a bit, made an espresso, fed the cats, washed, loaded the dishwasher then glanced at the clock: 8.15 a.m.  Wha...? No way. My usual rising time on weekends is.. erm.. 'several hours later than that'.

I'm going to stick with it and develop a workable long term plan. Living a healthy rhythm in a world that wants perpetual daylight is a challenge, but I'm up for it. I'm still jealous though, of people that seem immune to the melatonin-destroying blue light. I live with one. The Programmer can be on his laptop until midnight, then proceed to annoy the hell out of me by falling asleep in 30 seconds (yes, I've counted). Sometimes the unfairness of it makes me put my cold foot on him, accidentally.


Next Post:  Courgette (Zucchini) Fritters. 

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  1. All the best with your sleep plan! Nothing is more annoying than being awake at night when you wanna sleep and wake up refreshed!

    I know alcohol is my major culprit when it comes to drinking, - however I have a habit to not be a moderate drinker. I seem to fall asleep but sometimes wake up with a fast heart rate and all sweaty, (like I've been for a run) 3 hours later then can't sleep again. This has just started happening from time to time the last year or two. My efforts to 'cut down' drinking work only in the short term, - so have actually stopped again completely, (for now).

    1. Good on you! I'm doing great with moderation but it's definitely something I have to keep a lid on. Hey, when are you going to come and see us? On second thoughts, give it another 6 weeks or so and we might actually have a spare room for you to stay in!

  2. I will get up your way hopefully in the not too distance future! Am loving the cookbook by the way. Am looking forward to it! I meant (above) that alcohol is my major culprit when it comes to sleeping, (wrote drinking haha).

  3. You could give some 'montmorrency tart cherry juice' a whirl . It's a natural source of melatonin and has worked well for several people I know, including my husband. He felt it gave him quite a hormonal shift, and helped him get back to sleep at night if he woke, instead of his brain getting busy. He did also find that it left him feeling a bit flat in mood after a while, so stopped taking it but still sleeps better...

    1. Yes, I have tried it, and noticed the same effect that I get with melatonin tablets - feeling just a bit 'flat' and lacking motivation/concentration. Nice to know I'm not the only insomniac around... :-/

  4. Honora9:28 pm

    Thanks for the link to flux. I've installed it and for Chch the our latitude/longitude numbers to change the default setting is: 43.S, 172.E roughly.

    1. It's quite neat watching the monitor change to the colours of the sunset. One of my cats watched it for about an hour last night. He wouldn't get off the desk, just sat there and watched the pretty colours.


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