Expanded Chapter: Stress

Stress

 It’s a 21st century thing

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
Leonard Bernstein

I love that quote, and it also sets a familiar tone, one familiar to most of use. The modern world is more -fast paced than ever, we now live in a world that’s changing faster than at any period in human history. It’s fun and exciting but there is one real downside: stress.

As the world changes so do the stresses we find ourselves under. Some ore pretty obvious like poor diet or pollution, alcohol or smoking, but as with the body our brains would appear to be having a hard time keeping up with the pace of change and that’s bad news for body and brain. So what is the cause of this stress?

Social networking versus face to face interaction, work that you take home with you on your company laptop or virtual desktop all mean that you’re exposed to more little stressors as the virtual and work worlds bleed together into our ‘real’ social recreation time. When you’re checking work email at home or at the weekend you’re also lose the relaxation time and when the barriers start to blur we lose a lot, for example the ability to focus on what is in front of you – answering work email as a dinner with friends, or facebooking friends when at a gig with your partner, many of us have done it. A analogy might be exercising for hours a day with less quality recovery time to compensate.

One antidote to this soup of modern distractions is ‘mindfullness’, the discipline and process of developing focus on the moment. Whilst this buzzword may conjure up images of monks and hippies there’s very real research going on showing the ability of ‘minfullness therapies’ to change the way your body functions on a genetic level. But here I’m getting ahead of myself, first, what is stress?

Stress and allostasis

Stress is an external environmental factor that interacts with your body on some level. It may be chemical, such as pollution, mechanical, like exercise, mental such as work deadlines or even a change in the light/dark cycles. There’s a great number of them, and of course our individual ability to deal with them differ. Here it’s time to introduce ‘allostasis’, a newer concept when talking about stress and it’s great as it hints at why stress can be good and bad.

The word translates as ‘moving to stay still’. Ordinarily your body always tries to keep everything running smoothly, keeping all the systems the same, and in effect we need a little stress to so this. This stress is information and as acts as a controlling factor, the problem starts when this information becomes too much of the body to use to keep everything stable.

The body reacts to stress via the nervous and immune systems. Cortisol is the most famous ‘stress’ hormone and a great example of how this works, because whilst over producing this hormone is defiantly bad for your health, the cortisol blocking drugs can in themselves be dangerous because we need it to survive. Similarly other factors like norepinephrine, cytokines and TNFα are all needed by the body, but their over production is also bad news. Your allostatic load is the long term effects of stress that are a out of balance, it’s important to realise that they can be good or bad.

Allostasis, McEwen (22) by permission from the New England Journal of Medicine. Copyright 1998 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

McEwen  New England Journal of Medicine.

Allostasis and the cycle of stress and recovery

As important to stress is your body’s response to it, this usually manifests as a cycle of stress and recovery. The stressor is felt – usually meaning there’s some form of chemical change or upset in the cells or tissues –  the body reacts the body adjusts and then physiologically comes back to where it was. Again exercise is a great example, the activity causes changes in nutrient usage, cell energy output, temperature and chemistry. The body reacts and this reaction helps to return everything to baseline after the training is finished.

The really interesting stuff, both good and bad, happens when your stressors and responses get out of balance.

You may be exercising to stay in shape, but you may also be training to get fitter. So what is training? It’s planned activity that stresses the body, the point is that the response is ‘bigger’ than the stress, this is adaptation. Remember allostatic load can be good or bad and this adaptation, which you body coming back fitter and more able to perform is just that, on the flip side stress can also be too much to recover or adapt to.

When we’re chronically stressed and don’t leave enough time to, or can’t recover properly our health declines. The research shows that lack of sleep, chronic stress and so on can damage brain and body leading to cognitive impairment, increased inflammation, higher body fat levels and so on.

stress symptoms

What factors affect stress

The internal and external environment dictates the allostatic load, physical, emotional and mental stresses are all the same as far as your body is concerned and the responses to it are all mediated the say way.

Stressors are always present at a very low level, but just generally being fitter improves your tolerance so the body doesn’t react as readily. Exercise, good diet and not smoking are big factors here. One aspect of ‘fitness and health’ is the ability to regulate the body more effectively, being able to tightly control the body keeping it close to the straight and narrow and responding in a effective and proportionate way when stressed.

Of course it doesn’t end there and our genetic individuality has a lot to do with this, not just what is coded in our genes of course but also who they’re expressed, these epigenetic factors we look at in the earlier chapters of The DODO Diet.

How do I combat it?

There’s three factors to look at here:

  1. Reduce the triggers of stress
  2. Change or improve your reaction to the trigger
  3. Stress-proof yourself

With any problem there’s some logical steps you go through to put a solution into place. You

  • Identify a problem
  • Define it
  • Think up a range of solutions
  • Break the issue down into manageable chunks (like we did with the diet habits)
  • Select what to work on and the solution you’ll use
  • Give it a go and monitor the results

Dealing with stress 1, 2 & 3

Here’s a step-by-step look at the possible problems and ways of dealing with them.

1) Reduce the triggers of stress

Identify them:

Work: Individuals or situations/tasks Difficult colleagues, ineffective boss etc, too much work, poorly controlled work

Family/social: poor relationships, illness, busy schedule. Spouse, kids, parents and the stress they’re under. 

Self-imposed: poor organisation at work, procrastination. Poorly organised work day, poorly organised social schedule, procrastinating on the internet etc

Physical: diet, training. Too much exercise, the wrong type of exercise, too much food, not enough, poor diet choices

Deal with them where you can:

This involves planning. Once you know what is giving you stress ask

  • Why is this stressful?
  • Can I deal with it?
  • If I can, what are two or three possible solutions?

You’ll note that in some of the examples above there are not solutions. In this case you have to change the way you react to the situation. For others there are solutions you just have to find them. The very act of not just thinking about, but thinking through a stressful situation and thinking up solutions is quite cathartic.

For all the above issues there useful resources that exist, you just have to find what works for you – more links and resources are below

2) Change or improve your reaction to the trigger

This is easiest to explain by looking at some scenarios

Scenario ONE: you have an argument with a colleague at work
Reaction: you go to the vending machine and eat a Snickers
Outcome A: you feel twice as bad

Alternate reaction: go for a walk outside, take deep breaths, try if possible to see the issue from the other person’s side. Think about some of the good things that happened in the last month

Outcome B: Feel a lot more relaxed and no Snickers-induced guilt.

Scenario TWO : Pressure at work because you’re behind schedule, say, writing a book for example (!)
Reaction: Go home, drink bottle of wine, and have take-away
Outcome A: Bad night’s sleep, feel sluggish and have no energy

Alternate reaction: Blow off some steam at the gym, come home, have hot bath and a good meal.

Outcome B: Feel awesome the next day

You see how there are different reactions you can have to specific situations? As much as possible you have to work on reacting the right way and avoiding the knee-jerk comforts such as a bottle or wine or Snickers bar, even if it means identifying those behaviours by writing them down.

False friends

Smoking, booze, naughty foods, they’re all seen as ways to let off a bit of steam or make yourself feel better but in fact they only make the situation worse in the long run. While indulging, you’re heaping more stress into the system, just of a different type. After the fact you feel worse from an emotional standpoint and they may make mentally dealing with the l stress harder as well. With each of these options above find two or three different actions or behaviours you can try instead.

3) Stress-proof yourself

Sleep, exercise and good diet will all help raise the bar at which stress affects you. Remember, though, exercise is another stress so tailor the amounts to your needs.  In addition to getting fitter there are things you can do to also try to change your mindset and find ways to relax effectively.

Meditation

Amazingly not just for Buddhists and hippies. The scientific study of meditation shows that it can have very real effects in a very short space of time. It’s a rapidly growing research field in the health sciences

> 3-minute meditation

Forget incense and nice carpets. This can be done anywhere, even on the train. Simply:

  • Sit up straight, shoulders in line with your hips. No crossed legs or kneeling necessary.
  • Close your eyes
  • Lay your hands open and palms up on your lap
  • Breathe slowly either in through the nose and out through the mouth or both in and out through the mouth, whichever is most comfortable.
  • Clear your mind, concentrate on your breath
  • Thoughts will pop into your head. Not a problem; in fact, it’s part of the processes.
  • Simply clear them and return to concentrating on the rise and fall of your breath.

That is it.

You won’t feel any different after the first few times but give it a few regular sessions and you’ll start to notice the differences in your stress levels, your ability to relax and your attitude to life in general. It’s powerful stuff.

Here’s an excellent guided mediation, the Three Minute Breathing Space

Progressive relaxation technique

Either in bed or stretched out in an armchair, breathe in, tense a muscle or body part, hold for five seconds, then relax the body part and breathe out. Work your way up the body:

  • Feet (curl toes and press your heels down)
  • Feet and front calf (uncurl toes and pull them up towards the knee)
  • Calf muscle
  • Thighs (locking your knees)
  • Buttocks
  • Arms (curling arms up in front of chest)
  • Shoulders (bringing the shoulders up towards the ears)
  • Face (frowning hard)
  • Relax the tense whole body and hold for 5 seconds

With your eyes closed, concentrate on your breath. Repeat if necessary.

Yes, I know, relax, but remember that whole list … so if that’s too much to remember HERE‘s a longer guided PRT video.

Get outside and go for a walk

Walking is like a moving meditation, it triggers the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system, which like a see-saw pushes down the ‘fight and flight’ response.

Try to go somewhere green or with water present and walk at and easy pace. You may wish to just focus on your breath as you do so.

Try to change your mood and mind-set

Some techniques that support a better mood or outlook on life are

  • Giving thanks

It’s easy to slip into the habit of only seeing the negative aspects of a situation. Making a mental list of all the good stuff in your life is the antidote to this.

  • Use counter-factual thinking

Here, instead of focusing on what is missing from your life you imagine your life without one of the good events, people or experiences in it.

  • Help someone

This could be giving to charity, helping someone with something heavy or sending a nice text or email. It sounds trivial but the research shows that people who practise these behaviours feel better about themselves and life in general

  • Do something you’re good at

Usually this means practising a hobby or skill. This helps to put yourself in a positive light

  • Learn to focus

‘Multitasking’ is a lie, it just means lots of little chopped up focussed efforts. this isn’t effective and leads us to be less good at focusing for a longer amounts of time

>  Avoid distraction –  disconnect from the wifi, close the web browsers
> Do your work in blocks or 20 or so minutes where you work on just that, not only is it an effective way to work it practices your focus
> Unplug from the internet
> Read a book not a tablet
> Ignore phone and email prompts
> Try 3-minute meditations

Resources

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre
Part of the University of Oxford Psychiatry dept. A great resources for real practical info on mental health and mindfullness.
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society
University of Massachusetts Medical School, with tons info, resources and great links
Mindfulness Works An organisation to provide help and resources for mindfulness training in the workplace.

UK Charities and health campaigns

Be Mindful Campaign to promote MBCT and MBSR run by the Mental Health Foundation

Books

Zen to Done Leo Babauta
A great spin on the usual organisation and time management books

Bounce: Living the Resilient Life Robert Wicks
Ways for you to deal with stress and even turn it to your advantage.

Selected references

McEwen, B. S. (2002). Sex, stress and the hippocampus: allostasis, allostatic load and the aging process. Neurobiology of aging23(5), 921-939.
Clark, M. S., Bond, M. J., & Hecker, J. R. (2007). Environmental stress, psychological stress and allostatic load. Psychology, health & medicine12(1), 18-30.
Seeman, T. E., Singer, B. H., Rowe, J. W., Horwitz, R. I., & McEwen, B. S. (1997). Price of adaptation: allostatic load and its health consequences: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Archives of internal medicine157(19), 2259-2268.
Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin132(2), 180.

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Fats in the news … again

nuts

veg oil

 … decisions, decisions …

So much of the choices we make both about our own health and the health of the environment around us depends upon our being able to interoperate science, but when we don’t understand the workings of ‘science’ it is easy to have the wool pulled over your eyes.

There’s a great article in the That Guardian today that highlights the 20 things that politicians need to know about science. Politicians usually have not had a career outside politics, and few understand how science works, This is a problem because they have to make decisions based on science findings.

For us the issue is different but the themes are similar.

We are constantly being told that ‘X’ is bad and ‘Y’ is good, never more often than in the world of nutrition or to buy this or that supplement. Here’s two examples making the rounds this week:

“Nuts decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease”

The time was of course when we were told to cut back on all fats, but those times have changed, however healthy foods like eggs for example still get poor press. Saturated fats are still a no-no for many who work in health despite the evidence for their connection to CVD. A good example of the problems of using science to form advice.

“Oils thought of as ‘healthy’ actually raise the risk of cardiovascular disease”

Over the last 40 years we’ve been told to cut the sat fat despite the evidence against it being flimsy, instead we’ve been pushed towards polyunsaturated fats, but now there’s cracks appearing in that advice.

So what to do?

With the advice changing all the time and the pile of research, reading and outdated advice growing what do you do? My take is this.

  1. Keep it as simple as possible and focus on the practical aspects of eating a good diet, which is #’s 2 & 3
  2. Eat a variety of foods – don’t put all your nutritional eggs in one basket
  3. Eat actual food – foods that we have been eating for thousands of years. Their worth is proven by time and experience.
  4. Keep and eye on developments in the health science but be cautious, and learn to read research

On that last point have a look at my roadmap to reading research, this will help you navigate your way through what can be a minefield and possibly help you dispel some worry and not get conned.

You’ll note that the stories above both link oil and fat intake and heart health and the one involves a positive outcome associated with a tried and tested food and the more problematic findings are connected with a new processed choices, this may give us some food for thought.

I think Michael Pollan put it well in his book  The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Eat food
Not too much
Mostly plants

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Sleep Part 2/3: Bad sleep, disease & how to avoid them

Sleep two

Here’s part two … er … you still with me?

Yesterday in part one we introduced sleep, what it is, the context and the ways in which altered sleep quality can alter health, but just how does sleep actually affect your health, body composition and performance, and what can you do to improve it?

As far as improving sleep goes, well, as you may have already guessed there’s a few different options to try and how effective of each one will be for you depends upon the individual.

Similarly poor sleep quality or duration affects us all but the effect is slightly different from person to person. Regardless, they’re all factors that make it harder for you to keep the weight off and your body and brain happy and healthy though. Let’s break down what what they are.

How sleep alters health and function

Sleep, health and death

We know from a lot of big studies that there’s a sweet spot with sleep, studies that look at all-cause mortality, in other words death from any cause, identify a pattern 8 hours sleep tends to be the best for you, for the general population in the UK, or the other side of the world, it doesn’t matter. Sleeping longer is not good nor is sleeping shorter either.

Sleep and appetite

The regulation of appetite, what you want to eat and how much you eat we’ve discussed a in a little detail already (see The DODO Diet page XXX) already. The research is pretty clear that there’s a connection with food intake and sleep quality or duration.

People who don’t sleep much will tend to be fatter and also have increased energy intakes, the affect is even seen children who report better diets when sleep duration is increased. The point is that though this info is interesting is the sleep the cause or just correlation? It’s hard to be sure and we do know that general eating behaviours have a lot to do with it but research shows that satisfaction from a meal is lower in sort duration sleepers, but what is clear is that short duration sleep is connected with insulin and leptin and ghrelin, altering the functioning of the mechanism that balances your energy intake.

Sleep and sugar metabolism

This connection between overly short (and long) problems with blood sugar regulation and insulin metabolism seems pretty clear cut. In fact researchers and clinicians agree that in cases where sugar/insulin metabolism is out of whack looking for possible causes should also include looking at sleep quality, in fact the research shows that in people with sleep problems causes by their weight you can actually improve glucose metabolism by improving their sleep

Sleep and fat metabolism

The research is mixed when it comes to whether or not poor sleep cuts your total energy expenditure over the day. If I had to take a guess I would say it would not, however the balance of what you burn carbs vs fats is altered, with your body switching over to burning more sugars, this, allied with the poorer diet and control of appetite could mean big problems in the long run.

Sleep and the immune system and cancer

We know from the research that shift workers seem to have higher rates or certain diseases like cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions and so on, the mechanism appears to revolve heavily around melatonin. The production of this hormone in the evenings is inhibited by exposure to light and this has big consequences for the immune system and is involved in the development of cancer.

Sleep and mental health

Sleep deprivation effects mood, memory and other cognitive functions, both in adults and children, we know of course that as we age we tend to sleep less and though once thought ‘natural’ we now know that these reductions in sleep duration are connected with the development of depression. So it seems no matter your age sleep is important for the health of your brain and your body.

 

Sleep duration and quality – the factors that control this

Everyone knows periods where because of family life, work, or social schedule we’ve got by on a lot less than we would like to. Here we generally think in terms of a sleep debt that, hopefully – we can make back up by sleeping longer for a few days. Your sleep duration and quality is controlled largely by the following

  • Your genes

Your particular genotype, there exists a few different alleles for genes associated with sleep duration.

  • Your Health

Being overweight or having prostate problems for example, these can both fragment sleep.

  • The environmental #1: Chemical

The food you eat, the drinks you consume and the drugs supplements you take

  • The environmental #2: Physical

        The noise, the light, the temperature and so on

  • Behavioural

        The worries, the habits and other elements of your life

Dwelling on these factors for a minute is be worthwhile if you have sleep problems because these factors inform how you might go about identifying the potential causes

 But …how much should you sleep

OK so some may, genetically, be pre disposed to ‘needing’ less sleep but the research is painting an ever clearer picture, if you want the best health then 7-8 hours a night is the duration to aim for. In practice aiming for more about 8.5 hours is probably smart as life gest in the way

 

How to improve your sleep

sleep three

Sleep Hacks

So how do you improve yours easily and quickly? There’s been a rash of sleep related sleep blogs recently, I prefer to look at things in terms of action and habits in the timeline running up to be and after and then also the environment. Enter the idea of lifestyle ‘hacks’.

This is simply a term for sexing up what are quite often very sensible, effective but mundane changes to your environment or habits.

These hacks fall into three areas,

  1. What you do in the hours before you go to bed
  2. Setting the environment – both the one you’re in before be and the sleeping environment
  3. What happens after you go to bed.

There’s some overlap and some general themes. Also it’s not rocket science but things don’t have to be flashy to work.

 

Before bed

5-7 hours before:

Cease caffeine intake.

This includes coffee, tea, energy drinks and many fizzy drinks. Caffeine has a half life of about 5-6 hours so depending on how sensitive you are you may want to stop earlier. If using a caffeine boost before an evening training session play around with the dose.

3-4 hours before:

Avoid very spicy foods.

These stimulate the sympathetic nervous system – the fight and flight response –  so will raise heart rate and body temperature and delay sleep onset

Write a ‘to-do’ list.

Get everything you need to do down a piece of paper, important or not. You can sort out priorities tomorrow morning, but for now rest safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to remember a thing. Do it three or more hours before bed because you’ll often find that one thought leads to another and some more tasks will occur to you in the next couple of ours.

1-2 hours before:

Unless otherwise needed, such as hot weather or a late gym (or pub!) session, reduce water intake. This will help you avoid having to wake up to go to the toilet.

1 Hour before:

Signal to your body it is bedtime

- Reduce the temperature in the house, open the windows or adjust the heating.
- Dim the lights a little, and
- Stop using anything with a screen like TV’s, computers and smartphones. This is incredibly important as all this helps to trigger melatonin release, which is the hormone that drives sleep.

 

Light Melatonin, your sanity and your love handles

Light is a potent signal to the body, it helps regulate your sleep/wake cycle and directly influences ancient time keeping apparatus in the brain that controls the ‘circadian rhythm’ the daily cycling of hormones, different types of brain activity, even things like when you go to the toilet.

The environment’s impacts on your health and there’s nothing different about sleep. It turns out that we’re designed and calibrated to go to sleep when it gets dark (and cooler)

Melatonin, the sleep hormone is produced when light levels drop towards the end of the day. This signals the onset of sleep. In fact melatonin is very interesting hormone, it’s an antioxidant that has a wide range of chemical function. This is independent of the sleep function itself a process that decreases oxidation by putting on the breaks on metabolism and slowing energy generation down. As a governor of sleep onset and also quality it stands between you and a lot of the problems mention above as well as supporting repair and recovery.

Melatonin production increases as light temperature (colour/wavelength spread) and intensity changes. The amount of blue light drops at the end of the day, things become a little more … orange. Flip-reverse this and you find that exposing people to blue light before bed decreases their melatonin levels and can mess with sleep onset.

 

After Bedtime

Unlit bathroom trips

The same holds true for nocturnal trips to the loo as it does for light before bed. Try and stay in the dark or near dark and turning on a light will disturb sleep patterns. And, no, don’t check your email.

Recording thoughts

In today’s world after lights out is often the time that the mind clears and important ideas pop into your head. You might want to keep a large pad and a pencil within easy reach, this way you can scribble the thought down in large writing in the dark.

The Environment

The bedroom environment should be

Comfortable: 

The bed’s mattress duvet and pillows should all be clean and fit for purpose. Studies clearly show that when your sleeping partner stirs of fidgets then usually so will you soon after so get as big a bed as possible. Pillows should be replaced every few years at the outside.

Try and have an adjustable duvet, or a selection of covers for warmer and cooler months.

Cool:

The air temperature should be a few degrees cooler than you would have your lounge and the room should have ventilation. This for most people is about 17-19 degrees centigrade

Dark:

Sleep cycles are dictated to a large extent by light so make sure you allow for deep sleep by shutting out as much light as possible. There’s some interesting research that suggests that your eyes aren’t the only features that can detect light, this means a eye mask is good but not enough. Keeping the room dark avoids that light toxicity problem and also avoids the inconvenience of a eye mask.

Quiet:

This one is obvious. Environmental stimuli will disturb sleep so take a good look at this. White noise generators exist that help by generating a type of sound that covers up all sorts of extraneous noise and which your mind then ‘tunes’ out.

Also, is there a TV in your bedroom?

Get rid of it.

Research clearly demonstrates a link between having a TV in the bedroom and decreased sleep duration. Also couples who have a TV in the bedroom generally had sex more often. Leave the TV in the lounge.

 In Part Three …

So what do you do what all this doesn’t work? In part three of this monster we’ll look at the ways to trouble shoot sleep, the gadgets and supplements out there that might help and what to do if your sleep, or rather lack of it, is becoming a real problem … 

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Sleep part 1/3: What is it and why do we need it?

Sleep one

 

Expanded Bonus Chapter of The DODO Diet: Sleep Pt 1

In the book we quickly went through the why’s what’s and how’s of sleep and getting more of it. Here’s something the original draft, much expanded, version of that chapter, starting with pt1 the background to the issue. 

We all know that sleep is good for us, the effects of one night’s bad sleep will tell you that. What few people understand is how good for you it is. People who miss out of a little sleep perform in tasks the next day no better than drunks, we also know that those chronically deprived of sleep have much higher incidence of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. In fact considering that unlike exercise or good diet you don’t have to do anything other than lie there, why do we give it so little emphasis?

Most of us want more, but we never seem to get it. We enjoy it, but never make more time for it. We desire the results it brings, but we never make it a priority. One way to change this is by realising the cost of chronic lack of sleep and in this way no health and fitness book is complete without a discussion on sleep. Sleep effects who we are, from our personalities to the workings of our bodies, and what’s more sleeping better or longer can trigger weight loss all by itself.

Think about that for a second, by literally doing nothing you can make your weight-loss easier and quicker as well as improving a range of different pieces of the health puzzle. How is this possible? The magic is to found in the very workings of sleep, and why you need it every day.

Everything we’ve talked about so far in this book has been about getting your immediate goals sorted, but with the pay-off of getting some really nice long term health benefits into the bargain. Sleep is no different. Your short term goal is to get leaner quicker and more easily, my longer term goals for you is to stick around longer and in better shape to enjoy it.

We’re both winners – if we concentrate on the right things and make it easy to do long term.

In this chapter we’ll cover

  • Why sleep is important
  • The improvements you can see and feel with better sleep – long and short term
  • How to get more sleep
  • How to get better quality sleep
  • Tips and tricks to get you more and better sleep in minutes
  • Tools and apps for further tinkering if you should want to

Sleep: The mysterious healer.

There’s an intrinsic problem when thinking about sleep of course, you don’t consciously experience the vast majority of it. Apart from a few quickly fading memories of a dream there’s not much to go on. In fact the only time we have any idea about sleep is when you have had a particularly bad (or good) night’s sleep. You wake up groggy (or refreshed), crawling to the coffee pot (or ready to tackle the world), but with absolutely no idea of actually why you feel like this. Without experiencing the actual process you can only feel the after effects. Problem is we tend to prioritize positive things we experience and that’s one of the reasons why we’ll take the reward of TV now over a notional ‘good night’s sleep’. Again discipline is called into action,… discipline or habit, that is (for more on which is more useful check out the habits chapter).

The science of sleep has really come in the last 40 years as we have improved our ability to monitor what is happening in the brain and body. Science has also looked at the connection between sleep deprivation and health, monitoring relatively short periods of poor sleep on unfortunate volunteers in the lab. Another, probably more critical stand of research is looking at the correlations between sleep patterns in shift workers and night workers and their long term health, and the results have been pretty eye opening.

While most still think of sleep in terms of what is going on in their head it is much more than that. Yes, have a bad night and you’ll feel the effects on the brain first, muddled thinking, lack of ability to concentrate and so on. However get several in a row and effects start to impact your body as well, it’s a creeping and pervasive thing slowly wrecking your health, and physique. Of course with any stress – and poor sleep is a stress – the poison is in the dose and the longer the issue goes on then the worse the potential for problems gets. This is important because many of us lead lifestyles that don’t emphasize sleep; a social life, kids, shift work, all impinge on sleep. And then of course there’s the social conditioning, the attitude “I’ll sleep when I am dead”, the problem is, with that mind-set the evidence is clear: that point may be sooner than you think.

So what is this mysterious and incredibly important process anyway?

Circadian Rhythm

The first thing to realise is that sleep fits into a wider picture: the daily, or ‘circadian’ rhythm.

Circadian rhythm and sleep

An how circadian rhythm and sleep fit together.

 You might think your day is mapped out by your conscious brain, and social factors but peel that back and you find that the way our body’s work is  locked into a daily cycle that has all sorts of effects upon us. Swings in the production and circling hormones in the blood, changes in physiological function and so on.

For example in the late evening cortisol is low, and it rises towards the morning and is in part responsible for our waking. Melatonin on the other hand is low all day and rises in the evening and night, this is the signal for sleep.

Sleep and Hormones

The daily pattern of hormone release

Source: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca

The effects don’t end there, our skills and behaviours are also effected. Muscle strength and cardiovascular efficiency is highest for most in evening from about 5-8pm. Our short term memory and ability to concentrate is at it’s best in the late morning and around lunch. When you look at the cyclical nature of many of the functions we take fro granted you start to realise the far reaching effects of circadian rhythm, and given that one governing factor of this, that keeps the rhythm on track is sleep the potential for consequences if you mess with your sleep. This lovely little graphic from  YassineMrabet spells it out …

Biological_clock_human.svg

What is also interesting is that the symptoms of disease also seem to have definite patterns, asthma is worse in the morning than the afternoon, stroke in the early mornings and heart attacks increasing through the mornings and dropping off again in the afternoon. With all the effects upon our physiology the problems with have with our health are also felt in a cyclical manner to.

This daily rhythm is governed by an internal clock but it is adjusted daily by the environment around us, in particular the daily light/dark cycles of the day. This clock is really composed of the RNA and proteins and the interplay of rising and falling levels of certain proteins switching off and on the genes that make them acts as a kink of flywheel or governor setting the pace of the tic-toc.

Sleep itself

The process: sleep isn’t one continuous thing homogeneous process, there’s phases or ‘cycles’ in the sleep process with stages of deeper and lighter sleep – which is important to understand especially if you’re one of the many that wake in the night and are worried about what this means for your sleep quality, but more on that later.

Each of these different flavours of sleep have their own distinct things going on and effects of the body and brain, the stages of sleep are usually described like this:

Stage one: NREM stage 1 – this is the initial stage as you fall asleep.
Stage two: NREM stage 2
Stage three: MREM stage 3
Stage four: REM

In stages one to three you gradually become more deeply sleep, and as you transition from one stage to the next defined changes in the level and type of activity in the brain can be seen. Finally you enter REM sleep where the body is paralysed as the brain ‘disconnects’ from the body. This is necessary because the type of activity seen in the brain is very much like of the awake brain.

These stages are repeated through the night 2 or more times as you transition from periods of near waking to very deep sleep. Generally you find that the latter NREM stages and the REM stage are the ones repeated most often as these phases are away from initial onset of sleep.

The more we learn about sleep the more we understand why it is so vital, and this is a quick overview of sleep and the types of problems associated with poor sleep. In PART TWO we’ll look at what can alter sleep and what you can do to get more and better sleep.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Drew Price is a Registered Nutritionist and the author of The DODO Diet, a practical guide to tailoring intermittent fasting to your needs be it fat loss, better health or lean muscle and performance gains.

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Book Review: Paleo Fitness by Darryl Edwards

 

Do it like your great, great [.......] great, great grandpappy did it.

 As Socrates is famed for saying: ‘the best way to screw up a person’s squat is to put a barbell on their back’.

I may be paraphrasing that, but the truth is that many people find exercise and fitness confusing.  Gyms and training equipment are for a great number of people barriers to training, as opposed to tools for training. If you’re trying to improve people’s health using the normal gym based advice this is a big problem.

Paleo Fitness claims to offer a solution here.

‘Paleo’ in the health/fitness world is shorthand for using the framework of evolution as a basis for health advice, it’s most usually connected with food. For example, in a ‘paleo diet’ grains legumes and dairy are minimised with the rationale being that we did not evolve eating these things, so we’re probably less adapted to these and more adapted to the other stuff i.e. the foods we did eat through most of our time here.

Now, the ‘paleo’ argument has problems and valid counter arguments. Personally I am on the fence – diet prescription should be driven by the needs of the individual you’re working with – but when it boils down to it the point is this: health and fitness is REALLY complicated, and if you can come up with a better starting point/tool/framework to look at these complex issues with than evolutionthen please let me know.

… back to the book.

The author Darryl Edwards is a trainer, coach and lecturer of health and fitness from London who argues that the same paleo ideas hold for activity and movement, and that the most benefit can be gained from seeing your movement through the lens of evolution.Move how you’re designed to move. This approach is very similar to the MovNat type philosophy, though Darryl, as far as I can see, has had more of a practical and urban slant on his work from the start. For my part in terms of basic fitness and function it’s hard to find huge faults with these ‘paleo fitness’ arguments. The way we move has developed … evolved, over millions of years as our bodies changed. The hardware: the composition and placement of muscle, tendons, ligaments cartilage and bone evolved and with it so did the software that runs it: the movement patterns wired into the nervous system.

What this all means, and what is conveyed in the book,  is that you have a set of ways you’re designed to move (push, pull, squat, bend, carry, etc.) and these are the fundamentals that make up the basis of all your useful movements. They are the tools you’re designed to use, so use them. My experience as an S&C guy shows me that indeed these are the movements that are the best choices for getting stronger, fitter and leaner, that’s not the whole story of course with pre and rehab movements etc., but in short: the (very) old stuff works.

So why write a book about them?

The problem is the fitness industry. To make any money you have to stand out and ‘bring something new to the market’. Enter the bullshit, the frippery, the ab-o-sizers and the shaky-weights. You see the old ways work, but they don’t sell. The cynic says of course that tagging something ‘paleo’ is a way of riding a wave of popularity to sell product. Maybe yes, but if tagging something useful ‘paleo’ gets it into the spotlight then that’s all good

… again though I’m side-tracking myself.

Paleo Fitness is a more holistic (my word, not his) look at fitness bringing together more than just the moving around bit. The exercise descriptions are great, there’s large, clear, clean photos (a criticism here is that there could have been one or two more pictures here and there, but this is of the publisher, not the author). There’s some really new fresh types of training and drills, and brings them all together with step by step plans detailing how to progress along the path. Topics covered include the basic movement patterns, balance and coordination drills, strength development, mobility, conditioning and so on.

In addition to this there’s FAQ’s on many health topics (sleep etc.), a nutrition primer detailing the basics like proteins, types of fat and so on, an all-important diet myth-busting section and a two week meal plan as well as recipes.

Would I recommend it? Yes.

I think Darryl has done a great job here. Paleo Fitness has a lot to offer, and to a wide audience as well. It is framework that a sick, overweight person could use, but is also has advice, skills and drills that many elite athletes I’ve met would benefit greatly from.  It doesn’t suffer from the narrow, specialist view that technical training manuals can, but it’s also more useful to an advanced trainee or athlete than a ‘general fitness’ book would be. It’s also clear and simple, it ticks a lot of boxes.

Reviewing something you always feel obliged to find faults and if I was to add some more possible negatives one would be that at 176 pages the book is too short. Many of the more peripheral issues, like why you can still get fat on a low fat diet for example, were dealt with well, but I would have liked to see a little more detail. That’s me though, and note that again this is not a real criticism, 800 page fitness books don’t sell, consequently they don’t get made.

Another issue would be that by using the ‘paleo’ tag, you’re painting yourself into a corner, and I know it’s a label that is going to turn some people off, people who would benefit from a little reprogramming of their exercise and movements. I know that paleo is Darryl’s thing, I just feel given the variety and quality of the exercise content there’s a very wide audience that would benefit, and I just hope that people critical of paleo take a look at this book to.

Read more about the author at his site here

You can buy the book here

P.S. It’s not all fasting, I’ll be adding the odd post about things that I think can and will make a difference to you health and performance including reviews of books and other health & fitness products

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Welcome to the DODO site

This is the new site for The DODO Diet, the Day On, Day Off diet, a form of intermittent fasting that can be tailored to your needs be it fat loss, muscle gain or doing either of those whilst improving your health.

Over the next weeks and months I’ll be adding notes to accompany the book. In addition I’ll be resources to help you get the most from your fasting as well as your eating, covering diet and nutrition, training and exercise and other important lifestyle factors like sleep and stress.

These are the factors that, in theory, drive your health and fitness, but it your behaviours and actions that make the difference on the real world so we’ll be looking at those as well and framing the information in reality and making it as practical as possible.

 

 

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