What Is The Paleo Diet (a.k.a. The Caveman Diet)?

Caveman Diet

The Caveman Diet: The Original Human Diet

The Paleo Diet, also known as the “Caveman Diet”, is a nutritional protocol that is intended to mimic the diet of our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers that lived during, and survived through, the Paleolithic era. Overall, it is a low-carb diet, but differs from other low-carb protocols in very specific ways, as well explain below.

This particular diet is actually our favorite dietary protocol here at HealthSnap, with the Ketogenic Diet being a close second (note: the Paleo Diet and Ketogenic Diets are actually quite similar). We strongly believe, and the research agrees with us, that the Paleo Diet is the healthiest way to eat because it is the only nutritional protocol that takes into consideration our genetic makeup.

So, why mimic the diet of our ancestors? How is the diet aligned with our genetics?

The theory behind the diet is that our genetic makeup today is virtually the same as that of our ancestors who lived 40,000 or so years ago during the Paleolithic era (genes are very slow to change, evolution takes place on VERY large timescales). The Paleolithic era was one of the harshest moments in time for the human species, and yet we are the only species of human to survive this era (the Neanderthals, for example, did not survive).

During this era, we experienced diverse environmental conditions, exposure to certain food sources, as well as variable food availability. We had to survive on the African savannah, as well as on the sea shoreline during the Ice Ages. We likely experienced periods of feast and famine, as food sources were scarce. We had to be hunter-gatherers (working in teams to hunt and gather food), we had to be fit, we had to be mobile, and we had to be smart in order to survive.

It’s obvious that we were genetically fit to survive this period because we are the only species TO survive this period. Our genetics must be something quite special. Thus, any lifestyle choice that closely aligns ourselves with our genetics would seem like a prudent one.

This doesn’t mean that we need to go the Arctic to experience the extreme cold to mimic the Ice Ages (although science is showing that there are many health benefits of periodic cold exposure), or that we need to starve (although science is showing the benefits of intermittent fasting, which is fasting for brief periods of time). What about dressing like a caveman, acting like a caveman, or giving up all modern technology? NO. What it does mean is that mimicking the energy (a.k.a. food) availability and density we experienced during that time may be a healthy thing to do. Why?

The advent of farming and agriculture occurred only approximately 10,000 years ago. If our genes are slow to change, and we carry the same genetic makeup of our ancestors, this means that the consumption of edible grains and dairy products through farming and modern agriculture is quite simply alien to our genes. In short, the only thing that has changed in 40,000 or so years is that the environment that our genes are expressed in.

So, what exactly did our ancestors eat? What should we eat on a Caveman Diet?

Since the diet is modeled after our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this means that we should aim to eat the foods that hunter-gatherers ate during that time period. Or rather, eliminate the foods that they likely never experienced. So let’s start with a list of what to NOT eat. A list of foods that they likely never experienced, and thus should be avoided on a caveman diet, is the following:

FOODS TO AVOID

  • Grains and refined carbohydrates (wheat, barley, rice, bread etc.)
  • Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, etc.)
  • Dairy
  • Sugars, soda’s, candy
  • Alcohol

I know, all the fun things, right?

This leaves us with the following:

FOODS TO EAT

  • Grass-fed and free-range meat (ruminants like cows were meant to eat grass, not grains which they are fed today)
  • Wild-caught seafood (not farm raised salmon)
  • Fresh organic vegetables (not GMO-based vegetables; from a statistical and risk analysis point of view, messing with the genetics of mother nature by genetically modifying foods is a dangerous thing, and can have unforeseen consequences)
  • Fresh organic fruits (although sparingly because modern fruit is high in simple sugars)
  • Nuts, seeds, spices, and some tubers

How do we know cavemen ate this way?

Again, since the farming is a relativity recent invention in the context of the lifetime of our species, we likely never experienced edible grains or dairy (other than breast milk) in our diet. Furthermore, sugar consumption, if it took place at all in the ancient world, occurred via the consumption of fruits, which were only seasonally available.

We can also look at fossil evidence, which shows that our species utilized stone tools to cut meat and bone marrow. Not only that, but our large brain is also evidence of our diet. By consuming nutrient-dense meat, instead of large amounts of vegetation (like ruminants or gorillas), humans were able to trade stomach mass for brain mass, allowing us to become smarter. An added benefit to this is that, due to a smaller stomach, humans gained mobility advantages compared to other species. All of these things were critical to our survival as a species.

So, Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?

A plethora of research in biology, biochemistry, and other disciplines indicate that the Standard American Diet (SAD), or any other similar diet which contains large amounts of refined foods, sugar, and unhealthy trans fats, is the root of modern disease and health complications such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune disease. Some reasons why the SAD is detrimental to our health?

1) Chronic consumption of high carbohydrate foods leads to metabolic dysfunction

Our genetics are not adapted to consumption of large quantities of carbohydrates. As mentioned above, we were never continuously exposed to high carbohydrate foods. Consuming large amounts of carbohydrates leads to elevated blood sugar levels and thus elevated levels of insulin (insulin helps bring glucose into cells so that it may be used for energy). If we consistently consume large amounts of carbohydrates over time, chronic insulin release can make us become insulin resistant (resistant to the action of insulin). This leads to the development of metabolic syndrome. Not only that, but chronic insulin signaling (i.e. the effects that insulin has on other cellular processes) can impact the expression of oncogenes and thus the increased risk of cancer development. Higher carbohydrate diets have also been associated with higher mortality rates. By consuming lower levels of carbohydrates, we can improve our blood-sugar and insulin sensitivity, help prevent the expression of oncogenes, and potentially improve our lifespan.

2) Grains, legumes, and dairy, which are common staples in the Standard American Diet, are immunogenic foods

Grains are seeds of grass and don’t have fight-or-flight mechanisms. Anything without a fight-or-flight mechanism of protection evolutionarily develops other means of defense. In plants and seeds of grass, these are chemicals called lectins. Research is starting to show that all autoimmune diseases are linked to the gut somehow. The reason for this is that lectins from grains and legumes can, over time, punch holes through the gut, resulting in what’s known as a “leaky gut”. Our gut houses the largest concentration of immune cells in the body because the gut is the only area where the outside world can come into contact with our insides. Once the gut is penetrated, large particles of undigested food can pass through the intestinal lining where they don’t belong. These large particles of food show a striking resemblance to our own bodies proteins, but are just ever so slightly different that they trigger an immune response. And because the immune system is triggered, antibodies are formed. But, since these large particles show resemblance to our own bodies proteins, these newly made antibodies not only target these large foreign particles, but they can also go on to attack our own bodies proteins.

Finally, microRNA’s and certain peptides found in dairy and milk (other than breast milk), are foreign to the human body and are also recognized by our immune system, triggering inflammation.

By adopting a Paleo Diet lifestyle, we automatically remove these offending items from our Standard American Diet, putting us in a better position to improve our healthspan and lifespan. A brief outline of all of the health benefits of the Paleo Diet are listed below (there are a ton of references & stated benefits of the diet, too many to list in this one post, so we will list some of the most important and relevant ones here, and save the others for a more in-depth analysis in another post):

BENEFITS OF THE PALEO DIET

Wait, but didn’t our ancestors live brutal lives and die young?

Yes, they led brutal lives, and most died quite young, but this is not due to what they ate. The ones that did survive youth were free from modern degenerative disease in old age and had strong bones (as evidenced by fossil records), and likely lived quite long.

For a simple explanation, check out this video by John Durant on The Colbert Report.

For a more detailed explanation, check out this paper by Dr. Loren Cordain.

The Bottom Line

Adopting a Paleo Diet can be a very wise and healthy lifestyle choice. To get started right away, here are a few pointers:

  • Eat meat (preferably grass-fed), fresh vegetables and fruit (preferably organic), nuts, and fish (preferably wild-caught).
  • Avoid grains, legumes, potatoes, carbs, and sugar. Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Skip one meal every now and then (perhaps once a week).
  • Add variation in everything you do:
    • Don’t jog for hours, but go on walks with bursts of sprinting in between.
    • Exercise briefly with varying intensity. Lift weights, and go to the gym a few times a week (30 minutes – 1 hour each time is more than enough)
  • Relax, keep stress low, and get plenty of sleep.

Final Parting Thoughts

There is something important to be said about Paleo. We are human. We should align our lives with our genetics. We should work with nature rather than against her. And it just so happens that nature did not intend for us to eat sugar in high quantities. And a high quantity doesn’t just mean the candies, sodas, etc. in addition to our base diet. It also means the carbs, because carbs by definition are sugar (i.e., multiple sugar units linked together). Nature also didn’t intend for us to eat immunogenic foods like grains (which are seeds of grass), or large amounts of grassy foods for that matter (humans can’t digest cellulose, one of the primary components of grassy foods, while ruminants like cattle can do this, as they have specialized machinery in their gut to do this).

Finally, while by nature the Paleo Diet is low carb and aims to minimize carbs and sugar, it’s also important to recognize that you can’t avoid carbs and sugar altogether. You invariably get some carbs and sugar from vegetables and from fruits (especially modern fruits which are bred to be very high in sugar). The point here is that quality and quantity matter. Keep the carb/sugar intake very low (to prevent chronic insulin release and blood sugar spikes), and get the carbs (and fiber) you need from non-starchy vegetables and fruits (note: fiber is an important staple of a healthy diet, but it is a common misconception that you need grains to get fiber).

Even if you did try to avoid all carbs, it turns out your body compensates by making sugar! It does this by breaking down glycogen stores in muscle, and by synthesizing glucose from other building blocks in a process known as gluconeogenesis, but more on these topics in another post! For now… Peace, Love… and Paleo!

Still curious? Want to learn more about the Paleo Diet?

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Other Links & Resources

  1. Research & Clinical Trials supporting the Paleo Diet:
  2. Paleo Diet Books:
  3. More introductory Paleo resources:
  4. “How to Keep Feces Out of Your Bloodstream (or Lose 10 Pounds in 14 Days)” – https://tim.blog/2010/09/19/paleo-diet-solution/
  5. The Paleo Diet for Autoimmune Conditions – https://www.thepaleomom.com/start-here/the-autoimmune-protocol/
  6. “How to Reverse Aging with Art De Vany” – https://tim.blog/2017/05/12/art-de-vany/
  7. “Art De Vany on The New Evolution Diet” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsLyp8XloCE
  8. “De Vany on Steroids, Baseball, and Evolutionary Fitness” – http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2010/03/de_vany_on_ster.html
  9. Robb Wolf on Evolutionary Medicine – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NglsDFJVG8&t=4231s

NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.

Dietician Kristin Kirkpatrick tries the ketogenic diet for 30 days. Here’s what happened.

Dietician-Tries-Ketogenic-Diet
Courtesy of Kristin Kirkpatrick

I tried the ketogenic diet for 30 days. Here’s what happened.

“I’ve never put a patient on a diet I haven’t tried myself, so I knew I needed to experience the ketogenic diet personally.”

In an article published on today.com, dietician Kristin Kirkpatrick describes her experience with a ketogenic diet. She’s a dietician by trade, and never puts any of her clients on a diet that she has never tried. One day, one of her clients expressed an interest in the ketogenic diet. So she gave it a shot.

The overall gist? She had some trouble adjusting to the diet at first (this is typically experienced with people when they transition from high-carb to low-carb, and is called the “Keto Flu” or “Low Carb Flu”). However, after this initial transition period, “the cloud lifted” and she felt great, lost weight, and curbed her constant hunger cravings 🙂

Check out her article to read more about her journey with the ketogenic diet.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.

What Is The Ketogenic Diet?

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This will be the first post in a series of posts about the ketogenic diet. We hope you enjoy!

The Ketogenic Diet: Low Carb + High Fat

The ketogenic diet has been around for quite some time now, one could argue as early as 400 BC when the physicians of ancient Greece noticed that epilepsy could be treated by altering diet and by fasting. Over recent years, it has become increasingly popular due to its health benefits (from treating epilepsy to starving cancer), thus prompting scientists to study it more in depth.

In a nutshell, the ketogenic diet is a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in fat, and moderate in protein. When consumed in this particular ratio, the body is forced to burn fats for energy instead of carbohydrates. This is a process known as ketosis. The ketogenic diet essentially mimics fasting (which also induces ketosis), but you don’t actually have to fast. [Note: the ketogenic diet induces ketosis, NOT ketoacidosis, which is a very different condition. You can learn more about the differences in this article by Dr. Peter Attia.]

How does the ketogenic diet work?

There are three main macronutrients that each of our cells utilize for energy: 1) sugar (a.k.a. glucose), which comes from the breakdown of carbohydrates, 2) amino acids, which come from the breakdown of protein, and 3) ketones, which come from the breakdown of fat. Our cells are metabolically flexible, which means that they can use any of these three compounds for energy at any time, depending on their availability (which turns out to be an incredibly useful feature, but we’ll save this for another post). Normally, our cells primarily utilize glucose and fat for energy, while amino acids are used as building blocks to make other vital things like enzymes and muscle protein.

When we consume a diet with large amounts of carbohydrates (like the Standard American Diet), we end up becoming heavily reliant on burning carbohydrates for energy. As we’re now discovering, this is not so good. Consumption of large amounts of carbohydrates leads to elevated blood sugar levels and thus elevated levels of insulin (insulin helps bring glucose into cells so that it may be used for energy). If we consistently consume large amounts of carbohydrates over time, chronic insulin release can make us become insulin resistant (resistant to the action of insulin). Not only that, but chronic insulin signaling (i.e. the effects that insulin has on other cellular processes) can result in the expression of oncogenes and thus the increased risk of cancer development.

However, when we consume a diet that is low in carbohydrates, high in healthy fats, and moderate in protein, our body is forced to burn fat for energy. When fat is burned, ketones are produced. Ketones are miracle molecules. Our cells can use them for energy in a much more efficient manner than glucose (for the science fans, ketones are directly imported into the mitochondria and used for energy, and don’t need to go through the Krebs cycle preparation process like glucose does). In a sense, we get more bang for our buck when using ketones instead of glucose, in terms of energy.

Eating low carb and high fat is not the only way to produces ketones, however. Anytime we fast, we actually trigger the production of ketones, since in a fasted state our blood levels of glucose are low which triggers the body to mobilize stored fat for energy. This is the process that keeps us alive in times of starvation. This is also why we stated above that the ketogenic diet mimics fasting.

What are the health benefits of a ketogenic diet?

There are a plethora of health benefits of ketones and thus a ketogenic diet. Research has shown that ketones can suppress oncogenes, decrease inflammation, promote healthy cell metabolism & cell signaling, promote healthy body weight and physiology, improve good cholesterol and other cardiovascular markers, and enhance cognitive ability. The famous Hollywood producer Jim Abrahams successfully treated his son who had severe epilepsy with a ketogenic diet and started a foundation about ketogenic diet therapies as a result of this. The ketogenic diet has also been shown to reverse cancerous tumors (see Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s website for a plethora of resources and references).

In conclusion, the ketogenic diet is a very healthy diet with many benefits. It is also a very promising therapeutic regime for certain diseases and health conditions. Here at HealthSnap, we actually follow a ketogenic diet (we cycle between Paleo diets and Ketogenic diets, and have been doing so for the past 5 years or so).

What about the fat? I’ve always heard fat was bad for me?

If you’re worried about eating fat, don’t be. We will go into more detail on this in another post, but for decades, fat has been demonized as a culprit for obesity and cardiovascular disease for no good reason as there is no good scientific evidence to support these claims. Only recently has the mainstream science and nutrition community started to recognize that fat isn’t the issue, sugar is. Here are some resources to check out in case you are worried about fat:

  1. A major scientific study released last year in 2017 found these results: “High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality. Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke. Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered in light of these findings.”
  2. An excellent review article highlights that there is no link between saturated fat and heart disease.
  3. A talk by Dr. Peter Attia – “The Straight Dope on Cholesterol”.
  4. Gary Taubes on “Why We Get Fat”.
  5. Gary Taubes on “Fat & Sugar”.

Other Links & Resources

  1. Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s Website – Ketogenic Diets for cancer, brain tumors & epilepsy
  2. Dr. Peter Attia’s Website – Ketosis & Ketogenic/Low Carb Diets, Heart Disease, Cholesterol (and why fat/cholesterol isn’t bad)

Interested in learning more about the ketogenic diet?

Go VIP (it’s free!) and receive exclusive content from the HealthSnap team about the ketogenic diet, nutrition, and health & fitness in general.

NOTE: Nothing in this post is written or intended to be medical advice or to replace medical advice. We are not doctors. We are merely individuals with a passion for health, fitness, nutrition, and scientific research.

Diving Into Cancer Metabolism: Is It Possible To Starve Cancer?

Cancer-Metabolism-Starving-Cancer-1

What Is Cancer Metabolism?

Cancer metabolism is the process of how cancer cells process nutrients and use them for energy. It is well known that cancer metabolism is a deviation from normal cell metabolism. When becoming cancerous, cells switch their metabolism from a normal utilization of glucose and fats (glucose and fatty acid oxidation) to an abnormal, less efficient but more rapid, utilization of glucose.

Glycolysis in itself doesn’t cause cancer per se, but it is a necessary consequence (i.e. necessary for cancer to develop). For example, our immune cells, red blood cells, cells lining the gut, and fast twitch muscle fibers, are all glycolytic, and they aren’t cancerous. They are glycolytic in order to rapidly proliferate (immune cells in response to infection, or gut cells to continuously be an effective barrier in the stomach), or in order to provide rapid energy when oxygen isn’t available in an adequate amount of time (e.g. sprinting or high intensity exercise which requires rapid energy where you aren’t able to get oxygen to the cells to make energy in such a short time frame).

Cancer cells want to reproduce and grow, and to avoid death. Glycolysis is therefore a mechanism to provide energy in a rapid enough manner in order to proliferate quickly, as well as provide building blocks for its new cells (this is called glutaminolysis, which is a pathway that is activated in parallel with glycolysis in cancer).

Otto Warburg, a German scientist, and doctor, first noticed this some 50 years ago: Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.”

Exploiting Cancer Metabolism By Removing Dietary Glucose

If glucose (i.e. sugar) is cancer’s primary food, then is it possible to starve the cancer of its food in order to program the cancer cell to die? Of course, this is a bit simplistic. But it turns out that this theory might not be all that far off…

Approximately 95% of cancer is caused by epigenetic factors (i.e. your environment). Of this, ~35% is due to diet. To me, this is a huge sign. If diet can induce cancer than diet can potentially cure cancer.

It is well known that you can alter your metabolism based on the foods you eat. For example, a high carbohydrate diet will result in chronic insulin release which promotes fat storage at the expense of fat utilization. This has all sorts of signaling consequences. For example, chronically elevated levels of insulin thus can lead to “insulin resistance” and thus metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and other potential conditions such as heart disease (and as I’ll make the case, potentially cancer). In essence, you switch your body to rely primarily on glucose, as opposed to fat. And this has consequences.

Elevated sugar levels, either from dietary sugar or carbohydrate (because carbohydrate is a polymer of sugar and breaks down into sugar when digested in the body), triggers cells in the body to signal that they are “full” of energy (for those of a technical scientific bent, this is due to suppression of AMPK). Having energy is a good thing, but as recent evidence suggests… perhaps a consistent level of being “full” is not such a good thing. Let me explain…

A Spoon Full of Hormesis Helps the Cancer Metabolism Go Down

Your body needs a certain amount of stress in order to operate efficiently, and to survive and grow. Sometimes this is referred to as hormesis. Think of exercising. Our muscles grow stronger when we “stress” them. We are, what renowned statistician Nassim Taleb refers to as, “antifragile”. We are the opposite of fragile. We grow when we are exposed to stress (in reasonable amounts). This is present in virtually every aspect of our body. A small amount of “stress” is good: and let me clarify, I’m referring to acute stress, not chronic stress. Chronic stress is a recipe for disaster (you wouldn’t lift weights 24/7 would you? Your muscles couldn’t handle it…).

Even our cells need some stress to ensure proper functioning. On a cellular level, there is a communication pathway (a signaling pathway) that actively works to prevent tumor formation. On the one hand, it is activated by mechanisms not yet understood (the regulation of the cell “skeleton” and others), but what we do know is that it is also regulated by the body’s “energy gauge”. When we experience some metabolic stress (from lack of sugar), this pathway is active and works properly. When we are “full”, this pathway is suppressed, which leads to the expression of cancer genes (oncogenes), and the initiation of cancer metabolism.

As with all things, both too much and too little energy might not be a good thing (for example, too much energy is a good thing for fighting infections, since your immune cells need energy to combat the infection). But, as described above, it appears they aren’t equal: too much energy might be more harmful than too little energy, at least in the context of cancer development and cancer metabolism.

Thus, if sugar consumption is not beneficial because it leads to a consistent state of “being full”, with “too much” energy, then perhaps this suggests that we need to take a break every now and then from the consumption of sugar. In essence, we need a little bit of metabolic “stress”. For example, perhaps switching to a low carb diet (such as the Paleo Diet or the Ketogenic diet), fasting, or switching the fuel source of the body to a substance that does not elevate insulin, such as ketones,2 may be beneficial.

Furthermore, evidence exists that lowering blood glucose may be beneficial as a cancer therapy. Type II diabetes patients, taking medications (specifically, metformin) to reduce blood glucose, generally get less cancer. Additionally, animal models on a caloric restricted diet also appears to improve cancer outcomes (since a primary component diets are glucose, caloric restricted diets are lower in glucose).

Of course, this is somewhat simplistic, and there are many factors. For example, there are a small amount of cancers that actually become more aggressive when “starved”. But what is exciting is that all this scientific evidence is pointing in the direction that dietary intervention may be able to cure or at the very least ameliorate symptoms of diseases like cancer.

Hippocrates may not have been all that far off: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Further Reading:


  1. Glycolysis is usually activated when there is low oxygen (since normal glucose oxidation requires oxygen to be present to make energy): either there is low oxygen in the environment (hypoxia), or oxygen isn’t able to diffuse to the tissues in a fast enough manner (the sprinter example as mentioned above). What’s odd is that, in cancer, this switch to glycolysis occurs even when there is adequate oxygen present.
  2. There is very promising research by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino utilizing ketones and hyperbaric oxygen as cancer therapy to starve cancer. Ketones are a favorable energy source for cells in the body, because no energy is required to extract energy. In normal glucose utilizing cells, energy has to be used to breakdown the sugar in order to extract more energy. Cells actually preferentially utilize ketones when both glucose and ketones are present in the bloodstream. Ketones are the products of beta-oxidation of fatty acids. They are the primary fuel of the brain during starvation. What’s more interesting? Cancer cells can’t be fueled by ketones.

[This was originally posted on HealthSnap’s sister website, searchingphoracure.com.]

Why Do We Sleep? Why Is It Important and How Do We Improve It?

Why do we sleep

Why do we sleep?

At first glance, “why do we sleep?” seems like such a silly question to ask. It’s obvious, we need sleep in order to 1) stay sane, and 2) to survive. We all need to rest and recover if we want to be as healthy, functional and successful as possible when we wake up every morning and face a new day.

But why exactly do we need to sleep, rest, and recover in order to stay sane and survive?

If you really think about it, sleep is an incredible phenomenon, and by diving deeper into the question “why do we sleep?” we can gain some important insight into how our bodies work, thus giving us more appreciation of the process of sleep, as well as giving us insights into how to better improve our sleep.

So, why DO we sleep? Why don’t we just continue on with our merry lives uninterrupted by this pesky process? Each cell in our body, throughout the course of our life, is always in the “on” mode, on “active duty”. It’s always doing things; synthesizing proteins, metabolizing compounds for energy, communicating with other cells, etc. It’s always on. But, since we as humans in total are nothing but a big clump of cells acting together in synergy, why are WE not always in the “on” mode, the “active duty” mode? The reason lies in the control center of the body, the brain. It turns out that, in order to be an effective control center, the brain needs specific periods of rest. Sleep is rest occurring in 4 consecutive stages followed by a stage called rapid eye movement or REM. REM is critical to successful sleep, and these cycles are often repeated many times at night. While our cells are always on, our brain rests. And since our brain is the master control center, when our brain rests, so do our vital organs and muscles.

Why does the brain do this? Well, the reasons are a bit unclear, but it is known that during these phases, very important things occur in the body. In a sense, the body’s repair mechanisms kick on during this process. The body recovers from the day’s activities and carries out certain vital functions: healing damaged cells, boosting our immune system, recharging our heart and cardiovascular system.

Not only that, but successful completion of adequate sleep cycles also helps the brain function properly by maintaining connections between neurons (i.e. preserving the neural network). Thus not only brain function, but also memory, is improved.

We can actually physically feel the repercussions of this “recharging” mechanism of sleep: when we experience a good night’s sleep, we feel refreshed and energetic (albeit usually with the help of a cup of coffee), and when we experience a poor night’s sleep or lack of sleep, we feel deeply fatigued, and can even feel depressed.

So, now that we have some understanding of why we sleep, how do we obtain good sleep? What factors are responsible for our quality of sleep? Why do we sleep at night?

Why Do We Sleep At Night? Circadian Rhythms

We each have a “master clock” which is a biological clock based on circadian rhythm. The clock is regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus of the brain, which controls our biological state based on the incoming light that is processed through our eyes. However, the SCN doesn’t respond to all light equally, and it turns out that the SCN is particularly sensitive to a certain frequency of light, blue light. Blue light is the primary component of daylight from the sun. However, we also are exposed to blue light from artificial devices like LED lights, or the screens of electronic devices.

As light traveling to our eyes diminished, our master clock releases chemicals that trigger changes in activity levels in different parts of the brain in order to prepare us for sleep. This set of chemical reactions also sends signals to an area of the brain called the pineal gland to notify us that it is time to let our guard down and relax. The pineal gland, in turn, releases a hormone called melatonin.

Melatonin

Melatonin is not only a hormone, but also an anti-oxidant, and is found in all forms of life in varying concentrations. It is produced in the brain and helps regulate our master clock and our adaptation to light-dark cycles. During the daytime, the light that enters our eyes triggers a sequence of events that prevent this hormone from being produced, making us stay awake and attentive. During the night, darkness stimulates its production and helps us wind down.

The production and release of melatonin is thus critical for proper functioning of our biological clock and circadian rhythm. Anything that disturbs melatonin production and function can throw off our master clock, and thus impact our sleep. For example, using cell phones, computers, and tablets in the evening before bed makes it difficult for us sleep since we constantly perceive the blue light from these devices, which impedes melatonin production.

Light isn’t the only thing that affects melatonin production, however. Our environment, nutrition, toxins, and stress, all can impact how melatonin is produced and released in the brain. Thus, it is no wonder that, in a modern world where electronic devices and stress abound, most of us likely experience poor sleep due to an altered production of melatonin and/or alterations in melatonin signaling.

GABA

The SCN is responsible for regulating another region of the brain called the Ventrolateral Preoptic Nucleus (VLPO). The VLPO is a small cluster of neurons situated near the hypothalamus. Depending on the information received from the SCN and from our environment, the VLPO stimulates the production of a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Just like melatonin, this neurotransmitter is involved with our sleep/wake cycles. GABA’s primary function is to reduce the excitability of our nervous system. However, while GABA can reduce the activity of our nervous system, external activity like physical activity can prevent the SCN from triggering the production of GABA via the VLPO.

Thus, blocking blue light is not enough to get a good sleep; it is necessary that before bed we stop working, exercising, or overthinking about our day. That´s right, when you are laying down thinking about all of the embarrassing moments of your day, or your stressful job experiences, you’re impeding the production of GABA.

While getting enough sleep is important, the quality of sleep also matters. So, once we do finally fall asleep, we need to ensure that we’re actually getting high-quality rest. Enter heart rate variability.

Heart Rate Variability

Heart-rate variability (HRV) is the variation in time interval between heartbeats. It is a complicated topic, beyond the scope of this post, but by closely monitoring our HRV, we can gain insight into our quality of sleep, and ultimately, our health.

From the moment we fall asleep we lose control over our motor and sensory systems. When this happens we enter into a state where our brain is at the mercy of our autonomous nervous system. The autonomous nervous system controls things that we normally don’t have to “think” about, like heart rhythm, digestion, breathing and more. The autonomic nervous system has two entities: the sympathetic, which is responsible for the acceleration of heart rate (e.g. by adrenaline), and the parasympathetic, which is responsible for heart rate deceleration.

To obtain the best quality of sleep, we need to ensure that these two parts of our nervous system are in balance. If there are imbalances, our HRV will be altered. For example, if we are stressed and constantly reminiscing over the hectic activities of our day, the sympathetic nervous system will dominate and our heart rate variability will be reduced. A reduced HRV can imply that we lack optimal sleep, are sleep deprived, and can even give us clues that something may be wrong with our health.

So, What Should I Do If I’m Not Getting Enough Sleep?

If you´re having trouble falling asleep, or feel like you aren’t getting the best quality sleep possible, here are ten things you can do right now to help:

  1. Stop working at least one hour before going to bed: e.g. stop checking emails and working online etc.
  2. Avoid physical exercise or strenuous activity at least two hours before bed.
  3. Minimize any emotional activity a few hours before you lay your head on the pillows.
  4. Eliminate sugars at night, including fruits.
  5. Eat a big meal at most four hours before going to sleep (no later).
  6. Relax your mind to wind down before bed by doing soft activities like reading a book, solving a crossword, doing yoga stretches, sharing time with your partner, or listening to music. These are activities that help the brain understand that it is time to sleep.
  7. Reduce the entrance of blue light to our eyes at least three hours before going to bed. You can do this with eye masks (such as our Premium 3D Memory Foam Sleep Mask), and/or by placing blue light shields on your smartphones or electronic devices.
  8. Eliminate all other light illuminations, e.g. from lamps. Even though they’re not a significant source of blue light, these light sources still can stimulate the brain.
  9. Prepare your day in such a way that the most stressful activities, or those which demand the most energy, are reserved for the earliest part of your day (the farthest from bedtime).
  10. Take a small dose of a high-quality melatonin supplement. You can find great quality supplements on labdoor.com, which is a third-party services that extensively tests supplements by a variety of brands to ensure accuracy and safety.

Improving our quantity and quality of sleep is the best strategy to enhance our health in both the short term and long term. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimulation (smartphones, social media, etc.), and experience an ever-increasing stress from our jobs and daily life, we must take extra precautions to protect our sleep, adopting habits that facilitate and improve our sleep. In the end, doing so helps make our body the best tool to reach any goal we desire.

Other Links & References

For more info on sleep and how to improve, see the links below which are great posts by Dr. Kirk Parsley, Robb Wolf, and Dr. Sarah Ballantyne (a.k.a. “The Paleo Mom”):

  1. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 1
  2. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 2
  3. How We Are Wired To Sleep, Part 3
  4. Trouble Sleeping?

Interested in our Premium 3D Memory Foam Sleep Mask? Check out our product page for more info.