Why Eating or Avoiding Dietary Cholesterol Has No Effect on Blood Cholesterol Levels

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Avoiding Cholesterol

Cholesterol synthesis and metabolism are tightly regulated within the human body. It turns out that when the cell senses low levels of cholesterol, our body initiates cholesterol synthesis (via the SREBP system) as well as processes to enhance the uptake of cholesterol. Thus, avoiding dietary cholesterol in an attempt to lower blood cholesterol levels doesn’t make much sense in light of this ability of our body to regulate cholesterol synthesis. Any attempt to lower cholesterol in the body would be counteracted by the body ramping up cholesterol production and uptake.

Eating Cholesterol

This is a quote from Metabolic Regulation: A Human Perspective by biochemist Keith N. Frayn (my emphasis added):

Perhaps surprisingly, the amount of cholesterol in the diet is not a major factor affecting the blood cholesterol concentration. The amount of cholesterol we eat is not large in comparison with the body pool: we eat less than 1g per day whereas the amount of cholesterol in the body is more like 140g, of which about 8g is present in the plasma. Contrast this with glucose, where we eat several “plasma’s-worth” in a single meal. And cholesterol is not rapidly absorbed like glucose: it enters the plasma slowly, even more so than triacylglycerol. Further, cholesterol intake leads to cholesterol entering cells, which effectively suppresses cholesterol synthesis. The blood cholesterol concentration is related far more closely to the dietary intake of particular fatty acids, especially the ratio of saturated to polyunsaturated fatty acids.” 

So, the cholesterol that we eat pales in comparison to that stored in our bodies. Again, cholesterol synthesis and transport in the body is a highly regulated process. As mentioned in this video by Dr. Peter Attia, cholesterol levels in the body are not that influenced by the cholesterol in our diet, since a majority of the cholesterol from our diet is in the form of cholesterol ester, which is the storage form of cholesterol which doesn’t get absorbed by our gut. The unesterified active version of cholesterol in our diet does get absorbed. And again, the amount of active absorbable cholesterol in the diet is very small in comparison to the amount stored and synthesized by our bodies; on a daily basis, we typically get ~300-500mg of cholesterol from our diet, whereas we synthesize ~800-1,200mg of cholesterol in our cells per day.

As Dr. Attia suggests in the video, the total store of cholesterol in the body is akin to a giant swimming pool, and there are two very small hoses that contribute to, and control, the swimming pool levels: an internal hose (cholesterol synthesis) and an external hose (cholesterol input from diet). Anything in biology that resembles this situation, with a large store of something with two very small contributing inputs, suggests that the system is highly regulated and that what is moving the “cholesterol needle” isn’t the small inputs (diet and internal synthesis) but something else…

Bottom Line

Avoiding cholesterol, or eating cholesterol, does not have a profound impact on blood cholesterol levels. Any cholesterol that is indeed present blood is carefully controlled by the cholesterol transport system. Furthermore, cholesterol isn’t “bad”, and avoidance of dietary cholesterol can be problematic. In fact, genetic deficiencies in cholesterol synthesis pathways can lead to conditions that can cause mental disabilities and skeletal muscle problems.

Cholesterol is vital, and cells need cholesterol to function (cholesterol is actually part of the structural makeup of cells). It’s not the presence of cholesterol in the blood that matters, it’s the type, amount, and size of that cholesterol that matters. “Cholesterol” in the blood only becomes “dangerous” if the LDL, which is a protein/cholesterol complex, increases in number, and decreases in particle size.

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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.

The Health Benefits of Broccoli

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What is broccoli?

Broccoli, a cruciferous vegetable, goes by the scientific name, Brassica oleracea. In the same family as cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and brussel sprouts, broccoli is an edible green plant with a large flowering head.1

Like most other vegetables, broccoli is comprised mostly of water. It is 90% water, making it low in calories, 7% carbohydrates, 3% protein, almost 0% fat, and packed with tons of nutrients.

Originating in Italy over 2000 years ago, broccoli was a sought-after and valued crop in Roman times. This cruciferous vegetable falls into the super-food category when it comes to nutrient density. It is high in vitamin K, vitamin C, folate, fiber, manganese, potassium, iron, antioxidants, and healthy plant compounds, such as sulforaphane which is known for its anti-cancerous effects.1

1 cup of raw broccoli contains 2.3 grams of fiber. 2.3 grams of fiber is 5-10% of the recommended daily amount. Fiber is important for digestion, helps maintain blood glucose levels keeping the risk of diabetes down, and prevents a variety of other chronic diseases.2

Vitamin C functions as an antioxidant, promoting good immunity and healthy skin. Vitamin K1, on the other hand, plays a vital role in blood clotting and keeping the skeletal system in tip-top shape. Half a cup of broccoli contains more than 100% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin K and vitamin C.2

Folate, potassium, and iron are also found in relatively large quantities in broccoli. Folate, also known as vitamin B9, promotes cell and tissue growth making it a particularly important for pregnant women. Potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure levels, and iron plays a crucial role in oxygen transportation via red blood cells.2

Broccoli further contains plant compounds and antioxidants that have cholesterol-lowering and cancer preventative properties. Cancer is a disease where there is a growth of abnormal cells in the body. Many cruciferous vegetables contain plant compounds such as isothiocyanates, in the form of sulforaphane, and indole-3-carbinol, that reduce oxidative stress. High levels of oxidative stress can result in tissue damage which may lead to cancerous cell growth. Due to the high concentration of sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables, eating these vegetables may lower your cancer risk.2

Similar compounds in broccoli help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and cholesterol quality. Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol isn’t dangerous, it is healthy and necessary for healthy cell functioning and signaling.3,4 It is also necessary for the creation of bile acids. Bile acids aid in the digestion of fats. However, sometimes bile acids are reused and recycled instead of synthesized from scratch from cholesterol, which could lead to the elevation of blood cholesterol levels. As we mentioned, cholesterol IS healthy. However, it can be an issue if you are in a state of inflammation (e.g. if you have a poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, have high C-reactive protein blood levels, or if you suffer from autoimmune conditions), and/or if your cholesterol profile consists of a high number of small particle size LDL particles, since it turns out that the only time LDL could be “bad”, or putting you at “high risk” for atherosclerosis, is when the particle size is small and there are a high number of these small particles (this can be determined with an NMR blood test).5 This is where broccoli comes in. Compounds in broccoli help to excrete bile acids. This allows cholesterol to be used for the creation of new bile acids, which in turn, lowers blood cholesterol levels.2

So, what is the best way to eat broccoli?

Raw broccoli provides substantially more of every nutrient than any cooking method. However, cooking is centuries old, and some scientists believe it has contributed to our resilience as a species.6

For cooking, steaming is best. The best way to retain the nutrient concentrations is to steam for 5 minutes. If steamed for longer than 5 minutes, there can be a loss in vitamin and mineral levels. Stir-frying in oil or fat can further help preserve fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin B, and antioxidants. However, try to avoid high temperatures as these tend to increase the loss of nutrient density. Another beneficial aspect of cooking is that, by heating up vegetables, we can extract nutrients found in the cell walls. Due to our digestive system, some of these beneficial extracted nutrients are not available to us in raw vegetable form. Cooked broccoli further contains high levels of antioxidants.7

So, what is the best way to eat broccoli? Try both ways occasionally. Raw and cooked offer different concentrations of different nutrients, all of which are important for a healthy and balanced diet.8

What about broccoli sprouts?

Broccoli sprouts fall into the same plant and vegetable family as broccoli. They are a cruciferous vegetable. However, broccoli sprouts contain high concentrations of the cancer-fighting compound, sulforaphane. Sulforaphane not only helps protect the body from cancer, but it also helps lower cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease, prevents and aids in improving diabetes, decreases inflammation throughout the body, and helps with immune system function. Numerous studies have shown a correlation between sulforaphane and these benefits.9

As always, there is an optimal way to eat broccoli sprouts to release the most sulforaphane. The goal is to heat the sprouts high enough so that the epithelial protein in the vegetable dissolves, but not too high that the heat destroys the enzyme that makes sulforaphane. The best method to cook broccoli sprouts is for 10 minutes at 70 degrees Celsius. This can be accomplished boiling water. Measure the temperature using a thermometer. Once the temperature reaches 70 degrees Celsius, add the sprouts and let it sit for 10 minutes. This method will release the most sulforaphane from the vegetable, allowing you to reap the most benefits.10

Make sure to include a variety of foods, including broccoli and broccoli sprouts, in your diet. A variety will ensure you are consuming the most of the recommended daily nutrient values. A good way to do this is to eat a diet like the Paleo Diet, which is high in quality protein, healthy fats, and a  variety of vegetables. To get you started on your journey, here are a few of our favorite broccoli recipes:

  1. BREAKFAST: “Broccoli Basil Scramble
  2. LUNCH: “Broccoli Salad
  3. DINNER: “Roasted Broccoli

Work toward a healthy and balanced lifestyle, starting today!

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References

  1. https://www.thepaleomom.com/wiki/broccoli/
  2. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/foods/broccoli
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GDx5sObceI
  4. https://academic.oup.com/qjmed/article/104/10/867/1591864
  5. https://peterattiamd.com/the-straight-dope-on-cholesterol-part-ix/
  6. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=9
  7. https://chriskresser.com/to-poach-saute-or-microwave-that-is-the-question/
  8. https://www.thepaleomom.com/vegetables-to-cook-or-not-to-cook/
  9. https://www.selfhacked.com/blog/panacea-benefits-broccoli-sprouts-sulforaphane/
  10. https://www.foundmyfitness.com/episodes/sfn-maximize

The Health Benefits of Fasting

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What is fasting?

Fasting is the process of not eating for set periods of time. Our genetics are actually well suited for this process. We are the only species of human to survive the Paleolithic Era, and during this era, we had to experience periods of time where food was abundant, and other times when it was scarce.

Flash forward to our modern society, and we typically eat 3-4 times a day, often snacking in between meals. Now, I’m sure if our Paleo ancestors had the ability to eat all of the time, they would (humans are also programmed to love food). But the fact that our species survived one of the harshest eras of existence (the Paleolithic Era and corresponding Ice Age) means something; our metabolism is programmed to run optimally when food and energy intake is random and varied, not constant (for the technical bent, these are called stochastic processes). As research is starting to show, a constant intake of energy may not be so beneficial for us in the long run, especially if we are living mostly sedentary lives.

The Health Benefits of Fasting

There are a plethora of health benefits associated with fasting, including improvements in metabolism, reduction in inflammation, aging prevention, and a decreased risk of developing disease. Let’s go one by one…

Fasting induces a healthy metabolic state called “ketosis”

During fasting, when our intake of macronutrients glucose, fat, and protein, are zero, our body begins to burn glycogen stores in the liver (our body’s way of storing glucose for periods of no food) to release glucose for the body and the brain. However, once our glycogen stores become depleted, our body switches its metabolism towards burning fat for fuel. When we burn fat for fuel instead of glycogen, we enter a state of ketosis, which is a state where, in the process of burning fat for fuel, ketones are released [Note: ketosis is different from ketoacidosis, and Dr. Peter Attia has a great article describing the difference]. There are two ways to enter ketosis: by fasting, or by eating a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet. This is why it is often said that ketogenic diets mimic fasting.

Ketones are miracle molecules and have been shown to do all of the following: 1) suppress oncogenes, 2) decrease inflammation, 3) promote healthy cell metabolism & cell signaling, 4) promote healthy body weight and physiology, 5) improve good cholesterol and other cardiovascular markers, and 6) enhance cognitive ability.

Ketosis is also thought to be the reason behind why ketogenic diets work so well for treating epilepsy and for reversing cancer tumors.

Fasting improves our immune system profile and reduces inflammation

Excellent research by Dr. Valter Longo has shown that by fasting we can drastically improve our immune system by 1) clearing away damaged white blood cells (via a process called autophagy) and 2) regenerating the immune cell population towards one that is more representative of our youth (by normalizing the ratio of myeloid cells to lymphoid cells).

Fasting has also been shown to reduce inflammation via the reduction of the inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-1.

Fasting promotes longevity and prevents aging

Fasting is known for triggering the expression of longevity genes, which are genes that are associated with a longer lifespan. Fasting also promotes healthy mitochondrial function. Healthy mitochondria are critical for preventing the oxidative damage that is associated with aging.

Finally, fasting triggers the production of new stem cells as well as critical cellular repair processes.

Fasting can improve our metabolism and body composition

Fasting triggers weight loss via adipose thermogenesis (a.k.a. “calorie burning”) and promotes metabolic homeostasis. Our metabolism is boosted when we fast, as we alter our hormone profile to favor fat burning while preserving muscle mass.

Fasting has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. When insulin sensitivity improves, our ability to store glucose and fat, as well as properly utilize glucose and fat for energy, improves.

Fasting has potential for preventing and reversing disease

Research has shown that fasting can significantly reduce the risk of developing metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, fasting may also help prevent and reduce cancer via activation of tumor suppressor pathways, lowering of blood glucose and activation of AMPK, as well as by turning our immune cells into tumor killers.

Research has also shown that, by promoting pancreatic beta-cell regeneration, fasting may help reverse diabetes.

Finally, fasting may help prevent neurodegenerative disease and cognitive decline via the increase in production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is experienced during periods of calorie restriction.

So what is intermittent fasting exactly? And how do you do it?

Intermittent fasting (IF) is the safest form of fasting. It consists of voluntary fasting for short durations, typically 16-48 hours at most. We do not advocate long-term fasting (fasting for more than 48 hours), especially without a doctor’s consent. Long-term fasting is trickier to pull off, and arguably not as healthy as short-term fasting.

A typical IF regimen is as follows:

  1. Eat lunch at 12 pm.
  2. Eat dinner at 8 pm.
  3. Sleep around 10 pm.
  4. Eat the next day at 12 pm.

This is called the 16/8 regimen (16 hours fast, followed by an 8-hour eating window). The 16/8 is the most common IF protocol because it is the easiest to follow since you are sleeping for the majority of the 16 hour fast. However, there are a variety of other ways that you can structure your IF.

If the 16/8 protocol is too hard for you, or if you are just starting out, trying simply skipping a meal now and then. It may be hard to do at first, especially if you are currently on a high-carb diet since you will experience more “sugar/carb” withdrawal (people on a high-carb diet typically have altered hunger and metabolism hormone function that keeps them in a state of “hunger”). But, it will get easier as you begin to stabilize your hormones; as we ease into IF, we start to improve our leptin signaling, which controls our appetite. Remember, the hunger cravings, if you have any, are temporary and will subside.

As mentioned, we recommend following the 16/8 fasting protocol, skipping breakfast, and only eating lunch and dinner. To help you out with your IF journey, here are a few tips:

  • During the fast, consume only water, black coffee, or tea.
  • To help you prevent hunger during each fast, try eating a low-carb Paleo diet or Ketogenic diet during your allowed eating time.
  • Stay busy during your fast
  • Remember that any hunger symptoms you may have will go away as you begin to correct and balance your hormone profile
  • Don’t binge eat after your fast
  • Avoid alcohol consumption before and after your fast
  • Get plenty of sleep (consider a good quality sleep mask and ear plug kit, as well as taking a small amount of melatonin)

Is it safe? Is it for me?

As we mentioned, short-term IF is safe for almost everyone (although you should always consult your doctor first), and there are a plethora of health benefits (as described above). The only side effects that may occur are headaches and constipation, which are usually temporary and are a by-product of your body going through high-carb withdrawal as well as hormone stabilization.

We don’t recommend long-term fasts. We also DO NOT recommend that you try to fast if you are a child, are underweight, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Furthermore, you should consult your doctor if you are taking medication, if you have diabetes, or if you have high uric acid.

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Other Links & Resources

  1. Intermittent Fasting for Beginners
  2. Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications
  3. 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

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.

Meditation and Health: Why You Should Meditate & How To Start

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Meditation and Health in the Modern Era

These days, we live in a very high-paced, agitated, and fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) culture. We are constantly stressed, and surrounded by stress. Our jobs, the news, deadlines, traffic, emotional life events, and even our family and life partners can all be potential triggers of stressful states of both mind and body. Unfortunately, exposure to chronic stress can lead to a variety of health issues. Luckily, as you’ll discover after reading this, we can easily manage our stress, and thus improve our health, with meditation.

Why is chronic stress unhealthy? How can it lead to health problems?

Stress triggers activation of the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal axis) which is responsible for inducing our fight-or-flight response to dangerous situations. The HPA axis provides an evolutionary advantage that helped humans to survive when, for example, we encountered a pack of saber-tooth tigers or lions in the wilderness.

When our brain receives danger signals, the HPA axis is initiated and leads to a cascade of events that eventually leads to release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones help prioritize the energy use within the body, ensuring that energy is available for your muscles so that you can run away, and that energy is available for your brain so that you can make quick decisions.

These are all good things. However, our environment has drastically changed and the chance of a lion encounter is much lower than it used to be. But, in this modern world, everyday stressful situations like traffic or deadlines, while non-life threatening, also trigger the activation of the HPA axis. In a sense, we are responding to everyday stress in the same way as we respond to encountering a lion or crocodile.

Activation of the HPA axis and release of cortisol and adrenaline are meant to be one time deals. Once the threat is over, these hormones stop acting, and we can return back to a normal state. Unfortunately, the chronic stress we experience in the modern era leads to constant activation of the HPA axis and continuously high levels of cortisol and adrenaline throughout the day.

The impact of chronic cortisol release

Normally, our cortisol levels are highest in the morning and decrease throughout the day. However, when we are stressed, we experience elevated levels of cortisol throughout the day, which can impact our bodies in a very negative way. Chronic release of cortisol can lead to brain fog, adrenal fatigue, hormone imbalance, altered immune function (stress and high cortisol can lead to “leaky gut”), metabolic dysfunction (due to increased levels of insulin in response to cortisol), loss of sex appetite, and accelerated aging.

Managing stress through meditation

As you can imagine, it is vital for humans in the modern era to manage and reduce stress by any means necessary. There are many ways to do this, such as getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and staying fit. However, the best and easiest way to reduce stress (aside from removing ourselves altogether from the stressful situation) is to change and manage how we respond to stressful situations. As it turns out, one very simple and easy way to do this is to train through meditation, a time-tested and proven method to help manage and reduce stress. Lets talk a bit more about meditation, how you could benefit from meditating, and how you can start right away.

What is meditation?

Meditation has been around for a very, very long time. Originally practiced by monks and religious figures since antiquity, it has gained significant popularity worldwide over time. It is now practiced by a multitude of cultures, religions, and communities.

The goal of meditation is to train in order to calm the mind, to improve self-awareness, and to increase awareness of the current moment (a.k.a. mindfulness). While meditating, your body becomes relaxed as your mind goes into a state of mental silence. Your goal is to calm the chatter of your mind, and enter a state of thoughtless awareness (for the science fans out there, it is thought that meditation does this via its action on the posterior cingulate cortex).

Meditation and Health

Something interesting happens when you start to practice this on a regular basis. Not only do you become a happier individual overall, but you also inevitably become immune to stress, and more adept at handling stressful situations. Not only that, but there are a plethora of health benefits of meditation. Research is showing that meditation can help regulate the HPA axis and reduce cortisol levels, slow aging, improve brain health and cognitive function, boost and restore the immune system, and resolve anxiety, depression, and addiction. In fact, it is thought that the reason for reduced stress and improved stress management via meditation is due to the triple action of 1) increased serotonin and dopamine levels (the happy hormones) during meditation 2) lower cortisol release, and 3) heightened cognitive function. [Tip: if you want to learn more about the research on meditation and health, just type in mediation and health in PubMed.]

How do I start meditating? 

There are many forms of meditation, but the simplest, most popular, and most effective form to get started with is Transcendental Meditation (TM). One of the major benefits of TM is how relatively easy it is to be learned and mastered. A myriad of influential people including Ray Dalio, Tim Ferriss, Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, and Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few, regularly practice this form of meditation.

TM techniques quickly and effortlessly enable your body to go into a deep state of relaxation. In TM, you don’t concentrate on chanting or breathing, you just focus on quieting your mind, and you only need to practice for 20 minutes at least once a day (although twice a day is recommended).

TM is a great way to enter the realm of meditation, but if you don’t yet have 20 minutes to practice twice a day (you should, or you must be crazy busy!), or don’t have the time to learn TM, then here are a few tips and tricks that you can employ right away to start meditating, practicing mindfulness, and releasing stress:

  1. Find a song that puts you in a good mood. Once you’ve chosen your song, take about three minutes of your time and sit in a comfortable place with your legs crossed in front of you with a straight spine. Close your eyes, listen and reminisce about positive memories.
  2. Listen to a guided meditation. A few suggestions are guided meditations by Sam Harris, or the Tara Brach Smile meditation guide, both of which are free and highly recommended.
  3. Practice breathing. Start every morning with three to five minutes of sitting down with your eyes closed and just work on your breathing. Additionally, you can use an eye mask and earplugs to help filter out light and sound distractions (we offer a very affordable high-quality eye mask and ear plug kit on Amazon). Or, if you prefer, you can use an app like Calm to provide background ambiance (e.g. sounds of waves crashing, or a river stream flowing with birds chirping) while practicing your breathing.
  4. Practice the “three breath break” throughout the day. This is a technique consisting of taking three deep breaths every time you start to feel angry, sad, or driven by your emotions. This will help you clear your mind, and train you to take control of the situation.
  5. Use an app. Headspace is a great app to use to quickly and easily start practicing meditation any time of day.
  6. Practice gratitude. Think about at least three things that you are grateful for. These could be people, things, or situations. Just sit comfortably and take about five minutes to reflect on your gratitude. This will help you relax, and help you rid yourself of stress and angry emotions.

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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?

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

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?

What-Is-The-Ketogenic-Diet-1

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, and Cholesterol
  3. Keto Explained In Simple Terms – A quick explanation and breakdown of what to eat on keto.

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.

Thinking About Giving Keto A Try?

Check out our free in-depth Keto For Beginners eBook, which has everything you need to know to get started on a ketogenic diet.

Are You Doing Keto Right?

Take our free Keto Deep Dive Assessment and receive our free Complete Keto for Beginner’s Guide and learn everything you need to know about keto and how to succeed with keto!

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.