You cannot low-carb your way around poor sleep

I know its long but a great post by thatpaleoguy

This past weekend saw Anastasia and I take a quick road trip to Brisbane to each present at the Low-Carb Downunder series that was wrapping up there.  It was a series largely based around Jimmy Moore’s visit to Australia-fair, but included various speakers at each of its stopping points, many of whom were some variant of low-carb, WAPF, or paleo.  It was an interesting mix, and overall, I’d say we all shared much common ground.  But we also had our differences too – even those who come from the same [paleo] tribe, so to speak.  Clearly, all of the speakers there had their own niche area of expertise and experience.  Some felt like they were pushing the edge of the envelope a bit far, and those people probably felt that others weren’t pushing it far enough.  Hopefully people don’t attend these things expecting all of the speakers to agree with each other all of the time.  Certainly that is never the case.

I took part in my first panel discussion there.  An interesting experience – allowing me to hear more from some of the speakers – but largely, it allowed me to hear from the average punter trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Audience questions were submitted and put to the panel for answers.  Due to the nature of the panel, the answers we gave were often little more than sound-bites… perhaps not much better than a 140-character text message.  I found myself wanting to answer “depends” most of the time, as almost all of the questions were very much context-specific.  For example, I was asked early in the piece, what my recommendations were, in grams per kilogram of body weight, for protein intake.  The answer I mostly wanted to give was “it depends”.  The actual answer I gave was that I generally don’t count grams of any macronutrient.  I avoid quantitative measures of food at all costs if I can help it.  Counting stuff is so not paleo and really quite tedious.  Eat food. The best quality you can get for your situation.

One thing that did become apparent, from questions around the likes of kidney health, acid-base balance (seriously? yawn.), and sustainability, was that people just coming into this and looking at low-carb/paleo for the first time, clearly think it is basically a carnivorous diet where we all sacrifice a cow each, every week.  The reality is, however, that I eat more vegetables on a paleo diet than I ever did as a vegetarian, and more than I have ever seen any vegetarian that I have consulted to over the last 12 years in practice eat.  We have a fridge full of brightly coloured vegetable things all the time.

The talk I delivered was focused on sleep, or more specifically, the lack of it.  I purposefully chose to stay away from addressing a food-topic as a) there was a lot of that going on already, b) Anastasia was already [superbly] addressing the fundamentals of what is a paleo diet, and c) I don’t particularly care for diets focused on macronutrients, even though I technically eat low carb myself.  What I am increasingly more interested in is the non-food stuff that impacts on our lives, our health, and – on our food choices.

I feel that people are putting all of their health eggs into the nutrition basket.  When your health is broken, and you have spent a lifetime of eating crap [which we learned stands for Cereals – Refined AndProcessed], then changing your diet is one of the best things you can do and is a really good place to start.  It Starts With Food after all.  But it doesn’t end there.

There was a time (and perhaps that time still exists in many people’s minds), that we believed that dietary fat caused increases in body fatness.  Therefore all we needed to do was restrict dietary fat. Problem solved.  In our enlightenment we have railed against this reductionist approach.  “It isn’t the fat!”, we cried.  “It is the <insert whatever other singular macronutrient you champion here>”.  The very same reductionism continues.

We acknowledge that food is a big issue for many eating a C.R.A.P diet – we all eat too much of the wrong TYPES of fat, we all eat too much very poor QUALITY protein (and not enough good quality stuff), and yes, we also all eat too many carbohydrates, largely coming from the same POOR QUALITY sources that contain the fats and proteins we need to eat less of.  In short, too many carbs, the wrong types of fat, and poor quality protein all stem from eating a diet underpinned by processed foods.  So it doesn’t matter what your religion is – the church of carbs, fats, or proteins (or dare I say it – calories – which would have to be like the Catholic Church wouldn’t it?), you are all preaching against the sin of eating shit food.

But I also believe, once you begin to dial in a diet based around good quality food, that many other factors rapidly elevate in importance.  Eating good food only gets you so far.  And as those initial gains begin to stall, you either address this “other stuff” or you “do the diet harder”.  Guess which one most people choose.  Faced with turning the TV/computer/phone off and going to bed earlier – or –  eating even less carbs, guess which one holds the most appeal?  After all, eating less carbs got you this far already.  If reduced carbs is good, even less must be waaayyy better.

Oh, and exercise.  But none of that chronic cardio business – that’s a mugs game.  Instead you will combine your even lower carb with even more high-intensity interval training…. like 4-6 days per week worth of it.  Surely that guy who keeps on suggesting that the whole point of high-intensity exercise is that you are supposed to do LESS of it (not more – as in longer, more frequent WOD’s… chronic HIITing, much?), is wrong…

In no particular order, and by no means an extensive list, the “other stuff” that I believe becomes almost as (if not more) important as the food includes;

  • Sun exposure
  • Slow movement
  • Socialisation
  • Stress Resiliency
  • Seasonality
  • Sleep
  • Sex

I hope to write on each of these topics more extensively in the future, but in brief;

  • We need to get out in bright light early in the day, and not just for vitamin D production
  • We need to build our physical activity on a foundation of slow, skilful movements
  • We need regular doses of healthy socialisation (face-to-face, with people who do not undermine us), appropriate to our personality type (introverts vs. extroverts)
  • We need to undertake strategies to bolster ourselves against predictable and unpredictable stressors and actively disengage in order to relax and recharge (these strategies likely include all the other things in this list)
  • We need to live seasonally – in line with natural rhythms
  • We need to engage in regular, good quality sex and other forms of physical contact to reinforce the bonds with those we are closest to, and…
  • We need to be as proactive about planning and participating in good quality, seasonally-adjusted sleep, as we do (or should) with our food and fitness choices.

It was this last point that I directed most of my Brisbane talk toward.  There are so many things pulling us away from going to bed early and getting more sleep, be they family, TV, work, internet, and so on.  Some of us will go to the enth degree with our eating and fitness.  We’ll angst over the use of microwave ovens.  We’ll research whether intermittent ketosis and carbohydrate re-feeds help us increase muscle mass whilst still shedding fat.  But dammit – we just won’t go to bed at 9:30pm.  Going to bed early seems not to be the answer to any question people are asking about improving their health.  Yet it is.

“Sleep”, as a workplace wellness presentation I run in my day job, is easily one of our more popular workshops.  And in it you invariably hear of how much difficulty people are having with sleeping, fatigue, and tiredness.  They seek your advice, hoping for the one magical thing you can offer them.  But woe betides you if you suggest going to be earlier and sleeping longer.  “I can’t do that.”  “I have kids.” “That is the only time I get to myself.”  “My favourite TV programme is on then.

There are a myriad of excuses, all of which boil down to people not willing to sacrifice something in order to get more sleep.  The choice is there – people just don’t want to take it.  Sleep is treated as an expendable luxury…. something we can do without… something we can catch up on later.  Indeed, we champion and admire the person who can stay up late, get 5.5-6 hours’ sleep a night, and still make the morning session at the gym.  Many of us want to be the guy surviving (as opposed to thriving) on a sleep deficit.  The people who go to bed early are seen as a little bit square – and perhaps just a bit boring.  Read this for more insight.

Interesting when you stick your nose in the research database and run searches on sleep deficit and carbohydrate metabolism.  I’m not going to write an extensive literature review here else I’ll be up all night myself.  But the short story is that even a small amount of reduced sleep (typically under 6-7 hours), sees your appetite go up, your feelings of fullness and satiation go down, your willpower weaken, and anything sugar has your name written all over it.  If you are losing weight whilst sleep deprived, odds on it is coming disproportionately from your lean body mass rather than the fat mass you are hoping for.  Not sleeping enough is making you a skinny fatty.

So all of this begs the question: is “carbohydrate intolerance” due to eating too many carbs or not getting enough zzz’s?  I don’t think the answer is one or the other.  It will no doubt be a bit of both.  But what of the low-carber who has enjoyed some early success with all their eggs in the low carb diet basket, but yet has still not addressed their low number of hours’ slept each night and the overall quality of the sleep they do get?  They find themselves starting to slip backward and are increasingly battling sweet temptation.  What do they do?  Easy.  They wind the carbohydrate intake down even further and keep staying up to watch Seinfeld re-runs and Twatterbooking/Facespacing their latest life drama.

So as much as we like to promote memes like “Abs are made in the kitchen” and “You cannot out-exercise a bad diet”, both of which hold a degree of truth and which counter the focus on eating whatever you like as long as you account for the calories through exercise, they don’t tell the full story or promote the full solution.  If your sleep quality and quantity is poor, and you are in a state of chronic sleep deprivation (which will vary, more or less, by season), you can’t fix that sleep deprivation in the kitchen… or the gym.  You can’t low-carb your way around poor sleep.  And that is the reality check I wanted to deliver to the audience at the Low-Carb Downunder conference.

The brevity of the speaking slots meant I didn’t get the chance to go through too many strategies to improve sleep quality, so I chose to highlight just three.  I chose these three as they are a lot less proximate to the things that people normally think about when it comes to good sleep hygiene.  Most people tend to focus on sleep at the time that they are jumping into bed (normally at the last possible moment), rather than on something that needs to be planned many hours in advance [we pack our food for the day, well in advance of needing it, and we pack our gym gear in preparation for a workout that won’t occur for another 8-10 hours, but we don’t think of sleep 12 hours before climbing into bed.]

I asserted the following for a good nights’ sleep;

–          We need to see bright light in the morning to set up a good cortisol (wakes you up) – melatonin (puts you to sleep) rhythm

–          We need to reduce caffeine intake several hours prior to winding down to allow whatever is in our system to be metabolised

–          And we need to kill all the sources of blue light at least a couple of hours prior to bed else we might as well be staring at the sun (blue light = melatonin suppression = delayed sleep onset)

I closed off my session with a quick reminder about what the bedroom is for and to emphasise some of our other “S’s”…

The bedroom isn’t an office or a television/computer games room/internet café.  It isn’t the place (or perhaps more appropriately – the time) to bring up all your anxieties and angsting over relationship and/or other issues with your partner – especially if you know it is going to increase tensions.  It is a place to engage in some intimatesocialisation with your partner, which might lead to a bit of slow movement, which might even lead to good sex, and providing everyone has played their part, a good nights’ sleep.

Overall I got the impression that my message was well-received – or at least my Queensland audience though it easier to smile and nod than to try to understand my Kiwi vowel sounds.

Save for a few hiccups in some of the communications in the weeks prior to this event (I’m never a fan of having to reconfirm things or chasing others for something they forgot), it was a good event and one that pulled many people together, creating a sense of community around what it is we are all trying to achieve – good health.  And it has left me even more enthusiastic about getting out there with our latest venture/adventure.

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