This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
When I was in high school and college I struggled with insomnia. The worst was when I lived in the dorms. Snoring roommate I hardly knew five feet away from me, sodium lamp light streaming in through the blinds, the ever-constant noise of slamming doors and drunken college students. I was constantly sick, constantly tired, almost always teetering on clinical depression. I missed class constantly, only getting by because like most colleges, the classes were a colossal waste of time and I could pass the tests just be reading the books. Recently when I was telling someone that the college I attended later in Europe didn't have such factory-farm-like housing and I did better health-wise there, someone said "well, dorm-living is a rite of passage." I kind of wanted to tell them off, tell them about how miserable I was and how it kept me from doing my best, but I guess some people are lucky and are able to endure it better. But the fact that the next door clinic was always full of legions of the chronically sick and the psychologists were constantly booked told me otherwise.
I tried everything to get to sleep. I even built some hybrid ear-plug/headphones and tried all manner of podcasts, classical music, even insipid "whale singing" and "relaxing sea sounds." I tried sleep masks, I even tried using Benadryl. Every night I lay there for hours past midnight before I could fall asleep.
When I studied in Uppsala things started to get much better for me. My room was so comfortable and noise-isolated there, it got much easier to fall asleep. I still had some occasional trouble though. The main trouble since then seemed to become distraction. It was just so easy to watch "just one more" episode of whatever show I was into on my laptop. Or play "just one more" hour of video games. "Just one more" often became a lot more. And I would often fall asleep under the glimmering light out of pure exhaustion well past midnight. Up until two months ago, it was really bad because I was in a studio apartment, my Macbook light tempting me all night, my video games stored under my bed in easy reach (I purposely buy simpler games out of the delusion I won't get addicted, but it doesn't always work out). At some point I was playing video games AND watching Netflix at two AM, a perfect storm of over-stimuli. My smart phone sat charging on my nightstand. I realized that I was "sleep walking" or something at night, checking my email at 4 AM without even realizing it and waking up to an inbox full of mostly already "read" messages. I was like "this has got to stop."
Luckily I moved into an apartment with multiple rooms of my own, something I've never had. I took my bedroom and made a rule that there would be no electronic devices in there besides a lamp, a radio, and the old un-backlit kindle. The windows are covered with blackout curtains. My phone charges in the kitchen. I go there at at 11 or midnight, start to read, and fall asleep easily.
Now that it is winter, I've also programmed my thermostat to drop to 45 F at night, extra motivation to go to bed. It reminds me of staying in a log cabin in the woods, heated by wood, and at night it gradually gets colder as the fire dies. And you are virtually forced to wake up naturally in the morning to put more wood in.
I've also been experimenting with daytime temperature. I keep it at 50 F when I'm away, but 61 F when I'm there. But I'm wondering if I could gradually go lower and adapt to it. I don't hope to match the achievements of legendary Cold House Journal folks, but I admire their fortitude and thrift. They make me feel rather weak.
Unfortunately I sometimes work in an office where my co-workers like to keep it at 75 F (WTF). When we walk to lunch, some of them look like they are about to die from the cold, even though it's hardly even cold for Chicago yet. I have to wonder if just not getting used to colder temperatures makes them less likely to be active.
A walk in the woods
I walk 20 minutes to work and I'm too stubborn to stop in the winter, particularly after living in Sweden where I saw people bike and walk everywhere even in the deepest dark winter (dark as in you need lights for your bike at 1 PM), so I can't afford to not be cold adapted. It is interesting that in the past I've really struggled with winter. I grew up in Georgia and I used to think I wasn't cut out for the winter because of it. My mother always kept our house pretty cold. I had to sleep under two comforters and an electric blanket. I blamed cold on being sick all the time. In retrospect, I wonder if the low-fat and later vegetarian and vegan diets were why I was constantly miserably cold all the time. The worst was when I was a raw vegan. I felt like I was never warm in the winter, even when I turned up the thermostat as far as it would go. Now these days, fueled by a good hearty beef stew, I feel able to easily endure the winter chill.
It also doesn't surprise me at all the researchers have tied indoor heating to obesity. "Good fat" known as brown fat, which burns calories, is activated by cold. People tend to gain weight these days on traditional rich holiday foods, but maybe they wouldn't if they paired them with traditional cold temperatures.
I'll never forget looking at my window in Sweden and seeing dozens little preschoolers playing in the snowy woods. They play outside every day. No matter what the weather. Here I walk by the local school on my way to work. The playgrounds and ball fields are eerily and starkly empty.