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.
Ever since I quit coffee, I've had some issues with afternoon fatigue. Around 2 I would just feel sleepy. I thought about this a little and concluded that lighting might be the issue. You see my office has standard craporific overhead lighting. Since most programmers have OCD or some other neurosis, they turn it off. I had a crappy desk lamp, but it wasn't very bright. So I splurged and bought a Verilux desk lamp.
I'm not going to pretend it's beautiful and it did cause some heckling from officemates, but I've been using it for two weeks and so far my energy levels are much better. Of course going outside would be even better, but it's been kind of crappy outside lately.
It might help my mood, but this afternoon it failed to counteract the effects of listening to the new Radiohead album, which made me feel emo.
I also got some nice blackout curtains. I had been using aluminum foil because I was being cheap, but it fell down and made creepy noises in the wind. I noticed that the price for the curtains had dropped on Amazon and I bought these. They are MUCH better than aluminum foil.
I also noticed that the price for those light-alarm clocks had dropped and I bought the cheapest one, but I noticed it's gone now and I understand why. It's SO much better than my cell phone as an alarm, but my model is truly buggy.
For about a year Robb Wolf has hosted the excellent and extremely informative Paleolithic Solution Podcast. Despite publicly admitting to only having six listeners, the truth is that the podcast has been a phenemenon in the paleo diet community. Robb Wolf is a research biochemist turned trainer and paleo diet proponent, so he brings some formidable expertise to the paleo diet table. He knows his science, but his experience coaching others in paleo food and fitness is equally valuable. Finally he has a book that brings it all together, presenting paleo as a scientific solution that anyone can follow: The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet.
I came to paleo from the anthropological side of things. I was won over by the health of ancestral bones and of tribes that continue to eat an ancestral diet. Paleo made sense to me because it was the diet we evolved to eat and the diet that brought us to our physical prime as a species. Robb writes a little about this, but mostly his book is dedicated to the biochemical basis of paleo. He shows why paleolithic eating, living, and moving make the biology of our bodies work properly and how neolithic agents can muck things up. Cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, infertility, IBS, colitis, and PCOS are just a few of the diseases of civilization addressed in the book.
His approach is multifaceted— from experience he knows that it's not just food that matters. He devotes chapters to exercise and lifestyle. For me, the lifestyle chapter was the most important, because it drove home the point that it's not just gluten that can mess you up. Poor sleep, constant stress, and overtraining are just as bad.
That's saying a lot, since one of the take-home points in the book is that gluten is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo evil.
A comprehensive solution to modern health problems
He makes a convincing case for not including gluten even in paleo "cheats." At his seminar he said to "cheat" with a gluten-free beer or a corn tortilla and not to wreck your immune system with bread. Because that's exactly what wheat does. Lectins in wheat are generally considered by researchers to be the most dangerous because of how they can disrupt the gut lining. In good digestion the gut cells have healthy microvilli (the brush thingys) rich in enzymes that help break things down in order to usher usable proteins into the bloodstream.
Yay, this steak is so nicely broken down, your microvili are very happy
Lectins in gluten assault the microvilli, potentially leading to poorer absorption of nutrients and increased gut permeability, which can allow poorly broken down proteins into the bloodstream. This can activate the immune system, leading to autoimmunity and inflammation.
W/ Gluten Ur microvilli R sad
Sound complicated? The Achilles heel of Robb's book is that it might not appeal to people who are intimidated by science. If you like watching NOVA and enjoyed biology class, this book is for you.
If the very thought of omega-3 fatty acids gives you a massive headache...maybe you need some fish oil and frankly you can skip the science-y chapters, because they make up only half of the book. The other half is practical implementation: how to get nutrients, when to supplement, how to exercise, and how to plan meals. One of the take home messages is that almost everyone has the ability to do paleo. If you can make scrambled eggs and saute chicken breast, you can do paleo. Paleo doesn't have to be complicated, it can involve foods you already eat and love! Furthermore, Robb tells you how to customize the diet based on your goals:
Another unique aspect of this book is Robb's writing style, which is hilarious like his podcast. You can tell he's been preaching this to a diverse group of people, some of whose stories he has included as case studies. Some of these seem miraculous, but as someone who was cured of autoimmune problems through paleo it doesn't surprise me.
For the more seasoned paleo dieter, the information on cortisol is particularly important. I didn't really know much about this stuff until his seminar when I realized that some of the stress issues I was experiencing were probably caused by this very interesting hormone. You can be eating perfectly, but still wreck yourself by staying up late, working a gazillion hours a week, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee (or all of the above). It seems like common sense, but many paleos are type-As who want to use the diet as a tool to support their super-human crazy overworked lifestyles. Seems to work for some, but for most of us burn-out is inevitable. Robb Wolf says to sleep for 8-9 hours a night in a very very dark room— like a bat cave. Apprently ALL your cells are sensitive to that stupid streetlight outside your window, so just an eye mask won't cut it.
If you live in NYC come get this book at our super-cool rooftop party on the 18th! If you can't make it, please do pick up a copy on Amazon via this link. It supports me and boy would it be awesome to see this in the top 10 list there!
*My major complainst about the book and what will likely give other design nerds an aneurysm are the fonts and typesetting. Robb, please never ever use Papyrus again. Or the paleo!design!nerds (all 20 of us) on Twitter will make fun of you.
Thanks for all the kind words yesterday! I have learned so much recently and had to face up the fact that eating paleo isn't going to erase staying up until 4 AM. So far my plan to get better includes:
1. Blackout curtains
2. Going to bed at a normal time and working normal hours
3. Morning sunlight
4. Not pressuring myself to do something all the time (easier said than done)
6. Quitting the coffee treadmill
7. One alcoholic drink a week. This is a tough one, but I come from a family of people who had to quit drinking for very good reasons. Maybe in the future I can resume drinking again, but for now it seems like a bad idea.
8. Figure out what I want to do with my life. Right now I'm not exactly living my dreams. I have a love-hate relationship with my city and a mostly hate relationship with work. Honestly, there has to be something out there for me right? I'm not that happy sitting in front of the computer, even if I make more money and have more flexibility. I thought that was freedom— I was wrong.
Guess who is going to a Movnat clinic this July 6th-10th? Me. And I'm super excited! We'd love to get an NYC group together to go to this, so if you are interested, let us know at the meetup. If you don't know who Erwan is, check out his website and this excellent Men's Health article.
Good news: The mobile slaughterhouse is here.
Dangerous fish oil: How about doing what our ancestors did and eating fish instead of taking a pill?
Playgrounds: Waaaaaay too dangerous for our precious children. You wouldn't want children to actually be outside moving around instead of sitting inside doing test prep anyway.