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I’m reading more frequently that our current tendency to be staring at screens and living in our unnatural always-lit environment is really messing up our internal circadian clocks. In a natural world, the human circadian cycle adapts to seasonal changes in the light-dark cycle. But staring at screens (TV, computer, phone), especially in the hours prior to trying to sleep, is harmful to our internal clock’s synchronization and the way our brain prepares for sleep. And sleeping in for an extra hour doesn’t really help.
You’re finally relaxing on a winter night after a tough day spent in artificial light when you barely made it outside. You walked to your car or the mass transit in early morning darkness. You left work and it was already getting dark. At home, you were bathed in a brightly lit home. You watch your big screen TV and have your tablet on your lap.
You’re really messing up your internal clock.
Can we reset our internal clock by avoiding artificial lights at night for a few days and turning off those screens? That is tough to do in most modern settings. No screens and no artificial lighting? You can’t even do that on most vacations.
Some people try using meditation or other techniques to control stress ot to “defrag” your brain. Scientists have known for quite a while now that light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock. They have been cautioning against using light-emitting devices before bedtime because they emit “short-wavelength-enriched” light – light with a higher concentration of blue light than natural light contains. Blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.
In a study published in Current Biology, the authors describe a series of experiments where people were sent out camping to reset their biological clocks. The paper is titled “Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend” but in simpler terms it tested campers who spent a week and some who spent a weekend in a tech-free and only natural lighting setting. This study compared them with a control group that stayed at home to live their normal life. The scientists tracked sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep.
Melatonin levels are key. We know that melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime, and peaking in the middle of the night. Those levels fall and then we wake up. Unfortunately, in our current living environment, melatonin levels don’t fall back down for a few hours after we wake up. To your brain, you should still be sleeping for several hours. It’s like jet lag.
But that week-long camping trip seems to have reset the participants’ internal clock. Living in a world lit by light bulbs and screens is very different from one of sunlight and moonlight.
I try year round to get out to at least my backyard as soon as I make my morning coffee to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight. Of course, sometimes there is not much sunlight and in winter here it’s not as pleasant to step out in your pajamas when it’s 20 degrees and there’s snow on the deck. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks to daytime and waking up.
Of course, a week of real camping (not a spa week or vacation at a resort) is not possible or even desirable to everyone. Can you create a natural light-dark cycle for a weekend? It means turning off the screens and turning off all of the artificial lights.
The study found that over 60% of the shift can happen over a weekend. Assuming the weekend is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, that would give you a 20% recovery per night. Add 2 more nights to get 100% recovery? Five nights to reset your clock.
Of course, we’d like an easier path.
One alternate path reminds me of other “detox cures” that are quite popular. For example, I read an article on how to reverse some liver damage. In brief, it suggests that you avoid alcohol and processed foods, exercise more, lose 10% of your weight, take some milk thistle and maybe some Vitamin E. That sounds like good general health advice, but other than taking some supplements, it also sounds like a tough regimen for most of us to follow.
That is why a lot of people have decided to try taking melatonin supplements. It’s easy, and it sounds logical. You lack the melatonin to induce sleep, so you add some artificially. I tried resrtting my circadian rhythms using melatonin about a year ago. I read about what the levels are supposed to be. I made a schedule of when I would take the melatonin and when I would go to sleep. I adhered to the schedule – for two weeks.
The experiment did seem to work. I felt like I was falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. I didn’t do anything with light. I suspect that part of the improvement came from sticking to a regular sleep schedule. I was going to bed at 11 pm and waking up at 7 am for a solid 8 hours. But I just couldn’t keep to the schedule. I continued taking the melatonin until the bottle was empty, but I was going to bed at 1 or 2 am some nights and waking up at 6, 8 or even 9 am. That’s not how to do it.
People also try using artificial lights that mimic the spectrum and the intensity of natural light, but that can be costly. It is one of the therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that hits people as the “winter blues.”
I’ll be taking a week away from the winter blues soon and I will try, as best I can, to break from the screens and live by the sunlight and moonlight.
There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.
Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.
I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.
White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.
Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.
Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”
Can we get L-theanine from other sources? It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).
Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.
It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.
The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.
What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.
Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.
That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.
Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.
But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.
You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.
The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.
In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”
I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.
Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.
Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.
Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.
I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep. I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.
Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.
According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.” Set a reminder for next weekend.
Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.
Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.
I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.
For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:
- My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
- My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
- and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
- I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
- I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
- I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
- My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.
I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.
All the gardeners I know, including myself, feel better when we are working in the garden. Some people say it is a meditative experience – a way to separate yourself from the troubles of the everyday.
I love getting my hands into the soil. I rarely wear gloves because I like the feel of the soil.
Recent research has given some scientific basis for that good feeling we get in working the soil. Contained in soil is Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic species of bacteria. It occurs naturally. Researchers have been studying how killed Mycobacterium vaccae vaccine might be used as immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, leprosy, psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema, tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis – and depression.
That last area of research is what brings me to happy soil. It has recently been hypothesized that exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae may result in an antidepressant effect, because it stimulates the generation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. There may be some natural Prozac in that dirt.
Lack of serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. Many antidepressant drugs are ones that trigger the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.
Now, don’t go out in the backyard and start eating dirt. Working the soil means we make contact with the microbes through the skin and also by breathing some in as we stir up the soil.
The research shows that these microbes cause cytokine levels to rise and that results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. In the studies, the bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion – but that was on rats. The natural antidepressant effect can be felt for up to 3 weeks.
Maybe those pigs and other animals rolling in the dirt were doing more than keeping cool and keeping off insects.
For your health, you may want to do some “forest bathing.” The term means soaking in the forest atmosphere. It originated nearly 35 years ago in Japan, where it’s known as “shinrin-yoku,” and it’s now catching on in the United States.
As a lover of the beach and ocean, and with 130 miles of Jersey coastline nearby, I have a lifetime of sun and ocean bathing. The way the smell of salt air, feet in the sand and the sound of waves create inner peace, is what is claimed for forest bathing.
Breathe in the pine trees, listen to the birds and water flowing over stones, see the patterns of green or autumn’s palette and how the sunlight changes the scene, feel the textures of trees and plants. Walk barefoot. No nudity or bathing suits required.
Shinrin-yoku practitioners do it for relaxation and rejuvenation. It soothes the mind, but can have real benefits, such as lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system.
Back in the 1980s, Japanese researchers theorized that substances called phytoncides (antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants) produced the health benefits and relaxation.
You don’t need to be a scientist to know the benefits of time spent in a forest, but researchers do believe that humans are “hard-wired” to need nature in their lives.
One study found that the average concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone found in saliva, was 13.4 percent lower in people who were in a forest setting for just 20 minutes compared to people in urban settings.
Li Qing of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, conducted experiments to find out if spending time in nature increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. The study found that NK activity was significantly boosted in two groups that spent time in forests.
You don’t need to take a strenuous hike to practice shinrin-yoku. The practice may not burn lots of calories, so don’t do it as “exercise” alone.
I went for a cool, slightly wet walk today in my local woods. It’s hardly a “forest” but it has birds, wildlife, a small brook and I can go deep enough to not hear the cars and people who surround it. I bathed. I was literally a little wet. I felt better.
More research shows that learning new things – novelty – helps ward off dementia. All those “brain games” that you hear advertised might have some positive impact.
Yes, doing those crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good, but more important is to have new experiences, as opposed to doing old ones over and over. Novel experiences strengthen the connections between parts of your brain. Most brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, but new and more challenging activities – such as learning a new language – seem to strengthen entire networks in the brain.
Novelty also includes going to new places and meeting new people. Reading a book is a good thing, but even if it is about a new topic, the experience of reading is not new. Reading about tennis is nowhere near as important to improving the brain as trying to learn how to actually play it.
One study on the impact of exercise on the brain, found that 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. This exercise “improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory.”
Memory is the part that interests my aging brain. When memories are encoded in the brain, it seems that this process involves neurons and their synapses. When we recall a memory, that reactivates those pathways connecting the memory neurons are reactivated. One analogy used is that encoding is like sculpting. We experience things and that demarks certain neurons and then we chisel specific connections between them.
Firing up old pathways – playing a game or reading a novel again – is a good thing. The pathways of memory reactivates some paths that have been unused. Perhaps, if we don’t use those paths for a very long time, it’s not possible to find them again.
Sculpting, creating new pathways, is even better. Might the new pathways cross with older ones creating complex connections? Might new pathways reconnect us with older ones that have been lost over the years? Despite lots of research, the brain is still holds so many unknowns – but what a wonderful adventure.