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Lights Out! Is Lack of Sleep Making You Fat?

When it comes to health and wellness, most of us are suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision. I like to call it “being stuck in The Box”.

The Box is fairly limited in contents, usually consisting of two things: diet and exercise. They’re all we seem to talk, argue, and debate about.

What’s the best diet?

Which burns more fat: long distance cardio or interval training?

Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

It never ends. And worst of all, a lot of the answers we get seldom seem to work. Is there something we’re missing?

Last month, Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, was on UW Radio. He and I discussed the first law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as the law of conservation. This is the law that the calorie-counters cling to. It states that energy cannot be created or destroyed but can only change from one form to another. In other words, if you eat more calories than you burn, you store (conserve) those excess calories (energy) as fat. Do the opposite and you burn fat.

I can hear the calorie-counters letting out an “amen” right now. The first law of thermodynamics is indisputable! And I agree. The law is in fact true. However, as Gary pointed out, at no point does it address WHY we overconsume those calories.

Now let’s take a step outside of our pretty little Boxes.

People like me focus so much on how our diets have changed over the past 10,000 years. Actually, scratch that! Our diets have changed tremendously just in the last decade. While all of these nutritional and lifestyle rearrangements transpired, our genetic framework barely changed (just 0.01% according to Dr. S. Boyd Eaton). And as Dr. Cate Shanahan pointed out in her book Deep Nutrition, our old school genes expect old school foods, not any of this newfangled (I stole that word from Sally Fallon) processed crap most folks eat today. I think we can all agree on that.

But what else has changed?

Well, let’s rewind 10,000 years ago (actually we don’t even have to go back that far). We, like every other species on the planet, lived according to the sun, moon, and stars. Yes, we were “lazy overeaters” as Art De Vany would say. But we were also “seasonal overeaters”.

Seasonal undereaters.

Seasonal breeders.

And seasonal sleepers.

Back then, the long days and short nights of spring and summer brought abundant food as the trees grew fruit. This was followed by the short days and long nights of famine, a time when we took to our caves and chilled out for the winter. The trees grew no fruit. The freezing weather made hunting quite a challenge. Snow and ice covered the soils, keeping the wild vegetation from springing forth.

Just think of growing a garden in the middle of snow season.

Every so often, the power goes out in your neighborhood. Let’s say it’s about 9pm and you don’t have candles. The pitch black you experience is what your ancestors experienced every day when the sun went down (that is, until fire was domesticated). Chances are you get incredibly bored because you can’t access Facebok, Twitter, or my incredibly awesome blog here. What do you do?

You go to bed.

What does this have to do with health, fat loss, and WHY we overeat? A lot.

If you knew a famine was on the way, you would get prepared. You’d likely stock up on canned foods, water, and other non-perishables. If you didn’t, you’d be an idiot and nature would weed you out. Either that or you’d be quite the freeloader. Really, I’m not sure which is worse.

Our ancestors didn’t have such luxuries. They prepared for the winter by fattening up during the summer and living off of their fat stores when the food went scarce.

Did they do this on purpose? Maybe so. But even if they were idiots, their bodies would make them get ready for the coming famine.

As you know, melatonin is your primary sleep hormone. During summer, when the nights are short, melatonin production is reduced for a couple of reasons. Of course, the first reason is that the nights are much shorter as compared to the winter. The next is that melatonin suppresses the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. So when melatonin is down, it’s sexy time! This makes sense because pregnancy requires sufficient fat stores (which build up in summer, as you will soon learn) and it is best to give birth in the spring when there is enough food to go around. Giving birth during a famine isn’t a very good idea.

As I mentioned earlier, the trees fruit during the warmer months. This gave your ancestors access to carbohydrate for a limited time. We all know that excess carbohydrate increases insulin, which stores fat and also increases cholesterol. In summer, this is what we wanted to do. Consuming carbohydrate to make fat was how we got ourselves ready for winter. Heading into winter looking like a supermodel was bad news! What’s more, cholesterol reduces the freezing temperature of your cells. That way you wouldn’t freeze to death in your furnace-less cave.

Let’s go back to melatonin. During sleep, you make another hormone called prolactin, When the nights are long, as in winter, your prolactin has come down by the time you wake up. But in the summer, when the nights are short, prolactin spills over into the daytime. This is a key point when considering WHY we overeat (specifically carbohydrates).

When prolactin spills over into the daytime, it suppresses a hormone called leptin. Leptin is your body’s fat monitor. I’ll have to make a video about this one soon. For now, to make it simple, leptin goes to the brain and pushes the OFF button on your Neuropeptide Y (NPY). When NPY is turned on, you crave carbohydrates. This is why your ancestors loaded up on fruit and carbs as much as they could during the spring and summer. They were driven to do it by NPY! Why? Because the short nights gave them “prolactin spillover”, thus suppressing leptin, and leaving carb-craving NPY cranked up.

Of course, all of this “carbing-up” made them insulin resistant, which was actually a good thing back then. Insulin resistance and the fat it stores isn’t really a problem when your life depends on it.

Let’s fast-forward to the early 20th century and the invention of the light bulb. Now, with the flip of a switch (or the clap of our hands) we can manipulate the seasons. Long days. Short nights. Year round.

Endless Summer isn’t just a movie about surfers. It’s how we live our lives.

And the famine never comes.

Damn you, Edison.

While we fret over diet and exercise, the light bulb gets a free pass. The answer to WHY we overeat may be the fact that we don’t sleep and never turn the lights off. We advocate following Mother Nature and the foods she provides. But nature is more than just food. She is the sun, moon, stars, and everything else that originates from her. That is, until we took it upon ourselves to do her job for her.

Obesity is much more than what’s in The Box. It’s survival gone haywire.

I encourage you to step out of your Box.

You’re sure to have a light bulb moment.

Sean Croxton
In Bed by 10pm!

Comments

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9 thoughts on “Lights Out! Is Lack of Sleep Making You Fat?

  1. Dr. Lo

    Okay, I just read the whole thing. PIMP blog.

    “We advocate following Mother Nature and the foods she provides. But nature is more than just food. She is the sun, moon, stars…..” Aww. So poetic. =)

    “You’re sure to have a light bulb moment.” LOVE IT.

    Have a great interview tonight.

  2. Elizabeth Walling

    Excellent thoughts on sleep. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways our lives have changed in recent years. And you’re right: it’s WAY more than just food! The way we live, the way we think, the way we sleep… it’s all so different than it was just a few decades ago. I think to achieve real health you do have to think about more than just food. Though I still consider food to be an excellent foundation for anyone, as you said in your post, it’s hard to eat right when you haven’t been getting enough sleep (or when there are other stressors going on in your life). Holistic balance. It’s important stuff.

  3. Bobby Khan

    Though I see the point, I fail to see what the solution to your proposed problem is? I mean light or not, we are controlling when we go to bed as we know when to wake up (less we suffer from insomnia, which many do) We cant exactly revert back to the caveman times and shut of the power

  4. Peter

    There is another aspect I believe that is important for the high-carbs-best-consumed-in summer-theory: Vitamin D.
    Vitamin D is very important to absorb most of those sour-bitter-sweet juices from raw fruits and vegetables properly and since raw fruit digestion doesn’t go well with meats, the best way to consume them is in the sunshine.
    In winter it should be best to eat fermented foods in order to get Vitamin C and K.
    When I try to eat fruit during the winter it instantly makes me super-hungry for meat (Vitamin D).

  5. Dr Cate Shanahan

    I never thought about the seasonality of sleep (since I only just recently moved from HI where we had no seasonality to speak of) what a great insight. In working with patients on weight loss, I have found that even following an ideal meal plan, if a person is getting less than 7 hours, both men and women will have more trouble with weight loss plateaus. Of course, their lives are such that they can’t do anything about it but at least now I can suggest they focus on sleeping more during the dark seasons. Thank you Sean for this interesting discussion!

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