Insomnia, you say?

tl;dr Matthew Walker (sleepdiplomat@) unveils a surge of sleep science you probably haven’t heard before.

Last Monday, Matthew Walker, professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley and Sleep Scientist at Google, sat down with Google President, Matt Brittin, in candid conversation about sleep. In one hour, Walker traversed sizable ground: the importance of sleep (ie side effects of undersleeping), sleeping problems, and ways to improve sleep. He provocatively refers to undersleeping as ‘the new smoking’ because it’s such an under-recognized phenomenon on institutional, societal, and individual levels. The average doctor has 2 hours of sleep education (Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School). How much could we really know about sleep? Matthew Walker, you’ve got my attention.

I’m a complicated sleeper. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sensitive relationship to sleep—mostly the falling asleep part. I was a baby with colic who couldn’t sleep. I was the last friend to painfully drift off alone at sleepovers. And today, I still accept that I probably won’t sleep as well when I’m away from my own bed. When the perfect storm hits, the anticipatory anxiety rears its head and the vicious cycle begins. A good night’s sleep can often feel like a lottery, an innate human behavior that feels stupidly inaccessible.

If you’re in a cycle of bracing for impact—laying awake in bed or over-regulating energy and sleep with coffee/substances—there’s hope. But before we get ahead of ourselves, you should know..

The caustic consequences when you’re underslept:

  • <7-9 hours – the brain is 40% deficient in its ability to lay down new memory traces (and keep them)
  • <7-9 hours – the amygdala, the central stress response center of the brain, is 60% more reactive; this significantly broadens the gamut of emotions you’re bound to experience in a day
  • <7-9 hours – if dieting, 70% of weight lost will come from lean muscle instead of from fat
  • ≤5 hours – you’re 400% more likely to catch a cold than if you were getting ~8 hours of shut-eye
  • ≤5-6 hours – after one week of undersleeping at this rate, a flu shot would render ineffective because the body wouldn’t be able to produce a sufficient immune response to the antigen

These are only a few near-term examples. The compounded effects are devastating. Insufficient sleep is the most significant lifestyle factor determining if you’ll develop Alzheimer’s. But the cost doesn’t stop at health. Majority of waking hours are spent towards making our future beds. Having healthy mental faculties when the time comes to enjoy 401K and long-term investments seems favorable, right? Also notable is the cash flow that accompanies sleep debt; we’re more likely to spend money on coffee, fast food, under-eye concealer, etc..

Your significant other and boss prefer well-slept you, too. When I’m not feeling lousy and drowsy, I am more likely to offer meaningful real-time feedback to colleagues and am also in a better place to receive and iterate on feedback. The same applies to personal relationships, typically more emotionally dense terrain, that demand higher cognitive signaling and interpretation.

We get it. We’ve got issues.

So how do we not suck so badly at sleep? Walker first divides sleep debt issues into two categories—(1) lack of opportunity to sleep and (2) problems with sleeping (environment, diet, insomnia, sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, etc.). The opportunity to sleep really narrows in on how much one wants to / is in a position to advocate for sleep. But in regards to the latter category… Insomnia rates in developed nations are about 10-15%, while for hunter gatherer tribes whose lives haven’t changed in thousands of years, it’s 1-2%. I’m thinking what you’re thinking—what’s all of this insomnia about? To put it simply, there’s more “noise” in developed worlds that causes disruption. To name a few:

  • Don’t make light of light. Blue light, specifically. You probably went to sleep last night with some shape of an electronic under your nose, which means these sneaky wavelengths got all up in your system. Blue light exposure until bedtime not only delays the release of melatonin by 3 hours, but ultimately decreases the amount of melatonin you’ll release by 50%. Far beyond its natural power in helping us fall asleep, melatonin plays an important role in maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm. Science on blue light here, here, and here.  
    • Recommended actions:
      • Stop using electronics ~2 hours before bedtime
      • Use the nightshift setting on devices (w/ brightness turned all the way down)
      • Invest in blue-light blocking glasses during nighttime use of electronics (do your research on % of wavelength blockage)
  • It’s called morning joe for a reason. Here is some simple math to understand the cost of an afternoon caffeine boost. Enjoying a cup of coffee at 12pm means half of the caffeine consumed will be gone by 6 pm (a 6-hour half-life), but a non-trivial 25% will still be swirling in your brain at midnight.
    • Recommended action: Walker suggests to stop drinking caffeine 16 hours before bed. If you think this sounds impossible for a reason, well…
  • Alcohol doesn’t fragment just your thoughts. Your sleep, too! This one is tricky, because while it can feel soporific (causing or tending to cause sleep), it really plays with quality of sleep. Whether or not alcohol markedly impacts your sleep, research shows a 20% reduction in deep sleep on nights you booze. If that’s not real enough for you—add 20-25 years to your age. That’s the amount of time it will take to naturally drop your deep sleep by 20% due to aging.
    • Recommended action: Cut out alcohol / drink deliberately.
  • Anxious hot spots in the bedroom can keep us up at night. *Beep, beep, (hovers hand over cell phone on nightstand) beep-beep-beep-beep-beep*. We’re associative creatures, which means working in bed or sleeping next to a device changes how we operate (sleep).
    • Recommended action: De-tech your bedroom. And if that’s too hard, swap the nightstand outlet for a different wall.
  • Know your chronotype. Everyone’s body has an innate rhythm of functions, “a circadian rhythym” (one of the first dominos in queue being sleep). Tweaking some habits around your tendencies could optimize more than just your sleep, like mood, performance, etc.
    • Recommended action: Here is a quick quiz you can take to understand how chronotypes work and a bit about your own.

I shared the chosen examples because these are what have helped improve my own access to sleep (and overall relationship to sleep) over the past two weeks. But because sleep isn’t one size fits all, I’ve listed the below resources for your own embarkation.

Like most things, the impact goes beyond you and me. Increasing our own access to sleep provides more presence and opportunity to increase access to resources that, unlike sleep, aren’t at our own disposal. “Noise” that may be contributing to a lack of sleep is a byproduct of living in a bountifully resourced environment that in the end, is really an invitation to do good.

Thanks to Matthew Walker *hat tip* for scratching his head over sleep for us—all we need to do is get some.

—–

“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker – Amazon Kindle $13.99

Matthew Walker & Joe Rogan

Juxtaposed to my recent post on how deliberate thinking can change gene expression—undersleeping also changes the way your genes are expressed (1:29:11). Also, studies show that 50% our brain sleeps differently when we’re outside of our routine sleep ecosystem. Science ftw.

Liberate your mind & body: think deliberately

tl;dr – you (via your mind) can alter your genetic activity; an ~8 min read on why and how.

You’ve probably heard of neuroplasticity – your brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections (MedicineNet). With or without your elected participation, your brain is perpetually re-wiring, dusting off its many mantles, and installing new five-lane freeways.

But about our role in this process where we can—where we get to—advocate for positive change on a very conscious level. What an invitation.

I’ve known there is good reason for the increasing engagement in meditation, yoga, mind-body wellness programs, etc., but why is it / what is it that makes these practices effective contributors to improved overall well-being? Below are insights from my exploration on the matter.

But why (should I care)?

It has been scientifically proven that you can change the way your genes are “expressed.” You’re stuck with your DNA. But you do have some agency over its proclivity to act in certain ways.

So let’s unpack “gene expression.” Scientifically, it’s the specific patterns, groupings, or sequences of RNA and DNA. In layman’s terms, it’s the activity of genes in influencing your health or producing other changes in the body. Your DNA changing expression can potentially translate to: better sleep, optimized cognitive functioning, stabilized hormones, improved self-concept, injury resilience and healing, improved anxiety and depression, etc. This should mean something to you.

Okay, then. Tell me more.

Herbert Benson, MD and William Proctor, MD created the two-phase “Relaxation Response” (also called the Henry-Benson Protocol) that when practiced daily (~22 mins), can elicit beneficial genetic benefits (ie change your gene’s expression) after eight weeks.

The Relaxation Response

Phase 1 – 12-15 mins

  • Step 1: Pick a focus (a word, phrase, image, short prayer, your breathing, etc.)
  • Step 2: Find a quiet place and sit calmly
  • Step 3: Close your eyes
  • Step 4: Progressively relax your muscles
  • Step 5: Breathe slowly and naturally. As you exhale, repeat your chosen focus
  • Step 6: Assume a passive attitude, saying “oh well” when thoughts intrude
  • Step 7: Continue with this exercise for 12 to 15 mins
  • Step 8: Practice at least once daily

Phase 2 – 8-10 mins

  • Visualization: employ mental imagery to picture a peaceful or desired scenario (e.g. living pain-free, picturing yourself achieving a goal, etc.)

Focusing on something. That’s it in a nutshell. When a meditation professional told me that I could choose my focus, —a word or mantra, the flicker of a candle—that was really big news to me. “Connecting to my breath” is challenging for me and if I’m being downright honest, makes me angry. I learned this is surprisingly common. You too?

Your attention matters. The object of your attention (obviously) matters too, but not as much as how you show up. The degree of attention and the amount of saturated time you spend chiseling and refining your attention MATTERS.

Time to unlearn (where due) what the contemporary meditating community may have influenced, and enter stage left: “the Relaxation Response.” Sure, it doesn’t sound as ‘sexy’ and hip as meditating, but don’t be fooled. The “Relaxation Response” is meditating (in the most simplistic and uncomplicated way)—without the unfortunate underbelly of meditation’s religion, billion dollar industry, malpractice, and societal construct.

Have you ever meditated and thought, “why am I the absolute worst at this?” While well-intended, meditation apps can overcomplicate a really simple process (that’s the “value” for your $12.99 subscription). Damn you, Calm! I’m highly supportive of what works best for the individual, which is why I’ve personally veered away from apps.

The good news – it’s easy. The problem – it’s easy. You have unlimited 24/7 access. Because of this, I think it’s less attractive to us. It’s just not how our brains work; behavorial economics reinforces the concept that we assign value to things that come at a cost (usually, a financial cost). Using your brain (time included) is the currency involved in this transaction. Don’t underestimate the value in that. Don’t be dumb.

A Case Study

In 2008, Benson and Proctor wanted to understand in what ways the regular practice of a “relaxation response” (e.g. the above two-phase model, meditation, yoga, repetitive prayer) changes a person’s “gene expression” (genetic behavior that promotes health or produces changes in the human body). Of 54,000 genes, they wanted to see which ones were altered (“turned on” or “turned off”) by employing the “Relaxation response.” Do note: a gene expression being “turned on” is not necessarily a ‘positive’ thing (promoting good health). For example, a gene expression that is “turned off” may indicate a healthy state of well-being. Each gene expression is unique in this way.

Two groups were formed:

  1. A primary group of 19 experienced self-practitioners in mind body medicine averaging 9.4 years of practice which elicits a form of the “relaxation response” (e.g. two-phase Benson-Proctor model, meditation, yoga, repetitive prayer, etc.).
  2. A control group of 19 inexperienced self-practitioners in mind body medicine lacking experience with or understanding of mind body medicine, or practice of the “relaxation response.”

The experiment:

  • The baseline: Blood was drawn from all participants in both groups to determine which / how many of 54,000 genes were “turned on” and “turned off.”
    • Finding: 2,209 genes in the experienced group were expressed differently than the same genes in the inexperienced group. To no surprise, these 2,209 genes are linked to stress-related medical problems.

“What would happen if the participants in the inexperienced group were instructed in mind body techniques? Would they show any of the same positive, anti-stress gene expression changes that the highly experienced mind body practitioners had shown?”

(Benson & Proctor, p. 24)
  • The control group was appropriately instructed in the “relaxation response,” which they applied 20 mins daily for eight weeks.
  • The results: Blood was drawn at the end of eight weeks to understand which / how many of the differentiating 2,209 genes might have changed expression.
    • Finding #1: When comparing gene expressions in the inexperienced group from the first blood test to the second blood test, 1,561 genes had changed expression since the first blood test.
    • Finding #2: When comparing the experienced group’s blood tests with the inexperienced group’s blood tests after eight weeks of practicing the “Relaxation Response,” 433 of the same genes had the same expression in both groups. Originally 2,209, now only 1,776 genes in the experienced group were expressed differently. In other words, 433 genes changed expression for health betterment.

After only eight weeks of practicing the “Relaxation Response” daily, the inexperienced group of self-practitioners had “caught up” (arguably, by 19.6%) to the experienced group of mind body “Relaxation Response” practitioners with ≥9 years of experience.

If you’re wondering, the probability of the same gene signatures being involved accidentally in both groups in both experiments was less than one in 10 billion. This wasn’t a chance event.

There it is, friends. The mind can influence the body down to the genetic level, via a daily 20 min brain bath.

I took these two photographs a few months ago when I was playing with a new camera lens in my San Francisco neighborhood. The same camera. The same lens. A different setting.

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The distance between these two images is partially up to you and me. It’s not for us to know how much space God and science take up (I believe they are both present and mighty), but there is also plenty of room for you and me to participate.

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If you’re curious like I am and want to learn more, visit BensonHenryInstitute.org for more research on the genetic nuances of mind body healing.

Relaxation Revolution: the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing, by Herbert Benson and William Proctor, Scribner, 2011.

A sliver of home.

This is a personal post, but not just because my bare fanny makes a broad daylight appearance. This is a personal post because when I watch the below compilation of home video clips, I see—I feel—where I come from and where I’m going. All at the same time.

Kind of like leaning into the ocean breeze with my best friend by my side, our feet cemented to the sand as dreams brushed over us and through the salty tangles in our hair.

Some people may know this as their heart’s center; here is a sliver of my own:

“God is happiest when his children are at play.” – Old Hardy Greaves, Bagger Vance

It started in Brooklyn.

Puffer coat? Yep. Phone charger? Mhm. Heart full of sister love? Check. Tupperware of sourdough starter? Yeah, ya heard me. Nonstop from my sister’s Brooklyn kitchen to San Francisco, CA.

Even with some volatile environmental shifts—the altitude of the flight, a jostled checked bag, and four time zone changes—my little starter was nursed back into a hungry and growing creature (more like a flour-eating monster!) within a week.

We have a lot in common with bread, you and me. There’s grit and resilience from the beginning. Simple ingredients they may be, it’s an overwhelmingly complex and nuanced journey to the other side. Life happens to bread too, I guess!

It really is a miracle that three ingredients (water, flour, and salt) can manifest into a life-supporting food staple that not only tastes like heaven in our mouths, but creates jobs, runs social gatherings, pairs nicely with just about any type of cheese, and can console any human emotion to ever exist. In Egypt, the word bread actually means “life.” Likely not lost on many of you is that Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life (John 6:35) and that bread is a meaningful thread woven throughout the Bible.

So why did bread get kicked to the curb? I think it starts with eating the wrong bread, or avoiding bread altogether. The beauty in Tartine’s recipe is that it’s as clean as a whistle and easy on the gut (GF friends, sourdough is a safe option for us!). If you’ve ever projected onto bread, you’re not alone. I’m guilty of avoiding bread for my own reasons, mostly to accommodate my gluten-free diet or to opt for something that will keep me full longer. My preferences may not change much, but I am reconsidering my relationship to bread. Stay tuned as I experiment and improve my breadcraft and enjoy in moderation the wholesome and healing goodness of a food that I believe really does bring life.

Until the next bake!

~Lo


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First bake flying solo, from my sister’s starter:

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// special thanks to my sister, my well of inspiration //

PS If you want to geek out further on why bread is the coolest, Michael Pollan’s “Air” episode on the Netflix documentary Cooked will probably quench your interest. xx

A Christmas Story (about going OOO).

Talking to yourself as you contemplate taking time off

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When you’ve reached the conclusion that you’re going OOO

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<insert friendly work perpetrator’s name here>

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Once the OOO auto-responder is set

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and you remember

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Congratulations on putting yourself first .

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Do you feel like a new person yet?

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You’re probably going receive some pings and work calls..

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Breathe it out.

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And when you come close to checking your work email, don’t.

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Even though we both know you will.

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So fix yourself an egg nog and let Home Alone bring on all the feels…

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Ask yourself:

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well, kinda (but not really!), but kinda….

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The same thing happening all over again next year.

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This little light of mine.

Life has felt especially joyful lately, but I don’t have any big Hazzah! for you. And that’s why I think this happy tickle is all the more special. It took a few days of working from home and a little stubborn stream of natural light entering my apartment—and suddenly I became a stranger standing on the bare hardwood floor. It was as though I had politely peeled my head around a curtain into someone else’s life and thought: what a beautiful story.

What’s not captured below is the storm of blue painter’s tape and cardboard boxes lining the walls. But in the moments I took these photos, my peripherals digressed and my attention turned to all of the soft, forgiving details—the ones that make you feel like they love you back if you look at them long enough. (I’m lookin’ at you, swan!)

Maybe, when you let a little light in, this is what it feels like to look inside your own heart and feel warmed back.

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