Category: Health

The link between sleep and creativity

I’m a big fan of sleep. Since buying a smartwatch earlier this year, I’ve been wearing it all of the time, including in bed at night. What I’ve found is that I’m actually a good sleeper, regularly sleeping better than 95% of other people who use the same Mi Fit app.

Like most people, after a poor night’s sleep I’m not at my best the next day. This article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic helps explain why.

As you start to fall asleep, you enter non-REM sleep. That includes a light phase that takes up most of the night, and a period of much heavier slumber called slow-wave sleep, or SWS, when millions of neurons fire simultaneously and strongly, like a cellular Greek chorus. “It’s something you don’t see in a wakeful state at all,” says Lewis. “You’re in a deep physiological state of sleep and you’d be unhappy if you were woken up.”

During that state, the brain replays memories. For example, the same neurons that fired when a rat ran through a maze during the day will spontaneously fire while it sleeps at night, in roughly the same order. These reruns help to consolidate and strengthen newly formed memories, integrating them into existing knowledge. But Lewis explains that they also help the brain extract generalities from specifics—an idea that others have also supported.

We’ve known for generations that, if we’ve got a problem to solve or a decision to make, that it’s a good idea to ‘sleep on it’. Science is catching up with folk wisdom.

The other phase of sleep—REM, which stands for rapid eye movement—is very different. That Greek chorus of neurons that sang so synchronously during non-REM sleep descends into a cacophonous din, as various parts of the neocortex become activated, seemingly at random. Meanwhile, a chemical called acetylcholine—the same one that Loewi identified in his sleep-inspired work—floods the brain, disrupting the connection between the hippocampus and the neocortex, and placing both in an especially flexible state, where connections between neurons can be more easily formed, strengthened, or weakened.

The difficulty is that our sleep quality is affected by blue light confusing the brain as to what kind of day it is. That’s why we’re seeing increasing numbers of devices changing your screen colour towards the red end of the spectrum in the evening. If you have disrupted sleep, you miss out on an important phase of your sleep cycle.

Crucially, they build on one another. The sleeping brain goes through one cycle of non-REM and REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. Over the course of a night—or several nights—the hippocampus and neocortex repeatedly sync up and decouple, and the sequence of abstraction and connection repeats itself. “An analogy would be two researchers who initially work on the same problem together, then go away and each think about it separately, then come back together to work on it further,” Lewis writes.

“The obvious implication is that if you’re working on a difficult problem, allow yourself enough nights of sleep,” she adds. “Particularly if you’re trying to work on something that requires thinking outside the box, maybe don’t do it in too much of a rush.”

As the article states, there’s further research to be done here. But, given that sleep (along with exercise and nutrition) is one of the three ‘pillars’ of productivity, this certainly chimes with my experience.

Source: The Atlantic

Living with anxiety

It’s taken me a long time to admit it to myself (and my wife) but while I don’t currently suffer from depression, I do live with a low-level general background anxiety that seems to have developed during my adult life.

Wil Wheaton, “actor, blogger, voice actor and writer” and all-round darling of the internet has written in the last few days about his struggles with mental health. My experiences aren’t as extreme as his — I’ve never had panic attacks, and being based from home has made my working life more manageable — but I do relate.

This, in particular, resonated with me from what Wheaton had to say:

One of the many delightful things about having Depression and Anxiety is occasionally and unexpectedly feeling like the whole goddamn world is a heavy lead blanket, like that thing they put on your chest at the dentist when you get x-rays, and it’s been dropped around your entire existence without your consent.

The smallest things feel like insurmountable obstacles. One day you’re dealing with people and projects across several timezones like an absolute boss, the next day just going to buy a loaf of bread at the local shop feels like a a huge achievement.

We like to think we can control everything in our lives. We can’t.

I think it was then, at about 34 years-old, that I realized that Mental Illness is not weakness. It’s just an illness. I mean, it’s right there in the name “Mental ILLNESS” so it shouldn’t have been the revelation that it was, but when the part of our bodies that is responsible for how we perceive the world and ourselves is the same part of our body that is sick, it can be difficult to find objectivity or perspective.

I’m physically strong: I run, swim, and go to the gym. I (mostly!) eat the right things. My sleep routine is healthy. My family is happy and I feel loved. I’ve found self-medicating with L-Theanine and high doses of Vitamin D helpful. All of this means I’ve managed to minimise my anxiety to the greatest extent possible.

And yet, out of nowhere, a couple of times a month come waves of feelings that I can’t quite describe. They loom. Everything is not right with the world. It makes no sense to say that they don’t have a particular object or focus, but they really don’t. I can’t put my finger on them or turn what it feels like into words.

Wheaton suggests that often the things we don’t feel like doing in these situations are exactly the things we need to do:

Give yourself permission to acknowledge that you’re feeling terrible (or bad, or whatever it is you are feeling), and then do a little thing, just one single thing, that you probably don’t feel like doing, and I PROMISE you it will help. Some of those things are:

  • Take a shower.
  • Eat a nutritious meal.
  • Take a walk outside (even if it’s literally to the corner and back).
  • Do something — throw a ball, play tug of war, give belly rubs — with a dog. Just about any activity with my dogs, even if it’s just a snuggle on the couch for a few minutes, helps me.
  • Do five minutes of yoga stretching.
  • Listen to a guided meditation and follow along as best as you can.

For me, going for a run or playing with my children usually helps enormously. Anything that helps put things into perspective.

What I really appreciate in Wheaton’s article, which was an address he gave to NAMI (the American National Alliance on Mental Illness), was that he focused on the experience of undiagnosed children. It’s hard enough as an adult to realise what’s going on, so for children it must be pretty terrible.

If you’re reading this and suffer from anxiety and/or depression, let’s remember it’s 2018. It’s time to open up about all this stuff. And, as Wheaton reminds us, let’s talk to our children about this, too. The chances are that what you’re living with is genetic, so your kids will also have to deal with this at some point.

Source: Wil Wheaton

You need more daylight to sleep better

An an historian, I’ve often been fascinated about what life must have been like before the dawn of electricity. I have a love-hate relationship with artificial light. On the one hand, I use a lightbox to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder. On the other hand, I’ve got (my optician tells me) not only pale blue irises but very thin corneas. That makes me photophobic and subject to the kind of glare on a regular basis I can only imagine ‘normal’ people get after staring at a lightbulb for a while.

In this article, Linda Geddes describes an experiment in which she decided to forgo artificial life for a number of weeks to see what effect it had on her health and, most importantly, her sleep.

Working with sleep researchers Derk-Jan Dijk and Nayantara Santhi at the University of Surrey, I designed a programme to go cold-turkey on artificial light after dark, and to try to maximise exposure to natural light during the day – all while juggling an office job and busy family life in urban Bristol.

By the end of 2017, instead of having to manually install something like f.lux on my devices, they all started to have it built-in. There’s a general realisation that blue light before bedtime is a bad idea. What this article points out, however, is another factor: how bright the light is that you’re subjected to during the day.

Light enables us to see, but it affects many other body systems as well. Light in the morning advances our internal clock, making us more lark-like, while light at night delays the clock, making us more owlish. Light also suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which signals to the rest of the body that it’s night-time – including the parts that regulate sleep. “Apart from vision, light has a powerful non-visual effect on our body and mind, something to remember when we stay indoors all day and have lights on late into the night,” says Santhi, who previously demonstrated that the evening light in our homes suppresses melatonin and delays the timing of our sleep.

The important correlation here is between the strength of light Geddes experienced during her waking hours, and the quality of her sleep.

But when I correlated my sleep with the amount of light I was exposed to during the daytime, an interesting pattern emerged. On the brightest days, I went to bed earlier. And for every 100 lux increase in my average daylight exposure, I experienced an increase in sleep efficiency of almost 1% and got an extra 10 minutes of sleep.

This isn’t just something that Geddes has experienced; studies have also found this kind of correlation.

In March 2007, Dijk and his colleagues replaced the light bulbs on two floors of an office block in northern England, housing an electronic parts distribution company. Workers on one floor of the building were exposed to blue-enriched lighting for four weeks; those on the other floor were exposed to white light. Then the bulbs were switched, meaning both groups were ultimately exposed to both types of light. They found that exposure to the blue-enriched white light during daytime hours improved the workers’ subjective alertness, performance, and evening fatigue. They also reported better quality and longer sleep.

So the key takeaway message?

It’s ridiculously simple. But spending more time outdoors during the daytime and dimming the lights in the evening really could be a recipe for better sleep and health. For millennia, humans have lived in synchrony with the Sun. Perhaps it’s time we got reacquainted.

Source: BBC Future

The world’s most nutritious foods

The older I get, the more important (and the more immediately apparent) the health benefits from eating and exercising well.

This article reports on scientists studying 1,000 different foods for their health benefits:

Scientists studied more than 1,000 foods, assigning each a nutritional score. The higher the score, the more likely each food would meet, but not exceed your daily nutritional needs, when eaten in combination with others.

The top ones?

  1. Almonds
  2. Cherimoya
  3. Ocean perch
  4. Flatfish
  5. Chia seeds
  6. Pumpkin seeds
  7. Swiss chard
  8. Pork fat
  9. Beet greens
  10. Snapper

Ever since reading of the value of almonds to non-meat eaters in The 4-Hour Body, I’ve taken a big bag of them on every trip. I also have some in a jar on my desk at home. As for the others on the list, some (pork fat!) are out of the question, and some (cherimoya) I’ve never come across.

Time for some more experimentation…

Source: BBC Future

Alzheimer’s is a kind of ‘type 3’ diabetes

My Great Aunt, who we were close to, developed Alzheimer’s Disease towards the end of her life. This article claims that scientific evidence points to a link between the condition and diabetes:

A longitudinal study, published Thursday in the journal Diabetologia, followed 5,189 people over 10 years and found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar—whether or not their blood-sugar level technically made them diabetic. In other words, the higher the blood sugar, the faster the cognitive decline.

And the reason?

Schilling posits this happens because of the insulin-degrading enzyme, a product of insulin that breaks down both insulin and amyloid proteins in the brain—the same proteins that clump up and lead to Alzheimer’s disease. People who don’t have enough insulin, like those whose bodies’ ability to produce insulin has been tapped out by diabetes, aren’t going to make enough of this enzyme to break up those brain clumps. Meanwhile, in people who use insulin to treat their diabetes and end up with a surplus of insulin, most of this enzyme gets used up breaking that insulin down, leaving not enough enzyme to address those amyloid brain clumps.

Really interesting, and another reason to avoid sugar and heavily-processed foods.

Source: The Atlantic

Depression as an evolutionary advantage?

It’s been almost 15 years since I suffered from depression. Since that time, I’ve learned to look after myself mentally and physically to resist whatever natural tendency I have towards spiralling downwards.

I found this article fascinating.

Some psychologists… have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits.

The dominant popular view seems to be that there’s something wrong with your brain chemistry, so exercise, antidepressants and counselling can fix it.

Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist now at McMaster University…  noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There’s an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one’s pain. There’s an increase in certain types of analytical ability. And there’s an uptick in REM sleep, a time when the brain consolidates memories.

However, for me, the fix was to get out of the terrible situation I was in, a teaching job in a very tough school.

If something is broken in your life, you need to bear down and mend it. In this view, the disordered and extreme thinking that accompanies depression, which can leave you feeling worthless and make you catastrophize your circumstances, is needed to punch through everyday positive illusions and focus you on your problems. In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.

I suffer from migraines, which are bizarre episodes. They’re difficult to explain to people as they’re a whole-body response. Changing my lifestyle so I don’t get migraines is a micro-version of the kind of lifestyle changes you need to make to stave off depression.

These theories do cast some of our traditional responses to depression in a new light, however. If depression is a strategic response that we are programmed to carry out, consciously or unconsciously, does it make sense to try to suppress its symptoms through, say, the use of antidepressants? [Edward] Hagen [an anthropologist at Washington State University] describes antidepressants as painkillers, arguing that it would be unethical for a doctor to treat a broken ankle with Percocet and no cast. You need to fix the underlying problem.

I can’t imagine being on antidepressants for any more than a few weeks (as I was). They dull your mind, which allows you to cope with the world as it is, but don’t (in my experience) allow you lead a flourishing human life.

Even if depression evolved as a useful tool over the eons, that doesn’t make it useful today. We’ve evolved to crave sugar and fat, but that adaptation is mismatched with our modern environment of caloric abundance, leading to an epidemic of obesity. Depression could be a mismatched condition. Hagen concedes that for most of evolution, we lived with relatives and spent all day with people ready to intervene in our lives, so that episodes of depression might have led to quick solutions. Today, we’re isolated, and we move from city to city, engaging with people less invested in our reproductive fitness. So depressive signals may go unheeded and then compound, leading to consistent, severe dysfunction. A Finnish study found that as urbanization and modernization have increased over the last two centuries, so have suicide rates. That doesn’t mean depression is no longer functional (if indeed it ever was), just that in the modern world it may misfire more than we’d like.

Source: Nautilus

Meaningless work causes depression

As someone who has suffered in the past from depression, and still occasionally suffers from anxiety, I find this an interesting article:

If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs – for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.

Meaningful work is important. Our neoliberal economy is removing much of this under the auspices of ‘efficiency’.

Source: The Guardian