Tag Archives: brain

12 Days of Fitness 2020: Day 2 – Sleep Facts That May Surprise You

(This is part 2 of a 12 part series to provide you with some helpful health and fitness tips over the holiday season)

Back in May, I had the privilege of attending an online seminar about sleep. Prepare to have your mind blown. Science keeps shining a light on the unknown to illuminate things we don’t know. The undeniable value of sleep has led to a recent expansion of the body of science around sleep. New understandings of sleep may be pleasantly surprising—and a welcome relief to those feeling pressured to adopt the mythical “early bird” lifestyle dogma so commonly promoted in health circles.

The Early Bird Myth

There seems to be society-wide pressure to get up early and “crush the day.” This is especially rampant in the health and fitness space. This flawed idea has no basis in science or the historical human experience. Instead it is a byproduct of an attempt to fit all of us into the “workday” boxes laid out by the work and school schedules of modern society. In sleep research, there are different “chronotypes” that refer to genetically predisposed best times to wake up and best hours of focus. An “early chronotype” (commonly referred to as an “early bird”) refers to someone who likes to rise very early, usually before sunrise. A “normal chronotype” typically rises around sunrise or just after. A “late chronotype” refers to what we commonly call a “night owl”. (that’s me..most of the time) Most people fall naturally into one of the three types. For example, the Hadza people of Tanzania are hunter-gatherers whose lifestyle remains similar to early humans. At any given time during the night, no fewer than eight of the tribe members are awake. This is in line with the “sentinel theory” first proposed in the 1960s. In essence, it says that somebody needs to be awake to keep watch for animal or human predators during any of the 24 hours in a day. As a result, there are genes for staying up late, getting up super early and everything in between bred into us and health is optimized when you follow what works for you rather than what you “should” do. In other words, if you’re not in the “early bird” group, it’s best for you if you stop trying to be one.

Polyphasic Sleep

The idea of getting all our sleep in one uninterrupted session is a given in modern life. Surprisingly, many people instead follow a “biphasic” sleep pattern where they sleep in two separate chunks, or a “polyphasic” sleep pattern where they sleep in many chunks during a 24-hour period. It was very common in preindustrial times (before lighting and modern work schedules) to follow a biphasic sleep schedule. The most common form is to sleep for several hours, get up for an hour or two, and then return to sleep for several more hours to achieve the total amount of sleep needed to be well-rested. Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla stuck to almost impossibly strenuous polyphasic sleep cycles. Da Vinci reportedly slept 15 minutes every four hours, while Tesla never slept more than two hours in any 24-hour period (it is probably worth noting that Tesla had a nervous breakdown at age 25). These men were undoubtedly prolific and intelligent, yet their anecdotal examples are not a model to follow for most people. It can be as harmful to health to spend too many consecutive hours awake as it is to get less than your body’s required number of optimal hours of sleep. Our natural, historical tendency toward biphasic sleep warrants the acceptance of napping as a suitable method for being well-rested, especially if schedules or preferences make it impossible to get all your sleep in a single session.

Brain Flushing

When you are asleep, your body may be resting, but your brain is busy taking out the trash. The network that drains waste from the brain is called the glymphatic system. It works by circulating cerebrospinal fluid throughout the brain tissue and flushing any resulting waste into the bloodstream, which then carries it to the liver for detoxification. Brain cells even shrink when we sleep, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to enter and flush out the brain. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are believed to be caused by inflammation and the accumulation of cellular waste products from energy production. These waste products are cleared out of the brain more effectively and more rapidly during sleep. Thus, in addition to the already familiar immediate effect of sleep quality and quantity on your mental function and mood the next day, there are apparently significant long-term brain health benefits to getting proper rest.

Bottom line: Don’t under value the importance of sleep. It could be your undoing.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

See you tomorrow for Day 3 of the 12 Days of Fitness

Just in case, here’s what you might have missed:

Day  #1 – 7 Ways to Stop Overeating Forever

Cognitive Fitness

a7021_2730Exercise. Exercise. Exercise. Unless you have spent the last few years of your life under a rock, most of us are well aware that exercise or even more precisely put, physical activity, is something that should be a part of our daily routine. Unfortunately, while there is no secret that we need to exercise more, not enough of us are doing it.  Consider that 20% of the population over age 18 exercises less than 10 minutes per week and only 46% engage in the recommended 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise, five times a week, we are not entirely heeding that advice. But what if you discovered all of the sudden that the one organ that we take for granted stopped working optimally. No, I am not talking about your heart.  I am talking about that state of the art processor in your noggin – the brain.

The countless benefits to regular exercise have been reported for years: improved blood lipid profiles; increased muscle strength and bone density; decrease in adipose (fat) tissue; enhanced energy levels; a better sense of well being; etc. All of these benefits and many more are proof positive yet rarely is it ever mentioned the benefits that regular physical activity can have on brain function.  That’s right! Exercise is good for your brain too. Exercise and its benefits for the brain, collectively known as cognitive fitness, has been a new area of interest for researchers in the medical community.

Recent research into cognitive fitness suggests that many forms of physical exercise from weight training to gymnastics may be more beneficial to brain function than previously thought.  “It’s common knowledge that exercise is good for the body,’ observes Patti Said, executive director of the New England Cognitive Center (NECC).  “But what we’re just beginning to learn is that the brain, just like the rest of the body benefits immensely from exercise.” Said points out that while the field of cognitive fitness is relatively new, it’s quickly being accepted by the medical community as a legitimate area of inquiry.  “There have been more discoveries in the past decade about how the brain works than in all of history,” she says, “and the result we’re seeing with respect to exercise both physical and mental for the brain are truly spectacular.” Not only does regular physical fitness benefit the brain; it has also been shown to have a positive effect in helping sufferers deal with some familiar brain disorders.

A study by a Seattle based research team, published in the Journals of Internal medicine in January 2006, linked moderate exercise to reduced risk of dementia.  Furthermore, NECC has conducted research that demonstrates a slowing down and in some cases, a reversal of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease when patients participate in cognitive fitness programs.  The study of cognitive fitness programs goes well beyond just lifting weights or walking. The NECC opened is first dedicated cognitive fitness center, dubbed the Brian G.Y.M.M. (Get Your Mind Moving) in West Hartford, Connecticut in May 2006. The facility focuses on memory tune-ups, mind aerobic workshops, and a new computerized memory-enhancement program developed by renowned New York neurophysiologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.  “Our goal, is to help people remain active and independent as they age by providing state of the art workouts for memory concentration, focus, and endurance,” explains Said.  While it is not exactly feasible for everyone to head to Connecticut to work out their brain, cognitive fitness is something that anyone can easily start today.

Aside from regular physical exercising, old fashioned brain exercises such as reading books and magazines, crossword puzzles, solving brain teasers, or figuring out the new craze in Sunday paper puzzles, sudoku, are all time and cost efficient ways to keep brain activity up and sharp.  They will do little for your waist line, but at least your brain will not lose its edge. Still want to use time as an excuse? You could combine the benefits of both physical and cognitive fitness. Studies have even shown that reading while partaking in some light physical activity such as walking or riding a stationary cycle helps to retain more of the information that is read.  Now if someone would have just told us that when we were in school.  But no matter how you want to define it, fitness (physical, fiscal, or cognitive), is something all employers need to stay ahead of the competition. Fit employees are alert, sharp, and more productive, and that produces a better bottom line.

Featured in October 2006 Issue of 422 Business Advisor