The quick answer: To eat better, sleep better. If you get adequate sleep in the dark, you’ll crave wholesome nutrients more than sugary stimulants.
How Will You Measure Your Life?
We had lunch with old friends in a mountain town of enduring charm. Guests included a young couple, recently graduated from college, about to head east for a Wall Street position. They’re small-town kids, unusually bright, blessed with solid values, eager to be tested in the Big Apple. The bottom of an economic cycle seemed an auspicious time to enter the world of high finance, I thought.
The conversation turned to the unusual demands of such a job, which included sixteen-hour work days. The Biblical warning against serving both God and Mammon was noted. The world admires ambition, but the usual measures are material in nature and there’s that Biblical warning about coveting, you know.
Another recalled a man who, in similar circumstances, had purposely chosen to underachieve financially—judging time with wife and family to be of greater worth. Well, I thought, there’s a guy who’s got his feet under him.
Someone recalled Dr. Clayton Christensen’s 2010 Harvard commencement speech, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The table was silent for a moment as we reflected on the metrics that had governed our own lives.
Driving home, another metric important to life came to mind—sleep time. Americans are hard workers but there’s a price—we generally don’t get enough sleep. I’m not speaking of the new mother in those first months before baby has sorted out day and night. I’m talking about all of us who think missed sleep reflects meritorious ambition.
This blog rotates through 13 themes each quarter of the year. Thirteen weeks ago we discussed sunshine, the natural source of vitamin D. Vitamin D from sunshine is reported to last twice as long in our body as vitamin D from pills—so it seems there is a physiological difference with sunshine that may be beneficial. The full spectrum light from sunshine was addressed last year in the post, Let There Be Light.
This time we address the opposite theme—the importance of time in the dark, sleeping. I’m surprised how often we find guidance on how to live by the Creation account in Genesis:
“And God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” (Genesis 1:3,4)
The division of light from darkness was important, I believe, but in our time, with electric lighting, true darkness has been much reduced and the division compromised.
Melatonin is the master hormone of the night, a blessing of adequate sleep. When we close our eyes in a darkened room the pineal gland, a sort of third eye, is triggered by darkness to produce melatonin. The production of melatonin peaks in the fourth hour of sleep, which then produces other beneficial hormones that restore and prepare us for the coming day. Basically, you make melatonin for 4 hours; the other hormones do their work the next 4 hours. (In infants, melatonin production stabilizes in the 3rd month, enabling them to sleep through the night, at last.)
Melatonin is also a potent antioxidant, a protection for your DNA. Though our understanding of melatonin is incomplete, it seems important to health to not shortchange the body through insufficient sleep, in a darkened room. The division of dark from light in the Creation is important today also.
Scientists have linked some chronic diseases to insufficient sleep, as discussed in the post, Blessed Sleep. These include depression, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and overweight, heart disease and cancer. There are also mental effects including dementia and impaired judgment.
I connect the growing dependence of stimulants like caffeine and sugary drinks in the last century to our decline of adequate sleep in a darkened room. If sleep is not fully refreshing we crave stimulants to get going, more than nutrients. A sugary breakfast cereal, a mid-morning soft drink, and candy snacks during the day will seem the right answer. If you get adequate sleep, 8-9 hours per night, you’ll need less sugar and this will lower your insulin level thus allowing your body to release and consume fat for energy. When insulin is high, sugar is stored as fat; when it’s low, fat is released for consumption.
A 2010 University of Chicago study of dieters found that those who got the most sleep lost twice as much fat as those with the least sleep (8.5 Hrs. vs. 5.5 Hrs.). As excess fat is a widespread problem in America, adequate sleep in the dark may be the cheapest health aid available. A prior post, The Skinny On Overweight, argued that rather than the pain of repeated dieting, it would be better to first try eating a wholesome diet combined with exercise.
Please comment: Are you able to get adequate sleep? How much do you need? Have you experienced sleep-related health issues? Do you eat better if your sleep better? What did you do to improve your sleep habits.