My most underrated nutrient

People like to talk a lot about what to eat, when to eat it, and how much and we’re all quite good at knowing what we ‘should’ be eating. Nobody said “I didn’t know that donuts aren’t healthy’, unless you’re 4 years old. Even then, I bet a 4 year old can tell the difference between healthy food and a treat.

Over the last several years, and more specifically over the last 12 months, I’ve done everything I can to maximize my nutrition and the nutrition for my family. I’ve pushed my culinary boundaries, cut out all processed food from my pantry, and eat pounds of veggies everyday. This has been an interesting journey and to be honest, one that is not always easy. Some days I’m famished, and only crave sweets and bread.

I rationalise these cravings to my running training. As I’ve written about, I train for longish distance trail racing and some weeks can be big. This type of training takes work to replenish the tank, so rightfully so, I should be hungry. I need to fuel the tank to keep pushing, but is sugar and bread the food that will help me reach my goals? 

I believed for years that I could eat almost anything I wanted due to the hard and long training that I put in but I was joking with myself, and knew it. I ran for hours and hours, up and down mountains and the more I worked out, the more I would eat, and no matter how hard I worked out I’d always carry extra weight.

Weight is not my indicator for health. I’ve been healthy for years and my markers are very good. My cardiovascular system is strong and I have endurance ability. I cross train and make sure to not overtrain. 

My extra weight was, however, a conundrum.  To anyone that knows me they would not call me overweight, but I have high personal expectations to achieve good racing results for my age.  This does not mean that I will do ‘whatever it takes’ to get there, anymore. I’m 46 and need to be smart in how I reach my goals so I can still be a parent, and business owner in my day job.  

This led me down a rabbit hole. I could work out a load, not get that much fitter, not lose weight, and crave sugar and carbs more than I’d like to admit. Is this normal? It was ‘my normal’, but could I somehow figure out how I could reach my goals without it being such an intense struggle.

My 12 year old girl

I cherish my relationship with kids and do whatever I can to stay closely connected to them. It may seem obvious, but for me, connecting with an 8 year old boy is not that difficult. I can still remember doing the things that he loves to do. Lego, trucks, getting dirty, trucks, fast cars, trucks, snuggle wrestles, trucks – fairly simple. My girl on the other hand: she’s 12 and I can not say that I was ever a 12 year old girl, and she is getting more and more concerned with what I say and when I say it. That said, she works just as hard as I do to stay connected with me. She found a tremendous book for me, called Under Pressure, by Dr. Lisa Damour.,that she gave to me for my birthday. It was her way of saying, ‘Dad, stick with me’. 

What I learned in Under Pressure was not rocket science but it sure put focus on what is the most important thing for a teenager, and especially a growing woman. Sleep.

The Most Important Nutrient

Dr. Lamour basically said that for the great majority of kids, the biggest issue that affects their mood (and everything else) is their lack of sleep.  She explains in detail how over and over again she’s found that kids that are sleep deprived, stressed, and behave erratically and out of character. If left untreated, sleep deprivation can lead to a host of mental and physical issues. Generally her message was, as a parent, the number one thing I could do was to ensure that my kids get as much quality sleep as possible.

Ok, superdad, what’s next

I grew up without respect for sleep. As a kid, bedtime was at some time when I seemed tired. I’m sure there was a time when I had a bedtime but I was probably in diapers. My parents we’re not ones for rules, or rules that we ever enforced. As a teenager and a young adult, sleep was what happened when I was gassed and sleep was certainly a waste of time. As an adult I found that sleep got in my way of working or training. I seemed good for 5 to 6 hours with an occasional 7 hour night. I could operate without an issue, I thought.

I needed to get this sleeping thing figured out – for them that is.  It seemed critical that they have quality sleep every single night, without fail. But what did this mean? What is quality sleep? What happens when we sleep? How do I know that they are getting what they need?

Enter the professional

My family and I like to watch TED talks. They are short and can be very interesting so both the kids watch and absorb the content. One evening we watched a quick talk from Dr. Matt Walker, who just so happens to be the leading expert on sleep and was promoting his book – ‘Why we sleep?’. Ah-ha.  

I loaded up his book to Audible and went on a very long run (actually a few…it’s a big book). What I learned was truly life changing. Sure, we’ve all heard, and can feel, that a good night’s sleep is good for us but is 6 good hours not better than 8 crummy ones? Maybe

As I do, I went deep and started to reflect on all that I have done so wrong for so long. I learned from him that most of what I was doing to ‘improve’ myself was not being absorbed in my body because I was in a constant sleep deficit. I was chronically underslept and technically suffering from insomnia. 

There are a few important things that happen when we sleep and regeneration is among the most important (to me at least). The mind takes the short term daily information and files it away into the long term storage but the body also clears the spent cells which naturally form while we are awake. This process allows our body to recover and prepare for the next day. Only with the right type and right amount of sleep can we be properly recover for the next day. I learned that as much as I wanted, I could not cheat this process. 

This blew my mind. I was sad and excited at the same time. I was sad for the years that I ignorantly stole opportunity from myself, but excited for what may be a new tool for me and my family.

Enter the Sandman

We’d been fairly good at reducing screen time from the kids close to bedtime, but not perfect. Learning about our Circadian Rhythm from Dr. Walker, and the effects of blue light (and all light in the evening for that matter) on our natural sleep hormone, it became clear that we needed to be very very careful.  We needed to up our sleep game. 

My wife and I decided that we would improve the home environment. We now reduce the lights as soon as we get home, and there is no screen time for anyone, including me. I had a horrible habit of ‘catching up’ on the day at bedtime. This always seemed so harmless and I liked ‘zoning out’. The truth is that I would spend 30 to 40 minutes looking at fairly useless information and could/should have been sleeping.

Making new habits

We like to give our children a 10 hour sleep opportunity every night. My son uses a bit less and my girl takes up every minute of hers but nothing we can do for them sets them up better for their day than consistent sleep, day after day after day. When our kids are well slept, nothing is a big deal.

That’s great for them

Getting preteens to sleep is not a herculean accomplishment, but getting myself to sleep and to stay asleep is a different story. Some nights I have a better chance flying to the moon on a magic carpet than staying asleep past 1 or 2 am. Previously to my encounter with Dr. Walker, I would get my tired ass out of bed and start my day early, thinking that I would get a jump on things. 

Usually by 3 or 4 am I’m eating my first breakfast, an hour or so of work done, out the door for a run, then 2nd breakfast with the kids at 7. Off to work with a skip to my step because I’m such a superhuman! By 10 am I’m hungry again and looking for a boost, or sugar. By 11:30 am I can’t wait till lunch. At 3 I can’t hold on to dinner and need something to tie me over. Dinner – I’m famished.  A tired body has been fueled by quick calories all day.

Here’s me after at least 3 nights in a row of 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep:

I’m in bed by 8:30 pm so I’m up between 4 to 4:30. I prep lunches, go for a run, lift some weights, make breakfast and eat around 7am.  Off to work with a skip to my step because I’ve had lots of sleep! At around 11:30 I have a small nutrient dense snack, like nuts, or a salad. At 3pm I eat a full meal. That’s all the food I have for the day.

Sleeping longer has become easier now that I know what is happening when I sleep – so I am learning strategies to force myself back to sleep if I wake up ready to go after 5 hours. I bought a sleep monitor called an Oura Ring, which is helping me understand my sleep stages and am trying to make sense of what I do when I have a good sleep or bad sleep. What I can tell for sure is that stress is the worst. Having things on my mind in the middle if the night is a sure way to stay awake.

Fighting Daylight savings

There’s a debate going on in Canada and the US regarding the importance of Daylight Savings. We now go to bed as a family from 8:30 to 9pm, and are working towards 8:15. 

Daylight savings is a killer – quite literally. It’s a documented fact that around 20% more people die on the day after daylight saving than the day before, year over year. This comes from accidents and heart attacks, the latter already being the #1 killer of North Americans.

From what I can tell, we’re not changing soon because we’re used to it and we don’t love change, however the data is clear that we would do better without the bi-annual change in time. Whatever is the result of the debate, nothing is going to change between now and the Daylight Savings change next month. So, I’ve decided that I am not going to let the ‘spring forward’ hit us this year.

A few weeks ago I started to track bedtime and have been cutting the minutes back everyday. My goal is that we will be at 7:45 pm by the change so that we’ll have a new bedtime of 8:45pm, which is still reasonable for a 6:30 to 7am wake time for the kids. This will still give me a sleep opportunity of 8 hours. 

Discipline

Making improved habits takes discipline but should not be tough. Tough sucks and is hard to stick to for very long. Making habit changes that take dedication, but are logical and rewarding, and are worthwhile and have a much better chance of sticking. 

How do I stick to my new habits? Reward 

#1 – When my daughter is tired she can tell me that school sucks.  When she’s had multiple days of quality sleep, she goes to school with a huge smile on her face and later, tells me all about her ‘great’ day.

#2 – When my son has slept well he’d rather play with his toys or outside instead of wanting to veg on his tablet or in front of the TV. He will spend hours building forts and make believe worlds for us to come visit. Magic.

#3 – When my wife and I both have enough sleep, we are a unified front and nothing is more rewarding than the bond we share. When I’m tired I stop communicating well and become reserved, which is not the trait of a good partner.

#4 – When I’m well rested, my body is able to hit the hard training days without an issue and my recovery is fast. I eat WAY less and my mood is constantly up. I maintain health and my body weight without an issue. 

In short, with quality sleep, the hard parts of life are so much easier, and all it takes is a few more hours of shut eye everyday. 

The critical importance of sleep

My sleep is not close to perfect, yet, but I’ve at least identified the problem(s) and am being proactive to give myself the best sleep opportunity every night. There’s so much more to understand and each one of us is different. Fortunately there are new tools and quality research being done that may be able to help those of us that need it. I’ve come to understand that everything else doesn’t really matter if we’re not getting enough quality sleep. Eat more plants, fish is ok, cut carbs, fat is bad, fat is good, sugar is bad, I don’t eat bananas, do cardio, lift weights – none of it matters worth anything if we’re chronically sleep deprived. The body is tremendously resilient, except for sleep deprivation.  With sleep deprivation all parts of our mind and bodies suffer, at a cellular level. We age during the day and without sleep we do not heal or recover. There’s all that you need to know in Dr. Walker’s book, and if you’ve read my blog this far, I highly suggest you pick it up. 

I wish you a good night’s sleep – you deserve it.

 

Jed

2 responses to “My most underrated nutrient

  1. AWESOME blog Jed!! I just read Why We Sleep this month too and loved it. I went to SFU years ago to get my Kin degree and the focus revolves a lot around nutrition, physical activity, mental health +++ but rarely, if ever, sleep. Working on this now both for myself and my 9 year old son and already noticing a difference. Good luck to you and the Fam!

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