Explaining the negative cycle of why a lot of people in modern society are fat, tired, and angry; how this cycle begins to fuel itself and becomes harder to break out of the longer you stay in it; and what you can do to counteract it.
Did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte used to sleep alone in a completely dark room despite having wives and mistresses?
Did you know that he had a custom-made wagon that could be remade into either a small office or a dark room with a special portable bed?
The reason as to why Napoleon was so disciplined and keen on his sleeping habits was because he had a lot of knowledge of how his own body worked. He knew that if he got around 6-8 hours of good sleep in a completely blacked out room he would be smarter the next day.
Neuroscience would describe this same phenomenon as your neocortex and your prefrontal cortex being impaired by suboptimal sleep. The immediate results of this are that you become less clearheaded, motivated, creative, and decisive the next day.
Napoleon intuitively knew all this stuff way back in the day before specialists of neuroscience did.
I used to have sleeping problems, perhaps classified as intermittent insomnia, up until I was maybe 18 years old; that means that I would lay awake just looking up at the ceiling feeling restless and being unable to fall asleep. It was incredibly frustrating.
It also sucked because I felt mentally handicapped and I hated going up for school in the morning.
But inspite of the intermittent insomnia I was still doing almost everything wrong in terms of sleep habits; I did not go to sleep or get up at particularly consistent times every day, I sat in front of TV or computer screens playing video games or watching movies just before bed, when going to bed my room was never completely dark and the air was often a bit too warm.
Sleep and Hormones
Sleeping involves a lot of bodily processes, but I want to tell you specifically about three types of hormones that are very important to sleeping.
Messing up the levels of these three hormones is a major reason people are fat, tired, and angry.
Melatonin is main hormone involved in readying the body for sleep. Depending on when you usually go to sleep your circadian rhythm will adjust to that and your melatonin levels will tend to go up at that time of the night.
Light blocks or lowers the production of melatonin while darkness supports it. This means that if you are sitting in a brightly lit up room, in front of a LED-screen, or simply sleeping in a room that isn’t pitch black you are not going to get optimal sleep. It’s that simple.
To get optimal levels of melatonin you should shut off all lights and cover all entry points for light in the room. There are various ways of making your room pitch black, including the use of duct tape and bags or by setting up some good shades. IF you are comfortable sleeping using an eye-mask you could do that as well, but it has never worked that well for me.
Also, try to stay away from LED-screen for at least 15-30 minutes before bed. You could sit and meditate before going to bed.
Cortisol is the hormone we associate with stress. If you don’t get enough sleep or if the quality of your sleep is poor you will feel stressed and irritated the next day.
You probably knew that already. But what you might not know is that walking around with high levels of cortisol for long periods of time (being stressed, tense, and edgy) actually makes you fatter and harms your memory function.
Stimulants like coffee, energy drinks, cigarettes, etc. increase cortisol levels as well.
I was recently traveling by train and I missed the train by a few minutes, and I was all sweaty and stressed. I got really angry and my internal dialogue was making a huge fuss about how this day sucked and how everything wasn’t going my way and so on. Then I realized that I would never react like this normally – if I hadn’t been underslept – so I dropped it and calmed down. I hate the feeling of being stressed and on edge; I want to be calm and focused.
You probably know about the hormone insulin as the main “hunger hormone”, but there is another hormone that is also imperative to hunger levels – ghrelin. If you get bad sleep your ghrelin levels will increase and you will “feel” hungry and get cravings for food – especially tasty foods like carbs and sugar. Even if you ate a huge meal just before bed you may still feel hungry due to your increased ghrelin levels.
The Reason why People are Fat, Tired, and Angry
It starts by not having a good bedtime routine; by acting in a manner that reduces the amount of melatonin you produce, making you less tired when you really should be getting tired. Then you wake up the next day with high cortisol levels feeling stressed. Your motivation, decisiveness, and ability to think clearly are also reduced due to the impairing of your neocortex and prefrontal cortex.
You dislike this negative tension – this state of bodily imbalance – so you relieve yourself of it through the easiest means at your disposal – by using some form of stimulant or eating sugar, maybe you even need it to get up in the morning. You may then be able to function normally again, but only for a couple of hours. Then you need to prop yourself up with caffeine again – which makes sleeping more difficult. This could potentially work in the short-term, but it easily gets out of hand for most people and works to their disadvantage in the long-term.
After a while of doing this you find yourself sleeping poorly on the regular and you also notice that you are feeling more or less constantly in the mood for a snack. Your cravings for food, in particular fast food, are increasing as a result of your ghrelin levels being higher than they should be.
Sleeping poorly, eating unhealthily, and using stimulants to keep yourself awake and focused; it becomes a negative spiral that fuels itself and gets increasingly worse. It just gets harder to break out of the longer you stay in it.
Before you know it you’re fat, tired, and angry.
How to Counteract it
The first thing you will need is discipline and consistency, because it’s freaking hard to give up stimulants and go through the initial sleepless nights that will ensue.
Here are a few guidelines you may want to consider to start getting better sleep:
- Have a good bed routine:
- Go to bed and get up in the morning on consistent times.
- Stay away from light in general, especially LED light (screens) 15-30 minutes before bed.
- Sleep in a completely dark room, you can use tape or put stuff under the door if it lets light inside the room.
- Open the window until your room is cooled down. Also fix the bed to make it more alluring.
- Consistency in sleeping schedule is key. If you go to bed at very different times every night your body will not be able to adjust to it.
- Stay away from or reduce your use of stimulants. If you do use stimulants, limit the use to before noon or 2pm to make sure that you’re not going to get hyper at night.
- Don’t drink too heavily – Alcohol sedates you and might make you tired, but it actually reduces the quality of your sleep.
- You may want to try taking melatonin supplements to help you make the initial shift in altering your circadian rhythm (when you go to sleep and get up)
All of this is fairly straightforward, but it does require quite a bit of consistency and patience.
Do you have any personal examples of this negative spiral or do you know any other helpful way of getting better sleep?