Archive for the 'personal science' Category

Lessons of This Blog (2nd of 2)

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Yesterday I posted Kristen Marcum’s list of general rules she’d learned from this blog. (For example, “be skeptical of experts.”) Behind her list, I think there is one idea, slightly hidden from view:

non-experts can discover important things about health

By non-experts I mean people who are not health professionals. People who do not make a living from health research. By discover I mean learn from data for the first time, actually discover — in contrast to learn from an expert. By important I mean stuff that matters to many people. (It’s obvious that studying yourself you can help yourself.) I haven’t heard anyone else say this, although it isn’t far from the Quantified Self movement. 

The first example of this rule was the work of Richard Bernstein, an engineer with diabetes. In the 1960s, he pioneered home blood glucose testing, now enormously important. Another example, I hope, is my work. I used self-tracking and self-experimentation to find important new cause-effect relationships in several areas — new ways to sleep better or lose weight, for example. I believe my conclusions will turn out be true for many people, not just me, because they fit well with research done with other people and animals. I’m a professional scientist, which obviously helped, but not a health researcher. (more…)

Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:

I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: (more…)

Frontlines of Personal Science: Confirmation of After Dinner Sweets Effect

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

During the last week I have looked into the possibility that my sleep can be further improved — in addition to the bedtime honey improvement — by eating a similar amount of sugar (fructose and glucose) a few hours before bedtime. After I accidentally slept better than usual (or even better than usual), I tried to determine why. Several things had been unusual the day before. Two tests (here and here) pointed to the sugar (honey or banana) a few hours before bedtime.

Last night (Christmas Eve) I tried again. I ate a banana (132 g, peeled) about 3 hours (7 pm) before I fell asleep (10 pm). I fell asleep within a minute and woke up, after an apparently dreamless night, feeling perfectly rested. On my 0-100 percentage scale (100% = completely rested, no detectable tiredness), which I have been using for about 8 years, it was the first ever 100%.  I had slept about 6 hours, a good amount of time.

To celebrate, I had a cup of black tea. I didn’t need it to wake up but I like the taste. I reflected that countless people had drunk tea or coffee to wake up. I had found a better way.

Discovery that an hours-before-bedtime sweet improves sleep (in addition to bedtime honey — that’s what’s interesting) is significant not just for the obvious practical reason (better sleep) but also because it is the confirmation of a prediction. After I slept unusually well, I thought of six possible reasons. The notion that sugar improves sleep pointed to one of them. The results of every test I’ve done (three nights) have agreed with that prediction. I believe the only real test of a theory (such as an explanation) is whether it makes correct predictions — especially, whether it leads to the discovery of new cause-effect relationships. Many things people say haven’t passed that test. An example is weight control. That low-carb diets cause weight loss has been known since the 1800s. Many explanations have been proposed; not one has made correct predictions, as far as I know. In contrast, my theory of weight control led me to three new ways to lose weight (sushi, low-glycemic foods, and fructose water).

I doubt it’s a placebo effect because the sleep improvement has happened whether I expect it or not. A commenter named Paolo Paiva, after reading my posts about this, realized something similar had happened to him:

Today I told my wife how deep I had slept and connected it to the 1 tbspoon of honey and 1 tbspoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with half a cup of water before bed (it tastes really good). Then I saw this post and remembered that yesterday I had had banana flour pancakes topped with honey 3 hours before bedtime!

Thanks, Paolo. May you continue to sleep well. May the rest of you sleep equally well.

Merry Christmas!

Front Lines of Personal Science: More Progress on Sleep

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

To recap: Three days ago I slept extremely well, better than usual. I wondered why. What had made the difference? That day (the day before the night I slept so well) had been different from previous days in at least five ways (e.g., chocolate, new brand of honey). I repeated four of them, and did not sleep better than usual. That suggested the remaining difference — I had eaten yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (8 g?) a few hours before bedtime — was responsible. (Every night I had 1 tablespoon — 20 g — honey at bedtime. It wasn’t that.) Then I repeated all five elements, including yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (14 g) two hours before bedtime. I woke up wired (jittery). Very rested, but wired, which wasn’t pleasant. Too much sugar, perhaps.

The next night I had a banana roughly two hours before bedtime. (In addition, I repeat, to 1 tablespoon honey at bedtime.)  A banana has about 6 g glucose, 6 g fructose, and 3 g sucrose, similar to 1 tablespoon honey. I had a strong craving for something sweet at that time, which was new to me — I almost never eat dessert. In the evening I had more brain power than usual. Yet at bedtime I fell asleep quickly, in about a minute. 

The next morning I woke up and felt great. Almost perfectly rested, neither tired nor wired. Even though I’d only slept 4.7 hours, a bit low for me. It really was the yogurt, blueberries and honey — almost surely their sugar, which is almost all they have in common with a banana — that had made me sleep so well.

Conclusion: For the best sleep, have sugar after dinner and sugar at bedtime. By sugar I mean a glucose/fructose mixture but for all I know sucrose would work, too.

Front Lines of Personal Science: Why Did I Sleep So Well?

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Last night I slept great. I woke up feeling very rested. I can remember only three situations when I woke up feeling more refreshed. (a) On a certain camping trip. (b) When I was on my feet for ten hours. (c) After eating a lot of pork fat. I cannot simulate camping trips, and standing ten hours/day was very hard. The pork-fat effect was repeatable, in the sense that I slept better after eating pork fat, but I never ate that much pork fat again. It was too much.

Why did I sleep so well? I can think of several possible reasons.

1. Random noise. Let’s say there are 20 factors that affect my sleep and they just happened to all line up in a good direction.

Another set of possible reasons derive from what was unusual about yesterday. I can think of five things:

2. I had yogurt and blueberries and honey about 6:30 pm. (In addition to 1 tablespoon honey at bedtime.)

3. I forgot to hang a blackout curtain that darkens my bedroom. Usually I hang two. Last night, by mistake, only one.

4. I started eating dark chocolate daily two days ago. Maybe the good stuff in it (the flavones) accumulates in the brain so that the good effects get larger day by day.

5. I watched faces in the morning a half-hour later than usual. Usually I start watching them at 6:00 am. Yesterday I started at 6:30 am. I had forgotten about this difference until I looked at my records.

6. I switched to a new brand of honey (from a German brand to a Canadian one).

#1 is unlikely. #2 vaguely corresponds to the idea that honey helps us sleep because it supplies energy. Maybe honey at 6:30 fills up the liver (with glycogen) and honey at bedtime goes into the blood. But I’ve eaten plenty of meals at 6:30 without any obvious effect. Maybe they were too low-carb. I don’t know if making my room very very dark (two curtains) is better than making my room dark (one curtain) but there is no obvious reason making my bedroom less dark would improve sleep (#3).  I have never heard anyone say chocolate (#4) improved their sleep. Morning faces did improve sleep but the mood improvement was much more obvious (#5). I’ve tried several brands of honey; there was no obvious difference between them, arguing against #6.

As the day wore on I found myself in a good mood but not a great mood, arguing against #5.

I’d say #2 is the most plausible, the rest less plausible, with #1 the least plausible. But I will test all of them.

More (a day later) I did #3 (only one curtain), #4 (chocolate), #5 (later faces), and #6 (new honey) again. I did not sleep exceptionally well. That makes #1 and #2 more plausible.

Soy Can Cause Migraines

Monday, December 16th, 2013

After I posted that tofu made me stupid — made me slower on a reaction-time test — a reader named Ann, who lives in Florida, said she had discovered that her migraine headaches were caused by soy. How she discovered this:

I was 49 years old and in that hot flashes stage of life, had read that soy could help alleviate them and tried a soy capsule not at a meal, immediately noticed sinus pressure and itchiness.

So I started reading all labels and eliminated soy from my diet and my migraines and sinus headaches went away! The hot flashes eventually went away on their own. I was losing whole days every month to the migraines. Every now and then the soy sneaks in at a restaurant but not as bad as before. Whenever anyone says they have migraines I always suggest looking at soy. Regretfully my daughter has the same issue, but she has way fewer headaches after eliminating soy.

I used to blame a lot of my headaches on allergies, never thinking it could be something I was eating. At age 60 now, my cholesterol numbers are excellent and I weigh 122 pounds when so many of my friends are overweight.

I asked how long it had taken to discover this.

I had been having migraines for years, 10-20, but in the mid 90s they got worse (could have coincided with more soy in food).  Saw a doctor but he just prescribed imitrex which helped but did not prevent them. He never suggested looking for a food cause. It was dumb luck or divine intervention that I tried that soy capsule in 2001 or 2002. I am often amazed at how much better I feel health wise since then. Since soy is in so much processed food my diet is very basic “real” food. Raw fruits and veggies, plain nuts, fresh meat, real cheese, eggs, yogurt, any desserts I make from scratch with real butter. I’m always excited when I find a cracker that doesn’t have soy since that’s usually my bread substitute.

Let me repeat part of that: A doctor she saw because of migrains did not suggest trying to find an environmental cause. The same thing happened to a woman I wrote about for Boing Boing. Her doctor just prescribed one drug after another. Her migraines turned out to be caused by cleaning products. Not knowing that migraines often have environmental causes is like not knowing the germ theory of disease.

Few soy eaters realize the dangers of soy, as far as I can tell. I wrote to one of them, Virginia Messina, a nutritionist who has said “there is no reason to believe that eating soyfoods is harmful to brain aging.” She has not replied.

A long list of possible migraine triggers (from the UC Berkeley health service) does not list soy, although it does mention soy sauce. It says soy milk should be safe. In a 2006 interview,  one headache doctor recommended avoiding all soy. In the comments to this, a woman says:

SOY is the biggest trigger for my migraines.  For years I suffered daily from migraines but after watching EVERYTHING I eat and reading all labels and avoiding SOY as best I can I am doing better.  The biggest problem is that SOY is in everything!!!!  I think one day they will find out how bad it is for us.

Imagine that. Putting something that damages the brain in everything.

Assorted Links

Sunday, December 15th, 2013
  • Interview with sufferer from mercury amalgam fillings. Stephen Barrett, founder of Quackwatch, says mercury amalgam fillings are perfectly safe. For many people, this might be true. It is not always true.
  • “She was given a three to five year sentence.” One of the greatest wrist-slaps of all time. She deserves at least one year in jail per falsification, which would be several thousand years in jail.
  • Ron Unz, the minimum wage and social innovation
  • Dairy consumption and heart disease risk. “The majority of observational studies have failed to find an association between the intake of dairy products and increased risk of CVD, coronary heart disease, and stroke, regardless of milk fat levels.”
  • Tourism and mental illness. “A Canadian woman was denied entry to the United States last month because she had been hospitalized for depression in 2012. Ellen Richardson could not visit, she was told, unless she obtained “medical clearance” from one of three Toronto doctors approved by the Department of Homeland Security.” Horrifying.
  • Snorting baby shampoo to cure sinusitis. A good example of personal science. His understanding of biofilms led him to try baby shampoo. It is also interesting that he doesn’t try to strengthen his immune system to solve the problem or maybe he doesn’t know how to. A professional sinusitis researcher would never discover what he did, yet another example of how our healthcare system ignores cheap treatments.

Thanks to Allen Jackson and Phil Alexander.

Sleep Apnea, Wheat Allergy, Nasty Cough and Personal Science

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Cliff Styles, a 66-year-old man living in Huntington Beach, commented that his sleep got much better after he stopped eating wheat. I asked him why he gave up wheat. He replied:

I had a morning cough that was very nasty, I didn’t smoke, but had read a fair amount about food allergies and that reading suggested an allergic reaction as the cause.  I tried several things, over a period of years, including eliminating alcohol for several months of the year (modest help to allergies and depression), reducing sugar consumption (big help to mood swings), with some success. I had been reluctant to eliminate wheat because it seemed benign and I loved all the wheat products, but at one point in reading about food allergies I came across the idea that we develop allergic addictions to foods we eat regularly — and I was probably eating wheat more than three times a day, seven days a week. I made no connection to the sleep apnea and snoring in the allergy research, in fact I took the sleep apnea and snoring for granted, and thought the nightmares were the product of psychological problems.

I decided to experiment with eliminating wheat.  Well, it was like I imagine going off of heroin might be like — chills, body aches, flu-like symptoms for four or five days, then all the symptoms cleared up — and the cough went away.  My wife was skeptical, so after a few weeks, I went back to eating wheat, the cough promptly came back, she was convinced, I was more certain, went off wheat permanently. I will once in a while indulge, but the quick return of the cough gets me back to the wheat-free diet. The wheat reaction is so pronounced that many friends have noticed my reaction, since I tend to indulge at social occasions.

The sleep benefit happened quite unexpectedly. After quitting wheat, my snoring eased a bit, and the sleep apnea went away, though now I do not remember how quickly, but I think it was pretty fast. Another side benefit is that I lost about 15 pounds of belly fat, and it stayed off for years. My wife notices that when I indulge in wheat now, my snoring gets worse that night, whereas I won’t necessarily notice this myself.

So what was the impetus and chain of causation?  A symptom (a nasty cough, you’d think I was a pack a day smoker, especially in the morning), reading about food allergies, self-testing and seeing a result on the cough, and only then getting the benefit to sleep.  At no time did I undertake the test of eliminating wheat in order to cure a sleep problem, that was just a very, very fortunate side effect.

How much sleep apnea is due to food allergy? Sleep doctors do not consider this possibility. Here is an example where the food allergy was dairy. Here is another example. Here someone claims “The commonest causes of obstruction sleep apnoea are allergy . . . and being overweight.”

Warning, Soybean Eaters: Tofu Made Me Stupid

Monday, December 9th, 2013

I’ve been testing my brain function daily for the last six years. I use a reaction-time test (see digit, type digit as fast as possible) that takes about five minutes. I have gradually improved the test over the years — this is about version 8. One reason for this testing is that I might observe a sudden change. That could suggest a new factor that affects brain function — whatever was unusual before the change (e.g., a new food). This is how I discovered the effect of butter. My score suddenly improved, I investigated. Another sudden change (improvement) happened soon after I switched from Chinese flaxseed oil to American flaxseed oil. I hadn’t realized that something was wrong with the Chinese flaxseed oil. I started brain tracking after I noticed a sudden improvement in balance the morning after I swallowed about five flaxseed oil capsules. Millions of people had taken flaxseed oil capsules, but no one, it seemed, had noticed the balance improvement. Maybe other big changes in brain function go unnoticed, I thought.

(more…)

Bedtime Honey Doubles a Measure of Strength

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

A reader of this blog named Nile McAdams, who lives in Minnesota, wrote:

When I read your first blog post about honey I was gobsmacked. Not so much by the improved sleep — the idea of a bedtime snack improving sleep has been around a long time — but by the fact that a tablespoon of honey could double the time you were able to stand on one leg. [One bent leg. After being roughly constant for a year, the time doubled in two weeks. — Seth] Impossible!! Not that I thought you were lying — I didn’t — it is just that a lot can go wrong between collecting the data and interpreting the data. So I had to try it for myself. (more…)

Darker Bedroom Better Sleep

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

When I moved back to Berkeley from Beijing last spring, I noticed that my sleep was worse in Berkeley, months after arrival. I woke up less rested than in Beijing. There was no obvious explanation. My life was similar in the two places, especially on dimensions that influence sleep. I had expected my health to be better in Berkeley than Beijing because of Beijing pollution.

Wondering why my sleep was different, I realized my Beijing bedroom was probably darker than my Berkeley bedroom. In Beijing I live in an apartment complex and cover most of my bedroom windows to block outside light and for privacy. In Berkeley, I live in a house. My bedroom window looks out over an enclosed backyard. That my Berkeley bedroom might not be dark enough had never occurred to me. It was fairly dark — no street light, no alley light, no light from neighbors.

Did the (likely) difference in darkness contribute to the difference in sleep? I tested this possibility by making my Berkeley bedroom much darker. Later I made it lighter, then darker again (an ABAB design). I measured sleep quality by rating how rested I felt when I woke up on a 0-100 percentage scale where I estimated how rested I felt compared to completely rested (= 100%). I have used this scale for many years. Here are the results:

 photo 2013-11-25effectofbedroomdarknessonsleep_zps2ddcf518.jpeg

To my surprise, when I made my bedroom darker my sleep improved. It got worse when I returned my bedroom to its original darkness. It improved again when I again made it darker. Until I graphed the data, I hadn’t realized that my baseline ratings probably shifted shortly before I made my bedroom darker. (I kept a paper record of my sleep, which made it hard to graph the data. Failure to notice this baseline shift was the last straw….I have gone paperless.) In spite of the baseline problem, the data are convincing that even at low intensities, light intensity mattered.

Depth of sleep (controlled by the amplitude of a circadian rhythm) is surely controlled by the amplitude of the light/dark rhythm. Below a certain threshold of light intensity, however, reducing light at night won’t make a difference. These observations implied that the threshold was lower than I’d thought. Support for the idea that the threshold is low — lower than other people realize, too — comes from a study published last summer after my experiment. Researchers reanalyzed old data to see if there was a correlation between lunar phase and sleep quality. Their subjects had slept in a windowless laboratory room. Nevertheless, sleep was worse during a full moon. One researcher was baffled. “What I can’t get my head around is, what would that cue be?” he said. In other words, how could the phase of the moon influence sleep? I’m not puzzled. The subjects spent only a few nights in the sleep lab. I believe there was carryover from when subjects slept at home, in rooms open to moonlight. Light from a full moon reduced the amplitude of sleep. This affected sleep later in the lab for the same reason jet lag lasts several days.

Is your bedroom dark enough? The light at night in Person X’s bedroom will differ in many ways from the light at night in someone else’s bedroom so a one-size-fits-all rule (your bedroom should be darker than . . . ) makes little sense. What does make sense is personal science: measure your sleep and test different levels of darkness.

Self-Experimenters Wanted: Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura

Monday, November 18th, 2013

A woman named Sara Lake has a condition called Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia Purpura (ITP),  an autoimmune condition in which your body makes antibodies to your own platelets. She wrote:

I’m having some success keeping my platelet levels on the  “high side of very low” using diet and lifestyle, but there is so little research into this rare disorder that I’m just trying anything my education suggests might help. I would love to connect with other self-experimenters with this condition.  I believe that most, if not all, autoimmune conditions can be cured if the triggers are identified (for example, as has been done in the case of celiac disease), but it’s a long process. If you know of any other people with this disease please pass on my email address, which is sara.lake (at) gmail.com.

Storing Food Without a Fridge

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

A Korean artist named Jihyun Ryou has invented modules to keep food fresh without refrigeration. This connects with the themes of this blog in several ways: using science to find cheap safe low-tech solutions,  minimal solutions (Ryou’s designs use no electricity, I try to find solutions that require no willpower), and increasing (rather than reducing) the microbial content of food. Food stored at room temperature will have more microbes than food stored cold. Ryou says:

I’ve learned that we hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator. We don’t observe the food any more and we don’t understand how to treat it.

That there could be something wrong with division of labor — handing over tasks to specialists, including specialist machines — is a subtle point. Division of labor works fine for inanimate things, such cloth and furniture and pencils. No economist has realized that animate things (such as our bodies) might be different.

The value of Ryou’s designs partly rests on the variability of living things, as does the value of personal science. Well-educated Americans, in my experience, have little idea what they lose when they hand over care of their body to experts, such as doctors and drug companies. As Ryou says, they lose a kind of mental fitness (“we don’t observe the food any more,” we don’t observe ourselves as closely) and are forced to accept solutions in which what the experts want plays a big role. I discovered the power of self-experimentation when I decided to see for myself if the acne medicine my doctor had prescribed was working. I found it wasn’t, a possibility the doctor hadn’t mentioned.

Early exposure to refrigerated food is associated with Crohn’s disease.

Thanks to Steve Hansen.

Orange Glasses at Night Improve Sleep

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

After I discovered that morning faces improved my mood, I tried to maximize the effect — determine the the best time, distance, size, and so on. One evening I went to a screening (Taxicab Confessions) at the UC Berkeley journalism school. It started about 7:30 pm and lasted about two hours. Over the next few days, I discovered that the morning-faces effect was gone. It took a few weeks to return. (more…)

Assorted Links

Thursday, November 7th, 2013
  • Genetics less important than claimed…again and again. The article’s html name says “human genetics successes and failures” but the article is almost all about failure.
  • Why I left (tenured) academia. “We shouldn’t expect [a college president] whose experience is in leading gigantic, dominant corporations to create an environment that rewards original, interdisciplinary, potentially disruptive research. Their previous success (such as it is) is from operating in an inherently conservative environment, running an organization that thrives in the status quo.” It isn’t just the college president. That such people are chosen as college presidents shows how little people at the top understand or value innovation.
  • Monitor Me. BBC TV show about high-tech self-monitoring. My self-monitoring is mostly low-tech, except for brain tests done with a laptop. My experience is that I needed to do everything right — good understanding of previous research, good experimental design, good measurement, good data analysis — to make progress. A talk by Larry Smarr, one of the people in the BBC show, supports this. Smarr has colon inflammation. His design, measurement and data analysis are excellent. However, he chose to test treatments (antibiotics, steroids) known to be poor. They didn’t solve the problem. It would have been wiser to try to figure what in the environment might be causing the problem. It certainly wasn’t not eating enough antibiotics.
  • Fecal self-banking

Thanks to Linda Stein.

Does Bedtime Honey Improve Sleep? Nine Reasons to Think So

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Stuart King, an Australian musician in his thirties, recently commented:

Most days I wake up feeling more tired than when I went to bed the night before, however I find that if I take up to a tablespoon [15 ml] of raw honey immediately before bed I almost always wake up feeling totally refreshed. I’ve suffered from low energy, brain fog, fatigue and sore muscles for years. I tried eliminating food groups (dairy, grains, nightshades, etc) but that didn’t fix the problems (although wheat has been problematic) but taking the honey did. I usually sleep without any problems that I’m aware of — even if I awaken feeling unrefreshed I will still sleep through the night and won’t awaken early or whatever, but the crucial thing is I feel rested when I wake up, if I get that right I can even eat bad food and feel good all day. I tried coconut oil and coconut oil combined with honey but they didn’t work.

I hadn’t heard that before. I searched “health benefits of honey” but didn’t find it.  A Wikipedia entry about the health benefits of honey doesn’t mention it. In China, many people think honey is a health food, yet a Chinese friend of mine, who eats honey daily, hadn’t heard this. The uses of honey in Traditional Chinese Medicine lie elsewhere. Honey as sleep aid is briefly mentioned (with a question mark: “Key to a restful night’s sleep?”) in The Honey Prescription (2010).

Many say or assume something quite different. According to Dr. Mercola, to sleep well “avoid before-bed snacks, particularly grains and sugars”. A Huffington Post writer says, “You already know which edibles to avoid before bedtime — namely, alcohol, coffee and sugary desserts.” Honey is half fructose, which UCSF professor of pediatrics Robert Lustig calls “poison”. Lustig says fructose is “one of the most egregious [= worst] components of the western diet, directly contributing to heart disease and diabetes, and associated with cancer and dementia.”  John Yudkin, a well-known nutrition professor, wrote books about the harm done by sucrose. He considered fructose even worse. Nutrition researchers rarely study time of day effects. For example, nutritional epidemiologists ask what you’ve eaten but don’t ask when.

I found a bit of evidence supporting what Stuart found — namely, two comments here:

Just started honey and vinegar hot drink 2 weeks ago. Am amazed at the increased quality of sleep and relief of night time pain. Thought I was imagining it so did not have my drink one night. Didn’t sleep and was racked with pain again all night. . . [my recipe:]  2 tbsp apple cider vinegar and 1 tbsp honey with 1 cup hot water.

Honey knocks me out and I actually wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day–amazing. I’ve been using the honey for a few months now. The difference has been “night and day!”

In addition, a 2007 study found that honey at bedtime was slightly better than no treatment at reducing the symptoms of coughing children. A 2010 study and a 2012 study found the same thing.

I asked Stuart how he discovered that honey improved his sleep. He replied:

I read something that Tim Ferriss said about having a small snack before bed [Ferriss advises protein and fat, not honey — Seth], I think he mentioned that unrefreshed sleep was due to low blood sugar. At the time I was doing carb back loading (I’ve since stopped that as carb restriction gave me problems). I would have a snack before bed but it didn’t always work. I think the small fructose amount in honey was what helped, starches didn’t always help. I did some research and came across your blog and Dave Asprey’s blogs on sleep, Dave mentioned raw honey. He encouraged people to take MCT oil with the honey to stay ketogenic, I tried coconut oil with the honey instead but it didn’t work. If anything it made my sleep worse with stomach cramps. I think there is an amount where benefits end, I think anywhere between a teaspoon or a tablespoon is about right. . . . The first time I did it I couldn’t believe it, I felt so good the next day.

He added later:

I have noticed that if I eat a lot of sugar during the day (soft drinks, desserts and so forth) then I don’t feel refreshed [when I wake up] regardless of the honey. Perhaps there’s something about honey that helps regulate blood sugar. I think it works better on an empty stomach/lightly fasted. So if you had dinner at 7 pm you might not eat anything after and take the honey at 9 or 10. In the past I’ve had a late dinner then maybe some dessert or fruit in the following hours, then added the honey just after and I don’t think it worked as well. When I first tried it I used commercially available heated honey and it worked great. I’ve tried 2 tablespoons, but I don’t think that worked any better than one and sometimes as little as 1 teaspoon is enough.

In summary, three people reported great improvement in sleep from honey at bedtime. Stuart found several other things: 1. If he ate a lot of sugar during the day, the effect went away. 2. Other carbs didn’t work. 3. An empty stomach was important. 4. Effective doses ranged from 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon.

I believe Stuart has discovered something very important. My belief rests on several things:

1. Repetition. I started eating honey (1 tablespoon) at bedtime. My sleep (much better than Stuart’s to begin with) clearly improved, even with 1 teaspoon. I felt more rested when I awoke and more rested throughout the day. The improvement happened night after night. One evening I didn’t eat the honey on an empty stomach. The improvement didn’t happen, just as Stuart would have predicted. I told a friend about it. He took 1 tablespoon at bedtime. His sleep immediately improved by a large amount. He stopped waking up in the middle of the night and stopped needing a nap in the afternoon. Another friend has tried it once (so far). “When I woke up the next morning,” she wrote, “I’d realised I’d slept all the way through the night without waking up in the early morning (a nice change) but had a terrible case of the jitters (a not-so-nice change).” A third friend tried it twice. She slept better the first night but not the second. Maybe she failed to eat it on an empty stomach or had too many sweets during the day.

2. Strength increase. As soon as I started the honey, I got stronger — a complete surprise. For years I have done one-legged standing to exhaustion several times per day because it improves my sleep. To reach exhaustion sooner, I stand on one bent leg. Recently I’ve been doing it four times per day (right leg twice, left leg twice). For a year, I’ve averaged about 3 minutes to exhaustion. After I started the honey, the length of time until exhaustion quickly increased. Here are the measurements:

 photo 2013-11-02effectofhoneyatbedtimeonone-legstanding_zps41d50272.jpeg

Each point is a different day; each is the average of the two durations for the first right and first left leg standing of the day. The 2013 tick marks the start of 2013. Nothing changed except the honey. The strength increase was also clear in other ways. In Beijing, I live on the sixth floor of a walk up. It became noticeably easier to climb the six flights of stairs.

The strength increase astonished me. The dietary change was tiny, did not happen before exercise, and involved a safe widely-available food (in contrast to the drugs athletes use, such as steroids). I believe better sleep increased muscle growth. I predict that taking the honey at other times, such as in the morning, would not have the same effect. My earlier observations that lots of standing  and one-legged standing improve sleep make more plausible causality in the opposite direction: something that improves sleep will increase muscle growth.

When I described my strength increase to Stuart, he replied:

I have noticed that when I do the honey, my weight goes up over the next week or two, perhaps by 400-500 grams [yet] my waist doesn’t increase (I measure it with a tape measure) even after a few weeks. I also have been sure that I noticed rapid muscular growth around my chest, shoulders and arms, similar to what I have noticed when going hard at the gym after a few months off. I kind of assumed that maybe I had more stored muscle glycogen from the honey, but had also considered that improved sleep as you said was the reason.

3. Evolutionary explanation. It has been a mystery why evolution shaped us to like sweetness so much. Israel Ramirez (whose research led to the Shangri-La Diet) pointed out that the usual explanation (sugar is a  source of energy) makes no sense.  If it’s because sugars provide energy, why don’t potatoes and rice taste just as good? They don’t. Nutritionists lump sugars with other carbohydrates, thereby ignoring the puzzle. No anti-sugar advocate — not Yudkin, Lustig or anyone else — has provided a good explanation of why evolution shaped us to like the taste of a “poison”.

There are several related puzzles. Why are meals divided into main course and dessert? In other words, why do we eat the sweet part separate and later? If we like sugars because they provide energy, this makes no sense. If sugars are simply carbs, this makes no sense — we eat plenty of carbs during the main course. The separation of dessert and main course, if it reflects brain mechanisms, must mean that sugars are quite different than other carbs. Somehow we benefit from this division. A few people, in particular Elizabeth Capaldi, an experimental psychologist, have figured out that sweet food tastes worse if we are hungry (enough). This is why dessert comes after the rest of the meal. Yet other carbohydrates do not taste worse. Stuart pointed out something else along these lines, which I had not heard before but which is clearly true: We eat dessert much more after dinner than after lunch.

Stuart’s observations explain these mysteries. All four observations (liking for sweetness, separation of main course and dessert, sweet things taste bad when hungry, dessert after dinner but not lunch) make sense if we have evolved mechanisms to push us to eat sweet foods near bedtime. Long ago, these foods would have mainly been fruit. Because sleep is so important for health, there would be powerful selection for anything that improved sleep.

4. Basic physiology. The brain runs on glucose. In my brain tests, sugar drinks, cupcakes, and other sugar-rich foods make an obvious difference 30 minutes to 2 hours later. (I get faster.) And the brain controls sleep, an enormously complicated and time-sensitive process. Too little blood sugar during sleep could easily disrupt sleep.

5. Basic nutrition. Honey is half glucose, half fructose. When you eat it, the glucose enters the blood quickly and would supply glucose to the brain in the first half of the night. In contrast, the fructose turns into glucose and enters the blood slowly (fructose has a low glycemic index). This would supply glucose to the brain in the second half of the night. Many fruits, such as bananas, figs, and grapes, have a similar composition (similar amounts of fructose and glucose). Most fruits have plenty of fructose and glucose.  A 50/50 glucose/fructose mixture makes honey near the start of sleep a good source of blood glucose over an extended period without food. Notice that you need both — glucose and fructose — in roughly equal amounts to get a roughly steady supply over six or seven hours.

6. Basic engineering. When you are asleep, there can be no “course correction”. You must subsist for the next six or so hours without any behavioral help, such as drinking water when thirsty. So it makes design sense to do something shortly before sleep that will provide a relatively steady supply of glucose throughout the night (“time-release”). That won’t be a lot of glucose at once. You need a food that is a mix of sugars.

7. Support for general idea. A few weeks ago a woman told me that when she ate very low-carb her sleep suffered, so she ate more carbs and her sleep got better. This supports the general idea behind what Stuart found — that the brain needs a certain amount of glucose to work well during sleep and it is best if it gets at least some of it from carbohydrate.

8. Explanation of correlation of sugar and bad health. Why is sugar consumption often correlated with poor health? This is easy to explain: sugar at the wrong time is the problem. Too much sugar during the day interferes with the bedtime benefit (and may also interfere with sleep in general). Stuart found exactly this: Eating lots of sugary foods during the day disturbed his sleep and eliminated the honey effect (“if I eat a lot of sugar during the day . . . then I don’t feel refreshed [when I wake up] regardless of the honey”). Too much sugar during the day could make it harder to get optimal glucose levels during the night. For example, too much sugar during the day might raise insulin levels, causing too-low blood sugar at night and/or causing a fructose/glucose mixture eaten at bedtime to be digested too quickly. Anything that harms sleep will increase disease. Good health, good sleep and good immune function are closely connected. An example of the evidence is that shift workers get more cancer than non-shift workers.

9. Reichenbach’s Common Cause Principle, in my paraphrase, is lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place for different reasons. If two rare events might have the same cause, they probably do. In this case, lightning has struck three times in one place. 1. Huge sleep improvement from tiny dietary change. 2. Huge strength improvement from tiny dietary change far from time of exercise. 3. Evolutionary explanation of why sugars taste good, why dessert exists and follows the main course, and so on. Before this, no one has come close to a plausible evolutionary explanation. The absence of an explanation is remarkable because two of the phenomena — sweetness tastes good, sweets are eaten separately after the rest of the meal — are so obvious.

I believe Stuart’s discovery is important for two other reasons that might not impress anyone else. One is similarities with my earlier work. First, I’ve found  other “cross-over” interactions with time of day, where something helpful at one time is harmful at another time. Vitamin D in the morning improves sleep, Vitamin D at night harms sleep. Morning faces improve mood, evening faces harm mood. Second, wondering why we like sour, umami and complex flavors was the first thing to suggest to me that we need to eat plenty of fermented food to be healthy. Many facts later, I’m sure this is true. Finally, evolutionary reasoning has helped me find several new experimental effects (morning faces, Shangri-La Diet, flaxseed oil, standing and sleep).

Finally, Stuart’s discovery explains something puzzling I’d noticed repeatedly for years. Now and then I slept unusually well. I’d wonder why — how was yesterday different from usual? — and see that the only unusual thing was that I’d had dinner at a friend’s house. At the times, I guessed that seeing faces in the evening was somehow improving my sleep. This did not make sense in terms of my morning faces work, but a connection between social contact and sleep was well-established. Now I realize that dinner at a friend’s house is one of the few times I eat dessert. A friend told me that when his partner has dinner parties, she serves dessert long after the main course.

This report suggests that different honeys may differ in important ways.

I told a Dutch friend about this. She said it was common in Holland to have milk and honey at bedtime, although she herself didn’t do this. I asked why. No clear reason, she said. An excuse to have something sweet? Could this be why the Dutch are so tall? Children grow when asleep. Better sleep, more growth. My strength increase suggests what a big effect this could be.

More posts about honey and sleep.

Assorted Links

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Doctor’s Data Sues Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

In 2010, Doctor’s Data, an Illinois clinical lab, sued Stephen Barrett, who runs Quackwatch, for making false and misleading statements about them. The lawsuit is still in progress. I am glad they sued. As far as I can tell, Quackwatch does contain false and misleading statements. (more…)

Saturated Fat and Heart Attacks

Friday, October 25th, 2013

After I discovered that butter made me faster at arithmetic, I started eating half a stick (66 g) of butter per day. After a talk about it, a cardiologist in the audience said I was killing myself. I said that the evidence that butter improved my brain function was much clearer than the evidence that butter causes heart disease. The cardiologist couldn’t debate this; he seemed to have no idea of the evidence.

Shortly before I discovered the butter/arithmetic connection, I had a heart scan (a tomographic x-ray) from which is computed an Agaston score, a measure of calcification of your blood vessels. The Agaston score is a good predictor of whether you will have a heart attack. The higher your score, the greater the probability. My score put me close to the median for my age. A year later — after eating lots of butter every day during that year — I got a second scan. Most people get about 25% worse each year.  My second scan showed regression (= improvement). It was 40% better (less) than expected (a 25% increase). A big increase in butter consumption was the only aspect of my diet that I consciously changed between Scan 1 and Scan 2.

The improvement I observed, however surprising, was consistent with a 2004 study that measured narrowing of the arteries as a function of diet. About 200 women were studied for three years. There were three main findings. 1. The more saturated fat, the less narrowing. Women in the highest quartile of saturated fat intake didn’t have, on average, any narrowing. 2. The more polyunsaturated fat, the more narrowing. 3. The more carbohydrate, the more narrowing. Of all the nutrients examined, only saturated fat clearly reduced narrowing. Exactly the opposite of what we’ve been told.

As this article explains, the original idea that fat causes heart disease came from Ancel Keys, who omitted most of the available data from his data set. When all the data were considered, there was no connection between fat intake and heart disease. There has never been convincing evidence that saturated fat causes heart disease, but somehow this hasn’t stopped the vast majority of doctors and nutrition experts from repeating what they’ve been told.

Coffee Experiments: Suggestions for Improvement

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

Seth Brown, a “data scientist” with a Ph.D. in computational genomics, has done several experiments about the best way to make coffee. In one, he compared other people’s burr grinders to his blade grinder. There was no clear difference in taste. In another, an Aeropress apparently produced better-tasting coffee than drip extraction. He hasn’t found other factors that matter. If I drank coffee, I’d be happy to know these things.

If I were teaching how to do experiments, his work would be a good case study. I’d have my students read it and suggest improvements. The contrast between his data analysis (sophisticated) and experimental design (unsophisticated) is striking, maybe because he has no background in experimentation.

Here’s what I would have done differently: (more…)