Light Therapy Review

A few months ago I purchased a dawn simulation / light-therapy lamp. Before this, regardless how early I fell sleep, waking up before sunrise would leave me groggy and slow moving for hours. I even tried moving my bedtime up to 8PM but still woke up wanting more sleep!

The theory behind “light-boxes” is that they produce the same frequency of light as the sun, thereby stimulating serotonin production in the brain. Release of serotonin at the start of the day is one of the primary methods by which our body regulates wakefulness and alertness in the morning.

The specific model I purchased is the BlueMax Sunrise System Model 320. I picked this one because it is the only one that has a built in alarm function AND bulbs capable of reaching 10,000 LUX. The alarm function allows the user to set a wake period so that the light grows gradually brighter. The powerful bulbs emit a level of light that is supposed to be effective in treating S.A.D. (Season Affective Disorder).

Below are the pros and cons I have experienced with my specific light-box.

Pros:

  1. I definitely felt more alert in the morning after a mere 15 minutes of exposure to this light.
  2. It is small and durable enough to move from one room to the other. This allowed me to use it while preparing food in the kitchen and then move it to my dining table during breakfast.
  3. This could entirely be placebo but the notion of having a “serotonin-stimulating” tool available helped get me out of bed immediately upon rising.

Cons:

  1. This model cost $165. The price is justified by the company because it is the only light on the market that offers full spectrum bulbs AND an alarm function.
  2. The time and date settings get erased upon unplugging. This may not be a problem if the light-box is only used as an alarm clock in the bedroom. However, I wanted more exposure time before leaving my apartment, which meant I carried it from one room to another, completely negating the clock functions.
  3. Although I have not had any bulbs die in the 2 months I’ve owned this lamp, I have heard that they cannot be changed. This is a major issue considering the price of the light and the fact that it has over a dozen tiny internal bulbs.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this specific model.

A typical “light-therapy” box can be purchased for as little as $50. The clock and alarm function on this model does not justify the $100 price difference. Plus, if you are like me and want to start your day with as much “blue-light” exposure as possible, the clock will have to be reset every night in order to use the alarm setting the following morning.

I would recommend buying a basic light therapy lamp capable of 10,000 LUX. The exposure to this light has definitely helped improve my morning alertness while reducing the time it takes for me to get moving.

Remember, there will never be a substitute for 8 to 9 hours of quality sleep! But, if you are like me and have trouble getting up before the sun rises, an investment in one of these lights may make your mornings a little bit easier.

320

Seasonal Affective Disorder

For all of my followers in the northeast United States, it’s that time of the year again!

The sun is rising late and setting early, the sky is cloudy, and the temperature is dropping. All this can contribute to a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.).

S.A.D. affects about 6% of the United States every year. Common symptoms may include oversleeping, low energy, carb cravings, poor focus, social withdrawal, lack of pleasure, and hopelessness.

It is believed that S.A.D. is caused by a lack of sunlight, resulting in a skewed circadian rhythm and lowered serotonin levels.

Fortunately, there are many things one can do to combat symptoms and improve their emotions and outlook.

The first step is to purchase a “lightbox” for light therapy. These emit a much brighter and whiter light than typical lamps. Exposure to this bright light, particularly first thing in the morning, will simulate the sunrise, improving serotonin production and establishing a healthy circadian rhythm.

I am in the process of purchasing such a light source and will provide a review of my personal experience with this protocol.

The second recommendation is to stay active. Find 30 to 60 minutes every day for exercise. Exercise is known to improve mood by providing a sense of success as well as releasing endorphins in the brain.

The last recommendation I can make is to eat healthy. This means starting your day with a large serving of protein and ending your day with a moderate serving of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes or fruits. Adequate protein in the morning, and throughout the day, will provide the body and brain with amino acids necessary for healthy cognitive function and stable emotions. Carbs at night will help induce sleep and up-regulate serotonin production. Eat fewer carbs throughout the day to avoid blood sugar crashes, causing lethargy and furthering negative emotions.

Many people find success with certain supplements. I personally have tried 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor), GABA (a dopamine precursor), and melatonin (the brains natural sleep chemical). Thus far, the melatonin seems to be the most effective, but only at regulating proper sleep-wake cycles. I noticed no results from any other supplement, regardless of timing or dose.

I do increase my supplemental Vitamin D in the winter from 2,000 to 5,000 or 10,000 a day. I don’t notice a direct result from this but I’m lucky if I get 5 minutes of direct sunlight a day when the temperature drops below freezing. Sunlight is our only significant source of vitamin D, and low levels have been linked to depression as well as many physical conditions.

Finally, there is always the option of medications. If feelings of hopelessness or despair become strong enough, visit a doctor to discuss further options.

I will post a follow up after I experiment with light therapy / dawn simulation for a few weeks. Try these tactics and let me know if you have some of your own!

SAD

Meal Comparison, Part 3: Dinner

Today’s post will be the last side-by-side comparison of a Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) meal and a grain-free, unprocessed meal.

For Part 1, a breakfast comparison, click here. For Part 2, a lunch comparison, click here.

The healthy American dinner consists of:

Pasta1 cup whole wheat pasta (enriched)

1 cup generic tomato sauce

2 ounces low-fat ground turkey

1 cup skim milk (fortified & fortified)

1 brownie (using a recipe recommended by Ellie Kroger, Registered Dietician)

The whole foods meal contains:

Burgers

8 ounces ground beef (grass-fed)

½ avocado

1 cup asparagus

1 large sweet potato

Both meals provide 650 calories.

First, let’s look at the macronutrients and fatty acid profile:

. Total Carbs Fiber Net Carbs Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
S.A.D. Dinner 90 10 80 25 5 5 250 12500
Whole Foods 45 15 30 45 10 17 500 2000

As we saw in the previous comparisons, the S.A.D. meal provides almost 100 grams of carbs with only 10 grams of fiber and very little healthy fat. Even adding sweet potato to the grain-free dinner results in only 30 net carbs, fewer than half the carbs in the Standard American dinner.

The whole foods dinner offers a more adequate amount of healthy fat, particularly saturated and monounsaturated, aiding in absorption of vitamins, providing a stable energy source, and maintaining healthy cells.

Finally, the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, which should ideally be close to 1-to-2, is 1-to-50 in the Standard American Diet meal. The tomato sauce and “healthy” brownie both contain canola oil, molecularly the same as corn oil, causing inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

Next is the vitamin content of both meals:

. Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate
S.A.D. Dinner 4500 20 0 3 30 0.5 1 50
Whole Foods 27000 42 0 7 83 2 5 180

No surprise here! Vegetables, meats, and healthy fats provide far more vitamins than refined grains, diary, and oils.

Finally, the mineral content of each meal:

. Calcium Iron Magnesium Potassium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
S.A.D. Dinner 570 5 150 1500 4 0.5 2 55
Whole Foods 130 10 150 2000 13 1 1 36

If you recall the previous comparisons, you’ll remember that grains and dairy provide more of certain nutrients.

The Standard American Diet provides more Manganese and Selenium, and ties for Magnesium. However, just a handful of nuts would close this gap and set the whole foods meal ahead in all categories.

In conclusion, the dinner based on whole foods provides more for the body, with less detriment, than the S.A.D. dinner.

I will do one more follow up post totaling the days’ worth of macro- and micro-nutrients. In the meantime, feel free to ask any questions about particular values, foods that may address shortcomings, or if you’d like me to analyze your own meal options.

Thanks for reading!

Eat Protein and Plants!

As most of you know by now, I recommend consuming 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. This means that a 100-pound girl running track should eat 100 grams of protein; a 200-pound strength athlete should consume 200 grams of protein; and a 300-pound adult trying to lose weight should aim for 300 grams of protein.

The reasons for this recommendation are as follows.

  • Protein has the highest thermogenic effect. 30% of the calories from protein are used during digestion and processing.
  • Protein is the most satiating nutrient, leaving one full for 4 – 9 hours.
  • Protein breaks down to amino acids. These are not only used for cell repair and maintenance, but also trigger the release of serotonin, dopamine, melatonin, etc, in the brain. These are chemicals that affect moods, energy levels, and feelings.
  • Excess protein will either be converted to sugars, to be used for fuel, or excreted in the urine.

A reservation people have to eating more protein is that it is “dangerous for the kidneys”. Studies of individuals with renal impairment, or complete kidney failure, show a worsening of symptoms when administering a high protein diet. However, no study has ever suggested that a healthy population can’t handle high amounts of protein. Processing excess nutrients is the main role of our kidneys.

Recent studies have gone as far as feeding participants up to 400 or 500 grams of protein a day. The worst side effects reported were feelings of being “bloated” or “hot”. As a side note, these individuals gained no fat, even though they were consuming over 1000 extra calories a day from protein.

The other concerns I hear stem from certain studies suggesting that protein, specifically meat, causes cancer. Next time you hear this, look at the study to verify the following:

  • Was the meat naturally raised? Was beef from 100% grass-fed cows? Were chickens raised in open pastures, feeding on seeds and bugs? More likely, the beef was from feedlots and the chickens were fattened to the point they could not stand.
  • What were the cooking conditions? Was the meat slow roasted or seared? We already know that black, crunchy sear-marks are carcinogenic.
  • Who were the individuals in the study and how were they tracked? The average American that consumes over a pound of protein a day is usually resorting to McDonald’s and pepperoni pizza, not chicken eggs from a friends backyard or a local burger with multiple cups of fresh vegetables.

Protein does cause an insulin release and increases mTOR signaling, leading to cell survival and proliferation. This is a good thing if you are exercising and attempting to displace fat with lean body mass. However, if you already have cancer, a lower protein diet, such as a ketogenic diet, will be more suitable.

A review of all macronutrient studies shows that diets higher in fat and protein, compared to high carb diets, result in:

  • Maintenance of more lean muscle mass
  • Greater loss of fat mass
  • Maintenance, or even an increase, in strength and performance

The only downside of protein is that healthy sources may not be inexpensive.

In areas with sustainable farming (such as where I live in Vermont), you can buy directly from a farmer. You may even be able to invest in a “cow-share” or similar program, paying for the cow before the government charges various fees. I have found grass-fed ground beef for as low as $3/lb. Search around and develop a relationship with local farmers.

Grass-fed beef, or pastured chicken and pork, may cost $5 – $10 a pound in typical markets. However, sales always occur, and meat can last for up to 12 months in a freezer before it loses flavor. Investing in a meat-freezer can help save money in the long run.

Another option is to find a high-quality protein supplement. I always recommend whole food from nature, but I am aware that having a full serving of protein (4 – 8 ounces of meat/fish, or 3 – 6 eggs) is not always easy and convenient.

In these situations, find a whey protein powder that is affordable and has as few ingredients as possible. I will do a post in the future comparing different forms of protein powders and brands.

In my experience, a client consuming 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, is able to experience easy improvement in body composition and performance.

Ideally, every meal should have a large serving of protein, about the size of your hand, surrounded by vegetables, cooked in healthy fats, with a serving of berries or fruit as desert. And if you’re still hungry, have seconds of the veggies and protein. Don’t wait an hour or two and resort to crackers, cookies, or other packaged goods.

Just eat more protein and plants!

Steak and Veggies

Meal Comparison, Part 1: Breakfast

Over the last year, news headlines showcased that saturated fat is not dangerous, animal products are not inherently unhealthy, and most of our health problems stem from over-consumption of refined carbohydrates.

However, change takes time. For the last 50 years, the public has been taught to fear fat and cholesterol, and to eat meals built around dense sources of carbs – particularly grains.

The science is now widely available showing that grains disrupt healthy gut function, provide an enormous carb load with few nutrients, and are inflammatory. But even with this information, many people are bewildered by recommendations to choose healthier options.

I can post in-depth articles discussing anti-nutrients, biological mechanisms, and studies…but sometimes a side-by-side comparison is more effective.

So, today I will post part 1 of a series comparing the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) with a grain-free approach. Each post will compare two meal options, starting with breakfast!

Since I clearly favor a grain-free approach, I have taken the following steps to ensure objectivity:

I picked the healthiest standard breakfast options doctors and dietitians recommend. This includes:

oatmeal1 cup of oatmeal (not instant; fortified and enriched)

1 cup of orange juice (not from concentrate; fortified)

½ cup of skim milk (fortified with vitamins A & D)

1 handful of raisins

For the grain-free breakfast, I picked foods that conventional wisdom would classify as too “high calorie” or “unhealthy”, including:

omelet1 omelet made with 4 whole eggs, spinach, and sweet red peppers

1/2 avocado

1 tomato

2 slices of bacon

Both meals provide 600 calories and take less than 15 minutes to prepare.

After running all the foods through a nutrient spreadsheet, here are the total offerings of each meal:

Meal Carbs Fiber Protein Sat Fat Mono Fat Omega 3 Omega 6
Standard Breakfast 136 9 15 1 1.5 50 2000
Grain-Free Breakfast 25 13 35 10 20 1300 3500

The oatmeal breakfast provides a major carb bolus, with very little fiber or fat to mitigate the resulting blood sugar spike. At over 100 grams of sugar per meal, it’s no surprise that almost 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes.

These carbs also increase small, dense LDL, causing atherosclerosis. Meanwhile, the grain-free breakfast provides 13 grams of fiber, along with 10 grams of saturated fat and 20 grams of monounsaturated, both raising HDL, or “good” cholesterol.

I included a column for omega 3 and omega 6. These are both essential fats, but O-3 has an anti-inflammatory affect while O-6 causes inflammation, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Historically, humans consumed a 1-to-2 or 1-to-4 ratio of O3-to-O6. The oatmeal breakfast skews this massively, with a ratio of 1-to-40, while the omelet and guacamole is more ideal (1-to-3).

Clearly the grain-free breakfast is healthier in terms of cardiovascular function, inflammation levels, and blood sugar control. But what about vitamin content?

Meal Vit A Vit C Vit D Vit E Vit K Vit B6 Vit B12 Folate Choline
American Breakfast 2700* 125 50* 0.4* 3* 1 0.5 280 70
Grain-Free Breakfast 10000 250 70 8 184 2 3 330 560

Once again, the omelet, bacon, and guacamole trump the oatmeal and fruit in every category!

You’ll also notice an asterisk in the vitamin A, D, K, and E categories. The oatmeal breakfast offers less of these vitamins but also lacks the fat and cholesterol necessary to activate and absorb these 4 fat-soluble vitamins.

The American breakfast offers far less B vitamins, and folate, which is problematic since carbohydrates use up B vitamins in their processing. It is common for Americans that don’t consume enough animal products, yet eat a large amount of grains, to require vitamin b supplements and sometimes even injections.

Finally, let’s look at the minerals offered by each meal:

Meal Calcium Magnesium Phosphorus Potassium Zinc Copper Manganese Selenium
American Breakfast 500* 160 590 1300 2.9 0.5 2 24
Grain-Free Breakfast 170 120 600 1700 4.4 0.8 0.8 75

The oatmeal and fruit offers more in 3 categories! Grains are an excellent source of magnesium and manganese, while dairy provides a substantial amount of calcium.

I have once again put an asterisk next to calcium. Dairy and grains create a very acidic environment in the body, potentially leaching calcium from the bones.

The omelet and guacamole offer more minerals in total…but a daily serving of nuts may help shore up the few shortcomings.

As evidenced by this side-by-side comparison of a Standard American Diet breakfast, and a breakfast based around plants, animal products, and healthy fats, grains are not necessary.

There are a few minerals that are more abundant in grains which may support an argument for their occasional inclusion, but the idea that we should eat 6 to 11 servings a day is ludicrous.

Whether we look at carbohydrate load, inflammatory factors, or nutrients, grains clearly are not the “heart healthy” option we have been told.

Next time you’re contemplating what to make for breakfast, crack a few eggs and fry up some bacon – I’ve never heard someone complain that these foods aren’t more tasty…and now we know they are healthier too!

My Nutritional Journey

Continuing the thread I started last time, this post will summarize my various experimentation and resulting experiences…this time regarding nutrition.

Growing up, I ate the Standard American Diet (SAD) – cereal and skim milk for breakfast, cold cuts or peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and a home-cooked meal (cheeseburgers, chicken and veggies, pasta, etc.) for dinner. When I got home from school I’d have two microwaveable pizzas, an entire box of cookies, or another less-than-optimal snack. On weekends we’d order pizza or go out for dinner and, on more nights than not, my dad and I would make ice cream sundaes. It was enjoyable…but I was chubby, suffered from severe acne, and wasn’t particularly active.  

I continued this way of eating until I discovered the world of bodybuilding in college. I learned about “clean” eating according to the governmental standards of our country. This meant I ate tons of carbs (over 50% of my daily calories), a moderate amount of protein, and low fat. I was still new to the health-world and impressionable so, every time I read a news article about risks of fat, cholesterol, salt, or meat, I’d cut back even further on these. Finally, by senior year of college I was a vegetarian – eating egg whites and oatmeal in the morning, then meals comprised of rice, quinoa, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, soy, dairy, or legumes for the rest of the day. I was miserable. I was bloated, had indigestion, suffered migraines, and experienced mood swings if I went more than 3 hours without eating. It got to a point where I was soaking my beans to remove excess salt from them and choosing medium-grain brown rice instead of long-grain because it had 1 more gram of (incomplete) protein per cup!

Two years ago, my mentor (who had been a “high-carb, low-fat” advocate) admitted he had been eating a “Paleolithic Diet” for over a year and was healthier than ever. His blood markers improved, his performance increased, and the aches-and-pains that were considered a side-effect of aging all but disappeared. I purchased The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf, to learn some of the science and rationale behind this alternative approach to nutrition. Robb is a strength and athletics coach with a degree in bio-molecular chemistry. I started consuming as much information from as many sources as possible and the science seemed to check out. I learned: eating cholesterol does not necessarily raise bad cholesterol levels in the blood; naturally occurring saturated fats do not “saturate” the blood resulting in blocked arteries and death; properly raised meat does not cause cancer.

 I decided to have my blood work done before making any changes, and then have it done after 30 days eating “paleo”. It’s possible to cherry-pick studies to make an argument for or against anything but a blood lipid-panel would show what’s truly happening in the body. After years of eating a doctor-recommended diet of high carb, low protein, fat, cholesterol and sodium, my LDL and triglycerides were “borderline high” and my HDL was “poor”. I’ll talk more about these terms and specific numbers another time but clearly, an American Heart Association (AHA) recommended diet was not working for me. After merely 30 days of eating paleo, my LDL and triglycerides lowered to “optimal” and my HDL went up to “best”. Not only had these markers improved but my digestion was perfect, my energy levels were stable, and my body composition was better. I’ve been eating paleo for over 2 years now. I check my blood regularly and my HDL is still on the rise and my triglycerides are still dropping – both very good signs of cardiovascular health.

I don’t want to turn these posts into short stories all about me so I’m going wrap up here. In my next post I’ll talk a little bit more about optimal eating habits and the pros and cons of different nutritional approaches. I’ve certainly experienced success using the paleo diet as a starting point, but, my goal on this blog will never be to push anything onto my readers. My only intentions are to provide a combination of personal experience and science so people can have an idea of what may improve their health and well-being.

Thanks for your patience over these past two posts! I wanted you all to have an opportunity to get to know me and my history in this world of physical health. Keep in mind, health is a lifelong process and I have many years to learn and experience even more. I hope you all take the journey with me and can find some value on this site.

See you soon!