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

Stay Healthy During the Holidays

With the holidays right around the corner, I thought I’d put together a list of things you can do to stay healthy while still enjoying the holiday season. So, without further ado, here are the top 6 recommendations I would make:

  1. Stick to your normal eating habits. Don’t try skipping meals or eating less as this may lead to over-consuming snack foods and holiday treats.
  2. Build meals around protein and veggies while minimizing starchy or sugary carbs such as fruits, grains, legumes, and potatoes. Always opt for more vegetables and protein to feel full.
  3. Avoid liquid calories such as juices, milk, and mixed drinks. Get your calories from whole foods!
  4. Once you are full from your meal, then indulge in whatever holiday treat you like most. My favorite is chocolate peanut butter balls! It’s a lot easier to enjoy one or two treats, rather than a dozen, after filling up on healthy food during mealtime.
  5. Exercise whenever possible! This will mitigate stress that occurs during the holidays and protect your body from the damage of the indulgences. Exercise can be as simple as sprinting up a flight of stairs, going for a walk after meals, or performing a few sets of body weight pushups and squats.
  6. For those that plan to consume alcoholic beverages: drink on an empty stomach. When alcohol is ingested, all other calories are sent to fat storage so the body can break down the alcohol as fast as possible. Pick drinks lower in sugar such as dry wines, champagnes, and hard liquors. Forgo the prepackaged sugary mixers and try flavoring with a lime or lemon. My approach is to have a NorCal Margarita (2 shots tequila, juice from an entire lime, ice, and club soda) a few hours before dinner. Finally, make the following meal high in protein and healthy fat. This will help blood sugar levels, protein synthesis, and hormones return to normal.

I personally choose to consume a whey protein shake and digestive enzymes before any meal that is high in processed carbs and low in nutrients, such as pasta or pizza.

Finally, don’t stress about indulging! The holidays should be about family, relaxation, and a change in routine. Sure, under-consuming protein and vitamins while over-consuming sugar and anti-nutrients isn’t going to improve health – but allowing stress levels to increase will only exacerbate fat storage and skew hormone levels.

Make the best choices you can as often as possible, but plan to enjoy yourself and have some indulgences. Then jump right back into clean eating and living on in January.

Hope these tips help everyone enjoy their holidays while staying healthy. See you all next year!

christmas-treats

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

Epsom Salt Baths

Most times of the year, I schedule a workout 5 days a week. This gives me 3 or 4 days of strength training and 1 or 2 days of conditioning. Including a warm-up and cool-down, my workout takes just over one hour.

If I can find an hour everyday to workout, I can certainly find under an hour to go through some recovery techniques.

One recovery method previously discussed is foam rolling. Today, I’ll talk about my other favorite technique – taking an Epsom Salt bath.

Epsom salt consists of magnesium sulfate, a combination of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen.

The planets water and soils used to contain far more magnesium, but due to overpopulation and unsustainable farming practices, the Earth’s stores have been greatly depleted. This in turn means that we are not consuming nearly as much magnesium as we once did.

Low magnesium levels can cause weakness, cramps, arrhythmias, anxiety, tremors, confusion, depression, hypertension, and seizures. Countless times I have seen clients eliminate foot cramps or difficulty sleeping by simply raising their magnesium levels.

Another cause of these symptoms is our high consumption of dairy and calcium fortified products. Magnesium and calcium work together in the body. Calcium causes muscles to contract while magnesium allows them to relax. Consuming massive amounts of calcium, without properly balancing magnesium levels accordingly, can contribute to tension, muscle tightness, and electrolyte imbalances.

Some choose to consume powdered or tablet forms of supplemental magnesium. Although this is effective for raising magnesium levels, oral bioavailability of magnesium varies greatly and high doses may have a laxative effect.

For this reason, on workout days, I spend a minimum of 15 minutes in a hot bath, with 1 cup of Epsom salt, before bed.

This is the perfect way to relax at the end of a long day. The hot water and magnesium relaxes the muscles while the still nature of the water and peaceful setting can greatly calm the mind.

Epsom salt is inexpensive and causes no dangerous side effects. The worst that may happen with soaking too long, or using excessive amounts of Epsom salt, would be lethargy or a heavy feeling in the limbs.

I have noticed that since I start incorporating this workout technique years ago, I recover from workouts sooner and fall asleep much faster.

Next time you’re at the store, spend a few dollars on a bag of Epsom salt and take a 15-minute bath that day. Let me know if your results are as worthwhile as mine!

Bath

5 More Health Tips

This week I think I’ll get back to my “5 Health Tips” series I started many months ago.

These are simple steps that won’t take too much time, or cost much money, but can significantly improve your health.

  • Download f.lux on all your computers. This is a program that adjusts the light on your computer according to time of day. As the sun sets, the screen will emit less white and blue light, transitioning to yellows and oranges. This will allow your body to maintain its natural production of serotonin and melatonin, contributing to healthy sleep
  • If you are seated most of the day, try to take 30 second breaks every 15 minutes to walk, stretch, or simply adjust your sitting style. Sometimes I sit on a desk chair, other times on a stability ball…sometimes I kneel, other times I stand. Prolonged sitting can cause postural issues, tight or weak muscles, and even metabolic problems.
  • Practice deep breathing while driving. This means inhaling slowly and fully, expanding all the way to the bottom of your stomach, before letting the air out in a controlled manner. I have started doing this and have experienced a few benefits: it’s very relaxing; it’s good practice for filling the diaphragm; and it makes me a more patient and calm driver.
  • Make your own condiments, sauces, and toppings at home. Most store bought condiments will contain low-quality ingredients (corn syrup, gluten, soy, etc). These foods can prevent you from losing weight, damage your health, and even affect your emotions and energy levels. Believe it or not, ketchup, salad dressing, pesto, and most sauces take less than 5 minutes to make!
  • Limit your “carb” intake to one meal a day. Unless you are a high-level athlete, exercising vigorously everyday, you aren’t burning enough carbs to justify frequent re-feedings. Excess carbs turn to sugar in the blood, causing fat-gain, inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dozens of other health issues. The best time to consume carbs, such as potatoes or fruits, would be within 30 minutes of your workout. The second best time would be with dinner, during your last meal before bed.

The first 3 recommendations are lifestyle tips that you should be able fit into you’re your daily activities. The last 2 are nutritional suggestions that can greatly affect your health and performance.

All this tips have the potential to save you a considerable amount of money when you consider the medical costs resulting from poor health.

So give them a try and let me know how they work for you!

Improve Your Hormone Levels

As I promised a few weeks ago, I’ll provide some simple steps you can take to improve your hormone levels.

Just to reiterate, your hormone levels dictate a large part of your health, performance, and body composition.

For the actual details about healthy hormone levels and effects, please refer to my post about testosterone.

Without further ado, here are the safest and most effective tactics to manage healthy hormone levels:

• Make sure you are consuming a nutrient rich diet.
Any nutrient deficiency has the potential to negatively impact hormones, but the biggest culprits will be zinc, vitamin A, vitamin D, and magnesium. I’ll do a post explaining which foods have the most nutrient value later on but, for now, I’ll just recommend oysters, liver (if you can stand the flavor and have a high-quality source), avocados, eggs (particularly the yolk), and plenty of naturally-raised, well-treated meats, full of the fats and proteins your body needs to manufacture testosterone.

• Consume dietary cholesterol on a regular basis.
The best sources are eggs, shrimp, and fattier cuts of beef (grass-fed of course!). Cholesterol is a precursor to testosterone production. Keep in mind, the cholesterol you eat will only raise your HDL a little and have hardly any effect on triglycerides (the “bad” cholesterol in the blood).

• Avoid over-consuming carbohydrates.
Starches and sugars will cause insulin spikes in the blood. Your muscles can only store so many carbs before the insulin forces carbs to be stored in fat cells. This insulin will also disrupt normal hormone signaling.

• Get 8-9 hours of sleep a night.
During the first few hours of sleep, your body will release the largest amount of human growth hormone, allowing your body to recover from the day. I know everyone says they can get by with 6 hours…but your body composition, mental performance, and energy levels will always be better with a proper 8 hours of sleep.

• Lift something heavy a few times a week.
This will stimulate the body to produce testosterone to recover from the stimulus. Again, keep in mind that heavy lifting isn’t what produces bulky muscles…that would be higher repetitions (8-15) for multiple sets (3-4) with very little rest (30-90 seconds).

• Do some high intensity interval training.
Refer to my post from a few weeks ago. This has the potential of benefiting hormones more than any other exercise.

• Avoid alcohol.
Or at least try to moderate your intake. Alcohol will convert testosterone to estrogen within the body.

• Avoid stress.
This might be the most difficult but cortisol, released when you’re stressed, will lower testosterone levels. Some of the easiest things you can do are to limit your caffeine intake and take time during the day to stare off into nature or distract yourself from the stresses of our modern lives.

One final method for increasing testosterone levels is to supplement directly with hormones (a.k.a. steroids). However, this is a much more controversial and potentially unsafe method that I’ll save for another post.

Give all these things a try and see if you notice an improvement in body composition, strength, recovery, or just general mood and energy on a daily basis!

Coffee

Today, let’s look at the potential benefits and drawbacks of one of my favorite things – coffee.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to include espresso (or the “Nectar of the God’s” as I like to think of it) in the same category as coffee.

First, the benefits:

     It tastes amazing!

      It is loaded with antioxidants that may prevent free radicals from damaging cells.

      Two organic acids found in coffee, caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, may have a slightly anti-diabetic effect. It appears that these compounds help increase lipolysis, allowing the body to use fatty acids from body fat stores, as opposed to glucose and sugar, as energy.

     It may improve endothelial function and raise HDL, promoting a healthier cardiovascular system.

     There may be a limited value to acute caffeine consumption for reducing feelings of depression.

     Finally, it gives a boost that can help increase work productivity, either during exercise or mental tasks.

The downsides:

     Some of the organic acids within coffee can raise cortisol levels for up to 12 hours after consumption! This can interfere with sleep and exacerbate anxiety issues.

     Coffee is extremely acidic meaning it can cause acid reflux and leach calcium from bones.

     It is high in polyphenols that inhibit proper absorption of iron, leading to anemia.

     Finally, caffeine is a stimulant, a classification for a drug with a “speedy” affect. The fact that it is a drug, with noticeable affects mentally and physically, means there is addiction and withdrawal potential. Also, it can mask other issues due to the artificial energy and buzz it provides.

Now that we’ve looked at the hard facts behind coffee, how exactly should we treat consumption of a substance with such a balanced list of pros and cons?

I would never dare tell you what to do, particularly when it comes to something as beloved as coffee, but I can offer my approach:

I treat coffee as a tasty indulgence and a performance enhancer. By that, I mean, on days I work out, I have a large cup of very dark coffee. This helps me push a little harder in the gym and also leaves me more alert for the rest of my workday. On the days I don’t work out, I make a couple shots of espresso in my stove-top Moka machine.

Then, on Saturdays and holidays, I’ll indulge and have a few extra shots throughout the day.

I have removed coffee from my diet before and noticed a marked improvement in my stress levels throughout the day. For this reason, whenever I take a recovery week from the gym, I have tea instead of coffee or espresso.

I am a rather high-stress individual…my mind is always going a mile a second and I always have a dozen different things on my mind. This, in part, is why I try to be rather conservative with my coffee intake.

For the general public, I’d suggest finishing your coffee in the morning and avoiding it after 12PM.

One thing I’ve done to curtail my desire for coffee is expand my tea palate. As much as I love coffee, there is also a sense of excitement when opening my kitchen cabinet and deciding which, of about a dozen teas, I am in the mood for.

I have a training session in a few moments and would love nothing more than a shot of espresso…but, I’ll brew a mug of Lemon Ginger Yogi tea and, after the first few sips, I’ll be perfectly content.

Maybe give it a try and see how you feel. Let me know!