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Dying for Sleep

There is a silent epidemic of sleep disorders in the US (and probably other developed countries as well). Increasing diagnoses of sleep problems is likely a combination of increasing incidence and increased awareness. Recent studies showing that sleep apnea (blocking of the air passageways during sleep) increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Poor sleep is also linked to diabetes and may be the true underlying cause of up to half of people with the diagnosis of fibromyalgia.

Lack of sleep also exacerbates many conditions, from migraines to seizures, and correlates with a decreased life expectancy. In short – we need our sleep. Our bodies, especially our brains, do not function optimally when deprived of sleep. Everyone should strive to have good sleep habits – avoid caffeine in the evening, don’t eat right before going to bed, and try to consolidate your sleep so you get it all at once rather than napping throughout the day. If you still have poor sleep, consult a physician – you may have a treatable condition that can be diagnosed with a sleep study.

But for every such truth in medicine there seems to be a quack willing to take it to absurd extremes in order to sell their books, supplements, and devices. I recently received the following e-mail asking about such extreme claims.

I was looking into the Paleo diet line of books and have read up a little now and in my search was suggest to read ‘Lights Out; Sleep, sugar and survival.’ So i grabbed the book and was getting excited until they professed that no animals in the wild get cancer, and then pronounced that any exercise that we do today is invoking the fight, flight response (fear of being eaten) from our bodies suggesting that running away was the only time that we were really doing exercise back when evolution was taking place which i found hard to believe as well, what about chasing the food?
So i went looking for the author to check a little back ground and have found somewhat unsurprising results. T.S.Wiley. She is  a sham artist. Sadly one of the dangerous ones that is selling hormone replacement therapy and causing all sorts of issues.
So there are three questions:
1. The paleo diet suggest that we have yet to have our digestive systems get use to modern foods including wheat and oats etc and that we should steer clear of them. Also all processed food we are generally not ready for yet, i know trans fats should be illegal. They suggest less carbs and more protein and also higher fat than is normally recommended suggesting that more carbs are turned into fat than good fats are turned into stored fat. What does the panel think of the Paleo idea?
2. Sleep is very important but is it the dramatic cure for cancer and obesity that that the book says? i am hoping that it is not all b/s. It is even suggested that schizophrenia is cased by the imbalance of hormones that sleep helps balance.
3. How foreign is exercise to our systems? I know a lot of people who are fit but i would not call them healthy, their skin is old and not as sexy as mine and generally i also know many who have gotten cancer. These is a difference between people generally conscious of their body and those obsessed by it, in my none double blind eyes.
Lights Out is an extremely dubious book The publisher sells the book with the promotion:

When it comes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and depression, everything you believe is a lie.

This is beyond hyperbole – this is a clear sign of pseudoscience. What many health gurus do is cherry pick some legitimate scientific studies but then use them to build an extreme philosophy of health and illness, often wrapped in some simple-minded and completely fabricated explanation.
Let me take on a few of these specific claims. The notion that our human ancestors did not get much exercise seems absurd on its face, and is certainly not based upon any factual information. Just look at hunter-gatherer populations today – they get a tremendous amount of exercise just going about their daily lives. Subsistence living is physically hard work, often involving long work days. By contrast the typical modern life-style is relatively sedentary. Going to the gym a few times a week is only a partial compensation for having a desk job. The problem in most developed countries is too little exercise, not too much.
The paleo diet is really just a new name for the old “bad carbs” diets. Like the exercise argument, it is a simplistic application of the naturalistic fallacy – anything that differs from the life-style humans have had in our evolutionary past must be unnatural and therefore unhealthy. This assumes, however, that adaption is precise and inflexible.
Again, it also has a kernel of truth but goes way beyond it. We are adapted to eat some kinds of foods and not others. People cannot live off a grass, we don’t have the stomachs and bacteria to digest it. We cannot make our own Vitamin C, so we have to consume it.  But we also evolved to be omnivores, to survive off of a wide variety of foods opportunistically. It does not stand to reason that we need to eat the same types and forms of food as our ancestors. We require the same nutrients, but there is no reason why we cannot safely get them from new sources, as long as we can digest them.
Specifically, the naturalistic fallacy is used to attack “processed” foods. The term “processed” is used ambiguously – almost all food, unless you eat it raw and out of the ground, is processed to some degree. Some processing, like cooking, actually makes it easier to digest food and extract nutrients. And mixing foods together that do not occur together in nature likely has no consequence.
Getting back to sleep – as I stated above, sleep is very important and lack of sleep is a strain on our bodies and can exacerbate many conditions. However, this is very different from sleep being a “cure” for specific diseases, like cancer. There are many things we need for survival, oxygen and nutrition, for example, and lack of these things will cause health problems and worsen many conditions. But this does not mean that oxygen or nutrition will cure any of those things.
The basic rules of skepticism apply to this book – be wary of anyone claiming to know the hidden truth, be suspicious of simplistic reasoning applied to complex questions, or simple answers to complex problems, and of course critically analyze all claims made by someone who wants to sell you something.

2 comments to Dying for Sleep

  • The ‘no animals in the wild get cancer’ claim is crap too. Animals get cancer all the time. Right now, for instance, down here in
    Australia there’s a cancer epidemic among Tasmanian Devils (which is thought to be due to lack of genetic diversity).

    The assertion about cancer in non-domesticated animals probably comes about because we really don’t have a lot of knowledge of cancer rates in the wild, due to the simple fact that not much study has been done on it.

  • Myles

    Steve, why do you advise, “don’t eat right before going to bed,”? I have heard that it may cause post-nasal drip. Is there anything else to it? I myself have a hard time falling asleep if I’m even remotely hungry. I usually go to bed within two hours of my last meal and I usually sleep well. Am I causing any kind of long term damage to myself? Let me know! Thanks.

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