MIND: Rest

Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue — but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect.

// Timothy Ferriss

BODY: The Benefits of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice with origins in India stretching back thousands of years. Many practitioners find that it helps them achieve a sense of calmness and tranquility, along with numerous physical benefits. While yoga studios are still common everywhere, given our current situation it is much easier to start getting into a routine using apps or videos online.

If you’re on the fence about starting a new regime, read on for some of the benefits of a regular yoga practice!

1. Yoga can improve your overall health.

If you are new to yoga (5 classes or less) it is best to try out different styles of and flows to see which one works best for you. The speed and intensity of yoga classes will vary; with apps such as Down Dog you can choose the type of class as well as the focus, whether it is on strength or flexibility.

Improved flexibility is one of the immediate benefits of yoga. In the beginning it can feel like your body is tight and clunky, but after a consistent regime you should notice your muscles start to loosen and it becomes easier to move through the practice. Aches and pains may start to disappear as tightness in parts of the body can manifest elsewhere.

During your practice you will contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures; as you do this you increase the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells). By encouraging lymph drainage you help your lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of toxic waste. Consider yoga your detox exercise!

Along with detoxing your system, yoga has been shown to lower cortisol levels in practitioners. Many people deal with low-level stress in their day to day lives which is healthy, but consistent stress can cause the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol in response to perceived crisis, which serves to temporarily boosts immune function. A problem will occur if your levels stay elevated even after a crisis and your immune system will end up being compromised. Excessive cortisol has also been linked to depression, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Through yoga you can help your body and mind relax and create a state of calm, hopefully lowering your stress hormones to more sustainable levels.

The health benefits of yoga are vast; some advanced yogis have been recorded controlling their bodies via their nervous system. Some have been able to create unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and using meditation techniques, they have been able to raise the temperature of their hands. Consider the multiple health benefits available if you learn to calm your body and mind at will.

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2. Yoga increases self-awareness and mind-body connection.

During your yoga classes your body is put through a series of postures and stretches designed to increase strength and flexibility. In the beginning it can be discouraging to not feel your body “responding” as easily as you may have expected, but with more practice you will find you are able to flow through the postures smoother than before.

Lunges and stretches will increase your leg and core strength, as well as engaging every muscle in your body; meanwhile the exercises force you to focus on the moment, and during meditation you will be encouraged to clear your mind, which helps alleviate stress and will improve your mental stability. Even if you are physically capable of completing a yoga practice, the goal is to be able to silence your mind as you focus on moving your body.

Meditation doesn’t need to be cloaked in the New Age sage-chanting vibe. It doesn’t have to be sitting in a cave working through Tibetan chants (though it can be, if that’s what you’re after). Meditation has built up a following in recent years and now through YouTube videos and apps such as Headspace it’s easier than ever to incorporate it into your lifestyle.

Meditation can improve the quality of your life by giving you time to slow down and process what is happening. While it can be arduous in the beginning, the more you practice the easier you’ll find you slip into a zen-like state. It’s incredibly important to incorporate this into your yoga practice as it helps you achieve calmness and tranquility.

3. Inhala, Exhala!

Yoga focuses heavily on breathing paired with movement (or lack thereof) which can improve your lung capacity (volume of breath and efficiency of exhalation). Many poses and breaths work in tandem to open your lungs and “create space” in the body, allowing you to decompress and destress.

Devoted yogis tend to take fewer breaths of greater volume, which is both calming and more efficient. In 1998, The Lancet published a study where a yoga breathing technique known as “complete breathing” was taught to a group of people who suffered from lung problems. After one month of practice their average respiratory rate fell from 13.4 breaths per minute to 7.6; they also found that their exercise capacity increased.

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4. Yoga can improve the quality of your sleep.

Yoga can be done at any time during the day, but if you incorporate a practice before bed you will find your mind and body relax more efficiently, allowing you to achieve a more restful night’s sleep. Doing any light physical activity or stretching before bed is beneficial, and yoga will help you relax; I’ve been guilty of occasionally dozing off during Savasana (aptly referred to as “Corpse Pose”) at the end of my practice.

While excitement and stimulation are great in life, too much will cause excess stress on your nervous system. Yoga will help your body find some relief through poses aimed at giving much needed downtime to your body. Many studies suggest that yoga will help you achieve better sleep, thereby affecting your stress levels and making you more productive in your daily life.

5. Yoga can improve your posture. 

As you move into different poses you will notice you’re encouraged to be aware of the flatness and curvature of your spine. After a few weeks of consistent practice you should notice that your posture improves without much conscious effort on your part.

Your head is like a bowling ball: big, round and heavy. When it’s balanced over a straight spine it takes much less work for your back and neck muscles to support it. However, once it’s moved slightly forward, you will start to strain muscles and create fatigue. Poor posture can cause back, neck and muscle problems and the worse your posture is, the more your body tries to compensate, creating a ripple effect of stress and possible fractures on other parts of your body. (1)

Getting into yoga doesn’t have to be an expensive or daunting endeavour. I’m currently using the Down Dog app, which is available for free or via a paid yearly subscription if you’d like more control and variety in your classes. The app is incredibly user friendly and can be used by people of all levels of skill.

I like to practice a couple times a week to check-in with my body and see which areas feel like they need more stretching and attention. It can be frustrating to start a new exercise but yoga has multiple health benefits that will help you now and make your body more supple and toned as you age. Good luck and namaste!

Source:
1. Haigh, Chris. “7 Reasons You Should Start Doing Yoga Immediately.” Lifehack, 10 Sept. 2013, http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/7-reasons-you-should-start-doing-yoga-immediately.html.

BODY: The Benefits of Maca

Achieving optimal health using natural remedies has become a go-to for many people. Given the current hyper-focus on keeping the body fit and clean, one superfood to consider adding to your diet is maca. In recent years the use of maca outside of traditional medicine has risen exponentially and can be found around the world in powder form for baking or as a supplement.

The maca plant, Lepidium meyenii, is sometimes referred to as “Peruvian ginseng” and is cultivated in the Peruvian Andes, though it grows wild in Peru, Paraguay and Argentina. Traditionally, maca has been used since the days of the Incans to enhance fertility and sex drive, though it can also help energy and stamina. It is classified as a cruciferous vegetable and the main edible part of the plant is the root, which can range in colour from yellow, purple or black. (1)

Despite the earthy taste, which may be bothersome to some, maca is versatile and can be added to smoothies, baked goods and energy bars. The ideal dosage has yet to be determined, however in most studies the dose ranges from 1.5-5 grams per day. It is widely available in stores and online in powder form, 500-mg capsules or as a liquid extract.

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Maca Smoothie (5g) with soy milk, strawberry & banana. Topped with apple & mixed berries.

While much of the research is still in early stages, here are some of the preliminary benefits found in the maca root:

Rich in Vitamins and Minerals: Good source of Vitamin C, Copper, Iron, Potassium, Manganese and Vitamin B6. It is also an adaptogenic superfood which not only helps support the body’s ability to deal with stress but it also contains all eight essential amino acids and plenty of phytonutrients.

May Increase Libido & Improve Function of Hormones: Maca has been heavily marketed for its ability to enhance sexual desire, with most studies showing improvement after six weeks of use. Some evidence has shown that maca can increase men’s fertility and improve semen quality (though the test subjects ingested maca regularly for four months). As well, maca may help relieve menopausal symptoms in women by alleviating hot flashes and improving sleep.

Mood Boosting: Maca has been shown to boost mood as it contains flavonoids which can help reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression. It has also been traditionally used by Peruvians to improve cognitive performance.

Maca is generally considered safe, however, if you have a history of thyroid problems, you may want to be careful with maca as it contains goitrogens which may interfere with the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. (2)

Start out slowly by adding a teaspoon (approx. 5 grams) or less to your coffee, baked goods, or smoothies a few days a week and see if you notice any changes to your health. Maca is a powerful superfood with key nutrients that can help support your body and keep you feeling strong.

maca balls

Maca Energy Balls with dates, walnuts, almond flour & coconut!

Sources:
1. Gaia Herbs. “Why We Love Maca: Top Benefits of This Amazing Adaptogenic Herb.” Gaia Herbs, 26 July 2018, http://www.gaiaherbs.com/blogs/seeds-of-knowledge/why-we-love-maca-top-benefits-of-this-amazing-adaptogenic-herb.
2. Palsdottir, Hrefna M. “9 Benefits of Maca Root (and Potential Side Effects).” Healthline, 30 Oct. 2016, http://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-maca-root.

BODY: Matcha Made in Heaven

Matcha’s popularity over the last few years has remained constant in a health industry that is perpetually on the hunt for the next superfood supplement. Much like the rise of drinks containing the detoxifying properties of chlorophyll, charcoal and turmeric, many cafés now offer matcha teas, lattes and baked goods. Matcha powder is incredibly versatile so you can add it to your diet in the form of tea, smoothies, coffee or cake.

Similar to green tea, matcha is derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, however the extra benefits come from the way it is grown. Matcha tea plants are covered 20-30 days before harvest to shield them from direct sunlight; by doing this, the chlorophyll production is increased and boosts the amino acid content which gives the plant a darker green colour and vastly increases its nutrient benefits.

Matcha contains nutrients from the entire tea leaf, rendering a greater level of caffeine and antioxidants than you would typically find in green tea. Some scientific studies have shown that matcha can help protect the liver, promote heart health and assist in weight loss.

Much like green tea, matcha is rich in catechins: a specific class of plant compound that acts as a natural antioxidant and is commonly found in tea, cocoa and berries. By consuming a healthy amount of natural antioxidants, you can help your body stabilize free radicals, which are the potentially harmful compounds that can damage your cells and cause disease. By adding matcha powder to hot water and make a tea, you actually release more catechins than steeping green tea leaves in water. The result is a high-power antioxidant rich (and caffeinated) drink!

Matcha has been shown to help protect the liver from damage; our livers are responsible for flushing out toxins, metabolizing drugs and processing nutrients so it’s vital we keep them running smoothly. One study gave diabetic rats matcha for 16 weeks and found that it prevented damaged to the kidneys and liver. Another study was conducted using green tea extract and showed that after 12 weeks the liver enzyme levels were reduced; elevated levels can be a sign of liver damage.

In studies using test tubes and rats, green tea extract (similar to matcha) was found to decrease tumor size and slowed the growth rate of breast cancer cells in rats. Matcha in particular is high in EGCG, a type of catechin that has been shown to have powerful anti-cancer properties. One test tube study found that the EGCG in matcha helped kill off prostate cancer cells; other test-tube studies show that EGCG is effective against skin, lung and liver cancer. While further testing is necessary to determine the effectiveness in humans, the initial results are promising.

Consuming matcha has been shown to help protect against heart disease and reduce levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) as well as triglycerides. When combined with a healthy diet and exercise, using matcha may help heart health and increase protection against heart disease and stroke, one of the leading causes of death for people over the age of 35.

Most weight-loss supplements use green tea extract; it has been shown to help speed up metabolism and increase fat burning. A review of 11 different studies showed that green tea reduced body weight and also helped maintain weight-loss. Given the higher efficiency of matcha in all other areas, it is likely to render the same results. (1)

Some tests have shown that by consuming roughly 4 grams of matcha may help enhance brain function. A 2017 study in Food Research showed that people who drank matcha tea experienced an increase in attention and processing speed an hour later, benefits which strongly outweigh drinking tea or coffee. This increase in attention, alertness and memory is likely due to matcha’s L-Theanine (a polyphenol called EGCG) and the higher concentration of caffeine. The L-Theanine also helps extended wakefulness without an energy crash, while boosting alpha brain wave activity to help decrease stress levels. Splurging on a matcha latte every now and again could be the solution to the afternoon slump. (2)

While the benefits of supplementing your diet with matcha are many, as with any health supplement, moderation is key: liver problems have been reported in individuals who drank 6 or more cups of green tea per day. This equals about two cups of matcha tea, given its higher concentration. Adding 4 grams of matcha to your diet a few times a week until you get used to it is a great start. Matcha is easily found in many health food stores, grocery stores, and online. My local grocery store carries matcha and I have been adding it to smoothies and oatmeal with great results; I’m less likely to crave or need coffee on days I supplement with matcha. As with anything, make sure the supplement is right for you before incorporating it on a regular basis.

Citations:
1. Link, Rachel. “7 Proven Ways Matcha Tea Improves Your Health.” Healthline, 10 Oct. 2017, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-benefits-of-matcha-tea.
2. Gainsburg, Marissa. “9 Benefits of Matcha Tea That Will Make You Want To Drink It Every Day.” Womens Heath Mag, 22 Apr. 2019, https://www.womenshealthmag.com/food/a27127259/matcha-powder-benefits/.

BODY: The Physician Within

Intermittent fasting has received increased press in recent years as a revolutionary eating schedule with amazing health benefits. While I am typically all over trying new lifestyle techniques, initially I wanted to avoid fasting because it seemed like a gateway habit for a resurgence of unhealthy eating patterns and an over-dependence on rigidity in an eating schedule. Saying that, I have been following a 16-8 eating schedule for almost a year now and admittedly I can see certain health benefits associated with intermittent fasting such as better digestion, more restful sleep, less bloating and admittedly, some weight-loss.

The concept of fasting is neither new nor revolutionary; ancient Greeks believed that medical treatment could be observed from nature and saw that humans, much like other animals, actively avoid eating while sick. During a fasting period you abstain from food or drink (or both) for health, ritualistic, religious or ethical purposes.

Paracelsus, a renowned healer, wrote over 500 years ago that, “fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.” Fasting is now recognized worldwide as a conduit for detoxification which allows and aids the removal of toxins in the body (thought to be responsible for illness and other conditions). By tapping into this innate power, we allow the body to heal itself. (1)

Fasting as a spiritual process is practiced by followers of: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism and Hinduism. While the fasting length and intensity varies, the common belief among the religions is that it is beneficial for cleansing and purification.

Although widely practiced by different religions and for health purposes, fasts have also been used to express social and political views. Gandhi famously fasted in prison to atone for the violence of his followers against the British rule in India. Fasting has been used worldwide to protest everything from war, social injustices and civil rights violations. (2)

Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It doesn’t specify what food you can eat and instead focuses on when you can eat them; for this reason it is less of a diet and more of an eating pattern. The most popular IF schedule is a 16-hour fast with a daily eating window of eight hours, such as 1-9PM. Others practice the 5-2 method: fasting for 24 hours (or consuming 500-600 calories on two non-consecutive days of the week) but eating normally the other five days.

A common mistake in the beginning of starting an IF program is the tendency to indulge in more calories than normal during your eating window. As long as you eat within your window and eat normally, you should notice positive changes. It’s also quite easy to eat less calories than before, so your body will kick up its natural fat-burning; short-term fasting has been shown to help your metabolism increase by 3-14%. In the beginning of my 16-8 schedule I followed a 7PM-11AM fasting period; by doing this I noticed that when I got up in the morning I actually wasn’t physically hungry and I had been eating right away solely out of habit. The fasting window let me get in touch with my hunger cues and only eat when my body was expressing its need for food. After one or two weeks of sticking to my schedule I noticed that aside from some hunger pains before I went to slept, it was a fairly painless process.

While you’re in the fasting period, your body is undergoing a myriad of processes in order to make the most of this time. The Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is raised as much as 5x during this window which will have benefits for fat loss and muscle gain. Insulin levels also drop dramatically which makes stored body fat more accessible to burn away. Even your genes are affected and some studies show that they will undergo changes to help protect against disease and foster cellular repair. Studies are still being done on the full range of benefits, but it has been shown to help inflammation, heart health and increase protection against cancerous cells.

I would definitely recommend trying intermittent fasting if you are looking for something new to help you break through a plateau. Personally I use the BodyFast app to manage my fasting windows and I find it’s a great help. It took me a month or two to get into an easy rhythm and manage my nutrient intake within the fasting window and to stop having mild binges when I broke my fast. I definitely think that IF can be dangerous and a trigger for those who are suffering/recovering from an eating disorder so it is worth discussing IF with a doctor before beginning a program.

As always, just like with any major diet or lifestyle change, the IF schedule needs to be used in moderation; fasting times are made to be extended/shortened; give your body days off to go out for a late dinner or have an early breakfast. Play around with the concept of fasting and see what works best for your body on your own schedule.

Citations:
1. Hicks, C. “Why fasting is now back in fashion.” Telegraph, 13 Apr. 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/11524808/The-history-of-fasting.html
2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Fasting.” Britannica, 20 Jul. 1998. https://www.britannica.com/topic/fasting
3. Gunnars, Kris. “Intermittent Fasting 101 – The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide.” Healthline Media, 25 Jul. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/intermittent-fasting-guide.

MIND: Deliberate

If you inherently long for something, become it first.
If you want gardens, become the gardener.
If you want love, embody love.
If you want mental stimulation, change the conversation.
If you want peace, exude calmness.
If you want to fill your world with artists, begin to paint.
If you want to be valued, respect your own time.
If you want to live ecstatically, find the ecstasy within yourself.
This is how to draw it in, day by day, inch by inch.

// Victoria Erickson

BODY: Know Your Flow

It wasn’t until I started having problems tracking and managing my menstrual cycle that I realized I’d completely forgotten all of my sixth grade sex ed course and was forced to turn to Google for answers. After a few years of dealing with my period, I had reached a certain level of status quo and let it run its own course. A year and a half later, I can see the benefits of staying in tune with my body and monitoring changes in my cycle to help understand my body’s overall health.

Going back to the basics, having your period is not the only part of the menstrual cycle; in reality, the period is the first phase of the cycle, which stretches from the first day of one period and ends when the next period begins. Your body is going through a multitude of changes during this cycle and it’s important to know what’s going on inside your body because the effects are not limited to your uterus.

There are two cycles occurring at once; one in the ovaries and one in the uterus. The brain, ovaries and uterus work together and communicate via hormones to keep the cycle going on a steady schedule.

Typically a cycle lasts between 24 and 38 days, but it varies from person to person and sometimes from one cycle to another. Period length and intensity can also change as you age, especially when you factor in influences such as hormonal birth control. Between the stage of menarche (when the period starts during puberty) and menopause (when your periods permanently stop) you will often notice changes in your entire body.

As I mentioned, the menstrual cycle doesn’t just cause some bleeding and then quietly exit stage left; over the course of the cycle it is common for women to notice changes in their hair, skin, sleeping habits, mental health, moods and digestion. Your body is literally preparing to get pregnant ad nauseam, whether you like it or not, so it benefits you to track where you are in your cycle and how likely you are to conceive at any given time.

Certain birth control methods that put a hormonal influx into your body prevent some or all of the steps from happening in the uterus and ovaries. Non-hormonal ones, like the copper IUD (which I have and highly recommend) do not affect your hormonal levels but act as a physical barrier in your uterus, preventing anything from growing without affecting your body’s natural rhythm. Your birth control choice (or lack thereof) is yours and yours alone, but it’s always god to check in with your OBGYN and make sure you understand the implications.

Here is what to expect during the phases of your menstrual cycle:

Menstruation: This is where you get your period and where the uterine lining (endometrium) is being shed. Your levels of estrogen and progesterone are low at this point and your period can last up to 8 days but most women will have periods for 5 to 6 days.

Follicular phase: Within the ovarian cycle, this phase marks the time between the first day of the period and your ovulation. Your estrogen levels are on the rise as an egg is preparing to be released. The pituitary gland (a small area at the base of the brain which makes hormones) produces a hormone called the Follicle Stimulating Hormone. The FSH lets the ovaries know it is time to prepare an egg for ovulation (when it gets released from the ovary). Throughout the menstrual cycle, there are multiple follicles (fluid filled sacs containing eggs) in each ovary at different stages of development. Halfway through the follicular phase (as the period is ending) one follicle in only one of the ovaries is the largest of all the follicles – usually about 1cm long. This becomes the dominant follicle and it is the one that gets prepared to be released at ovulation. The dominant follicle produces estrogen as it grows, which peaks just before ovulation occurs. For most people the follicular phase lasts 10-22 days, but this can vary from cycle-to-cycle.

Proliferative phase: Within the uterine cycle, after the period, the uterine lining is built back up. While the ovaries are busy working on the egg-sac follicles, the uterus is reacting to the estrogen produced by the follicles and starts to rebuild the lining that was shed during the last period. The endometrium is at its thinnest during the period, then builds up to being at its thickest during ovulation; it does this in order to have ample support to implant and grow a potential fertilized egg.

Ovulation: During this phase, the egg releases from one of your ovaries into a fallopian tube around mid-cycle. Your estrogen will peak slightly beforehand and drop shortly after; studies have shown that women show facial markers as to when they are most fertile; faces appear more feminine, more symmetrical and take on a reddish “healthy” glow. The dominant follicle will reach about 2-3cm in length. When estrogen levels are high enough, they signal the brain causing an increase in luteinizing hormone (this hormone regulates the ovaries in women and testes in men). This spike is what causes ovulation – the release of the egg from the ovary and will occur 13-15 days before the start of the next period.

Luteal phase: In the ovarian cycle, this is between ovulation and before the start of menstruation, where the body prepares for the possibility of pregnancy. After ovulation occurs, the follicle that contained the egg transforms into a corpus luteum and begins to produce progesterone as well as estrogen. The hormonal changes of the luteal phase are often associated with common premenstrual symptoms such as mood changes, breast tenderness and swelling, acne, headaches and bloating. If the egg is fertilized, progesterone from the corpus luteum supports the pregnancy. If it goes unfertilized, the corpus luteum will start to break down 9 or 11 days after ovulation. The result is a drop in progesterone and estrogen, which causes the menstruation. It is common for the luteal phase to last between 9 and 16 days.

Secretory phase: In the uterine cycle, the uterine lining produces the chemicals necessary to support an early pregnancy should it occur; if the egg isn’t fertilized, it will break down and shed. Rising levels of progesterone cause the endometrium to stop thickening and start preparing for the attachment of an egg. The endometrium secrets chemical messengers, most importantly PGF2a and PGE2, which cause the uterine muscle to contract and “cramp” which in turn spurns on the menstruation. The amount of prostaglandins rise after ovulation and peak during menstruation. If a pregnancy occurs, the cramps will be halted to avoid interfering with the early pregnancy; if fertilization doesn’t occur, the hormone levels drop which causes cramps and the tissues of the endometrium to break down (1).

At this point, menstruation begins and the whole cycle starts again. In the last year I have used the Flo app to track my symptoms and as such I can tell where I am in my cycle down to the day by paying attention to my body’s signals. For example, I can always feel my ovulation as a slight twinge on my left or right side, but typically it is more prominent on my left. As well, I know that 2-3 days before ovulation I can expect to be restless and anxious over the course of the night, so it gives me fair warning to adjust my lifestyle habits stay away from caffeine and meditate for stress relief. Small changes over the course of your cycle and help relieve some of the more annoying side effects.

The body is going through so many changes during each cycle and many of the side effects that may seem cause for concern are actually commonplace; light fatigue, bloating, changes in your bathroom habits (either too much or not enough), and discharge are all fairly commonplace. Complications during the cycle can arise, especially with the rise of women with poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), fibroids and endometritis. It is not normal to have debilitating pain or severe cramping from your periods as an adult, so if you feel as though your body is out of whack it is always best to check in with a gynecologist to ensure everything is functioning as normal. (2)

The better we understand our bodies, the happier and healthier we can live our lives.

Citations:
1. Ray, Laurie. “The Menstrual Cycle: More than Just Your Period.” The Menstrual Cycle: Phases of Your Cycle, Clue, 12 Dec. 2018, https://helloclue.com/articles/cycle-a-z/the-menstrual-cycle-more-than-just-the-period.
2. Darrisaw, Michelle. “5 Weird Things That Happen During Your Period That Are Totally Normal.” Essence, Essence, 25 June 2018, http://www.essence.com/lifestyle/weird-things-happen-body-during-menstruation/.

BODY: No Siesta, No Fiesta

I’ve always been a huge fan of sleep, mainly because I feel I am always one night away from comatose-like exhaustion. I loved living in Barcelona because siestas (aka “cultured naps”) were the norm and the entire city would grind to a halt in the afternoon in order to honor this tradition. It was glorious! In researching burn-out and general life fatigue I’ve found a lot of interesting facts about the role quality sleep plays in ensuring the proper functioning of our entire body.

Before I dive into getting a good night’s sleep, it’s important to touch on our circadian rhythms and how they affect our well-being. Every day we go through physical, mental and behavioral changes in response to how dark or light our environment is; for example, a light-related circadian rhythm is the most common, where we sleep at night and are awake during the day. Our inner circadian rhythm is important because it ties heavily into our biological clocks; an internal timing device made up of proteins that interact with cells throughout our body and can be found in almost every tissue and organ. The functioning of our biological clock produces our circadian rhythm and helps to regulate the timing of our system.

The biggest influence of circadian rhythm is the amount of light we are exposed to and when we get the exposure. Daylight turns on and off genes that speed up, slow down or reset our biological clocks. The circadian rhythm affects our sleep-wake cycles, hormonal release, body temperature, eating habits and digestion. When our systems are irregular and out of whack, we are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, diabetes, obesity and depression.

Our body’s master clock is a group of around 20,000 nerve cells that join together to form a suprachiasmatic nucleus, also referred to as SCN (science sucks, but stay with me here). SCN is located in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus and receives direct input from the eyes. The hypothalamus is located near the pituitary gland at the base of the brain and is responsible for maintaining our nervous system, hormonal releases, temperature regulation and appetite. The SCN controls the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. When we are exposed to lower amounts of light the brain releases more melatonin, which in turn creates the feeling of drowsiness. This is one of the reasons we need exposure to adequate daylight during waking hours as it allows our SCN to regulate our sleep–awake schedule. Researches are still studying the effects of shift-work and light from our screens to see how they alter our body’s rhythms.

Have you ever taken a long flight across different time zones? Or my personal favourite, a red-eye flight with a layover or two sprinkled in-between? The resulting feeling of jet-lag is due to the travel disrupting your body’s circadian rhythm. Even if you are landing in a European time zone your body is chugging along on a North American schedule, sending your system into utter catastrophe. It is completely normal for your system to take a few days to reset itself.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage of “quality over quantity” before, but it applies to sleep as well. Eight hours of light or interrupted sleep doesn’t allow you to reap the same benefits of 6 hours of deep, REM & light sleep.

Not all sleep is equal, but each type of sleep serves a purpose. If your body is able to cycle through all four stages at night, you are more likely to wake up refreshed rather than fatigued and cranky. Scientists have grouped sleep into four stages: NON-REM stages 1, 2 & 3 and REM sleep. If you use a sleep tracker or FitBit, you’ll notice you have moments of wakefulness throughout the night which is completely normal. If your sleep tracker logs you as “awake” it simply means your brain wave activity is higher and your muscles are active. We wake up numerous times throughout the night but most are so minor we don’t remember it the next day.

Stage 1 is a light stage of sleep where you are easily disturbed. Muscles begin to relax and the brain starts to slow down; this stage is where most people experience “twitches” or hypnic jerks and often where you find yourself drifting in and out of sleep. Most sleep trackers don’t include this stage of sleep or it is counted as being awake.

Stage 2 is where scientists start to classify it as Non-REM sleep. On FitBit and sleep trackers, this is likely identified as your “Light Sleep Stage.” You’re less likely to be woken up by environmental factors; your body temperature begins to drop and your heart rate will slow down. Your brain waves continue to slow and are marked with sleep spindles (sudden bursts of brain activity) and sleep structures called K complexes; both are thought to protect the brain from awakening.

Stage 3 is known as deep Non-REM sleep. On Fitbit or sleep trackers it will likely be logged as simply, “deep sleep.” This is where most of the restorative properties of sleep occur; if you spend less time in this stage, you will likely be less physically, mentally and emotionally rested. Good quality deep sleep will also help with your memory and learning skills. This is likely the stage where you are “sleeping like a rock” and difficult to awaken; sleep abnormalities such as sleep walking, night terrors, and sleep talking are also the most likely to occur. In this stage the human growth hormone is released and works to restore your body after the stressors of the day. It is also when your immune system works to restore itself; another reason why you are more prone to illness when tired and stressed. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on this stage of sleep, but many believe this is when the brain reboots and refreshes itself to prepare for another day of learning.

The fourth stage of sleep, REM, meaning rapid eye movement, is well-known as being the dreaming stage. The eyes will move from side to side and brain waves are more active than Stage 2 and 3. Breathing in this stage can become more rapid and even irregular, limb muscles become paralyzed (which may be to prevent you from acting out your dreams) and heart rate increases; sexual disturbances are also likely to occur in this stage of sleep. When you wake in the middle of an REM period you can feel groggy or fatigued; this is called sleep inertia and can last several minutes to several hours. REM has been shown to be important for memory and mood management.

Sleep cycles vary depending on the person, but typically you enter a new sleep cycle every 90-120 minutes, so over the course of a night you’ll go through four or five cycles. Often the cycles will go from light to deep sleep, then revert back to light, before ending in REM and starting the cycle all over again.
The bulk of your sleep will be in Stage 2, or light sleep, and will account for 40-60% of your total sleep on any given night. Stage 3, or deep sleep, lasts for about 5-15% of total sleep time for adults; for children and teens this stage is longer. REM can crop up at any time in the sleep cycle but on average you will find that it kicks in after 90 minutes of sleep.

The average adult should be sleeping 7-9 hours a night, but in many Western societies sleep is seen as a sign of weakness and people will brag about how little sleep they need to perform. Pulling an all-nighter to complete a task is actually more likely to negatively affect the quality of your performance. What happens after neglecting quality sleep is that we start to decline and go into sleep deprivation. While it isn’t an officially recognized sleep disorder, it occurs when we consistently sleep too little to feel rested. While it seems innocent enough, if it is a chronic issue it can have implications on our health, happiness and productivity. Some studies report that 20% of Americans are sleep-deprived and as such are more prone to accidents, diseases and missed work. The most affected groups are shift workers, healthcare workers and truck drivers. While it sounds like an easy problem to fix, if it goes untreated it can cause lasting health complications, such as Type 2 diabetes, raised stress hormones, higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, inflammation, anxiety, memory problems and weight gain.

Even if it isn’t a common occurrence, moderate sleep deprivation causes physical impairment that mirrors the effects of intoxication. After 17 to 19 hours without sleep (i.e. all-nighters, long shift work, probably accountants in NYC) the performance of several test subjects was the same as those with a BAC of 0.05 percent; for most people, this means the same as one alcoholic drink per hour. Using this logic, if you are 24 hours without sleep, you should not be behind the wheel of a car.

When you are chronically exhausted, you may be more likely to experience “microsleep” which is not as cute as it sounds. These short bursts of sleep often occur without the person being aware they are happening and are responsible for road accidents and on-job errors. I used to read on the train into work (part of my two-hour commute to my job in Toronto) and I would wake up because my neck would snap forward and jolt me awake. Does this sound familiar? It is, in fact, a period of unintended sleep due to exhaustion. If you get up pre-dawn, your body is programmed to be asleep and will be more likely to try and revert to this state, unbeknownst to you.

A 2011 study on sleep deprived rats showed that when exhausted they were more likely to lose competence during tasks involving complex motor skills; for humans, it may explain why we consistently misplace our phone or are more forgetful when we are tired. The best way to prevent instances of microsleep is to practice good sleep hygiene.

Much like a rigorous workout schedule, our sleep schedule and habits need to be monitored to ensure they encourage a high-quality night of sleep. Good sleep hygiene encompasses all the things we can do from the moment we wake up until we go to bed that will foster better sleep. There are small changes you can make, even if you work a shift schedule that consistently disrupts your circadian rhythm, to try and ensure you go through all the necessary sleep cycles.

The video below has some great tips for sleep hacking your way to a better night’s sleep, but a few highlights are:

• Getting direct sunlight exposure once you wake up to reset your body clock. All it takes is 20-30 minutes of being outside in the sun to help you fall asleep that evening.
• Turn on a “night-time light” on your phone/tablets and disconnect an hour and a half before you plan on falling asleep. The stimulation from being online can negatively impact the quality of sleep.
• Move your body first thing in the morning. Cortisol (your stress hormone) is meant to peak in the morning but an irregular sleep schedule can throw it off. By doing a five minute HIIT workout upon waking up you trigger the production of cortisol and let your body know you are starting the day.
• Spend less time in bed when you aren’t sleeping. Lounging in bed excessively lets your body know you can be in bed while not sleeping – not what you’re trying to accomplish!
• Be conscious of your diet during the day but especially in the four hours before sleep; avoid stimulants such as coffee, nicotine and alcohol as all of them will disrupt sleep pattern. Try not to indulge in a heavy meal consisting of spices, high-fat, citrus or carbonation as they are likely to trigger indigestion and disrupt sleep.
• I was told at a young age to always invest in the three things that come between you and the Earth: good shoes, good tires and a good mattress. Your sleep environment should be welcoming and comfortable; the best condition for sleep is in a dark room with a cool temperature and no noise. It sounds sterile, but investing in a white noise machine, a quality mattress and black-out curtains will change your life.

If you don’t use a sleep tracker, some easy ways to tell if your sleep is being disrupted is to monitor how you feel over the course of the day. If you wake up throughout the night (in most instances you won’t remember waking up during the night in the morning) you are more likely to experience daytime sleepiness and a persisting feeling of fatigue. If it takes you a long time to fall asleep, establishing a bed-time routine to wind-down (such as drinking tea, reading a book, or light stretching) will help your body and mind relax.

Do you have any other tips or tricks you swear by for a good night’s sleep? Let me know!