General Health Topics

Improving Posture While Working On Your Computer

By | Health, nutrition, wellness

A large portion of the work force sits at a computer all day with their backs hunched, their shoulders caved in, and their head telescoping forward (the unhealthy C-curve). This problem occurs when we don’t have a strategy for stabilizing the body in a neutral position (an S-curve, which is the proper and normal anatomical position for the spine). If not mindfully stabilized, the spine will default into poor posture habits. Your body can remodel itself into a better posture and if you work on it daily, good posture will be more automatic.

One of the first things to do in order to improve sitting posture while at your work desk is to put the pelvis in a neutral position. I like sitting on the edge of a chair or stool. The idea is to lean against the edge, not to sit directly on the top of the stool. My favorite type of stool is one with a semi-round base. Notice in the picture below that I’m sitting with the stool tilted forward. This forward-tilting position automatically puts my pelvis into a more neutral position, which is foundational for keeping the proper S-curve.

I also like the prospect of a varying height, standing work desk, which moves up and down. With this option, you can vary your position often, rather than staying in a stagnant position. The stool pictured can vary its height from low to high, while still tilting forward.

Another important positional consideration is the monitor. Notice in the picture that my eyes are looking straight forward. I don’t have to flex my neck downwards in order to see the monitor. This, again, puts my neck in a neutral position.

Importantly, whether sitting or standing, remember to slightly squeeze your glutes just enough to feel them. Also, slightly stiffen your trunk by tightening your abs, almost like shrink wrap. This will help to keep you in your new anatomically correct postural position.

Tight hip flexors…or WEAK hip flexors?

By | Health, nutrition, wellness

Much more than we used to, our society now spends much more time sitting…sitting at work, sitting while driving, sitting while eating, sitting while watching TV or using the computer. Many people default to doing stretches for the front of the hip in order to get rid of their tight hip flexors, when really, many times, this tightness is because the hip flexors are weak. If you have tried stretching and foam rolling your hips without noticing much of a difference, then these exercises could surprise you by how effective they are.

The first thing you want to do is to test your hip flexor strength. DO THIS ON BOTH SIDES. Stand tall, and pull one of your knees as far as you can to your chest with both hands, then slowly let go of your knee with both hands and try and hold this position for 10 seconds. Does your knee stay in the same exact spot after you let go? Or does it drop down a few inches? Or does it slowly get lower over the 10 seconds? If your knee dropped down at all, this could indicate weakness in your hip flexors.

Not all tight muscles need to be stretched. Quite often, a muscle is tight because it is protecting you against injury because it is weaker than it should be. Try these exercises consistently for a month and see if you notice a difference in how tight your hip flexors feel.

Standing Marches:
Grab a small loop band and place it around both feet. Stand tall and keep your core engaged. Raise one leg up, like you are marching, without letting your torso move, then lower back down. Repeat on the other leg, alternating sides. Try 2-3 sets of 10 reps on each leg.

Marches in a Bridge:
You can do a similar exercise lying down. Place the band around your feet and place your feet up on a box or bench. Raise your hips off the ground so you are in a glute bridge, then slowly bring one knee towards your chest and back. Alternate legs. Do not leg your hips drop down towards the ground or let your back arch. Try 2-3 sets of 10 reps on each leg.

Isometric Hip Flexor Marches:
If the marches in a bridge were a little tough, try this isometric exercise for your hip flexors. Lie on the ground with the band around your feet. Lift legs off the ground into a 90 degree angle (90/90 position). While keeping one leg still, kick the other leg out straight, and then slowly come back to starting position. Alternate legs. Try 2-3 sets of 10 reps on each leg.

Single Leg Glute Bridges:
Similar to regular glute bridges, but with one leg. Try grabbing one knee and pulling to towards your chest with your hands to keep your back flat, then with the bent leg, push through your foot and lift your hips off the ground as high as you can go without arching your back. Make sure to keep hips level. Try 3 sets of 10 reps on each side. These are also great exercise to do as a warm-up before you exercise.

Why Are So Many People Going Gluten-Free?

By | Health, nutrition, wellness

Of all the grains, why is wheat always picked on?  Because wheat is our dominant source of gluten protein. Most people don’t eat a lot of rye, barley, spelt, bulgar, or kamut. Wheat accounts for 20% of all calories consumed in our diets. Wheat is everywhere in our diet, often being hidden.

Glutens are the storage proteins of the wheat plant for the germination to form new wheat plants. Gluten is what makes wheat “doughy” (think of someone tossing a pizza, with it stretching more and more with each toss). Gluten is what makes dough stretchable, rollable, spreadable, and twistable. You can’t do this with rice, corn, or any other grain flour.

The problem is, the wheat we consume today is not the same grain our ancestors ground into their daily bread 100 years ago. Agricultural scientists originally dramatically modified wheat using hybridization and cross-breeding techniques in order to decrease the production costs, expand the large-scale production, and increase the yield per acre of wheat (which has required drastic changes in genetic code). Over the past 50 years, over 25,000 new different varieties of wheat strains have been consumed by humans without any safety testing. With hybridization, variation in gluten structure has made its way to humans without the consideration of these safety concerns (wheat gluten proteins undergo a considerable structural change when they’re hybridized or genetically modified). Changes in gluten proteins are not evident by sight, smell, or taste. For many, however, they are evident in their gut.

Gluten has the unique ability to disrupt the tight junctions of the intestine, making our intestine permeable (intestines aren’t meant to be freely permeable). Normally when you eat, nutrition has to be absorbed in the gut, while the rest is discarded (yes, poop and pee). This “leaky gut” syndrome can cause all kinds of symptoms, such as autoimmunity, inflammation, diarrhea, IBS, cramping, abdominal pain, loose stools alternating with constipation, and acid reflux. Eliminate wheat and IBS, acid reflux, and other disorders improve.

Wheat also yields morphine-like compounds that bind to the brain’s opiate receptors, causing a mild euphoria. Get rid of the wheat and you’ll eat fewer calories because you’ll no longer encourage the repetitive consumption of carbs that generate that addictive good feeling (similar to the feeling alcohol gives).

Aside from some fiber, eating 2 slices of whole wheat bread is worse than drinking a soda. First, the scientific technicalities: wheat is 75% amylopectin A and 25% amylose. Both are broken down into glucose and more rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream than nearly any other carbohydrate food! Increased glucose (the “sugar high”) is accompanied by increased insulin, which causes the “sugar low” about 2 hours after consuming a high carb or wheat meal. This sugar low is responsible for your mental fog, fatigue, irritability, and quick increase in hunger after your last meal. Over long periods of time, high blood sugars and insulin cause more fat accumulation, especially in the abdomen. The big belly results from years of consuming foods that trigger insulin, the hormone of fat storage.

Wheat is an appetite stimulant, making you want more cookies, cupcakes, pizza, pretzels, etc. Removing wheat from your diet cuts the biggest problem source of carbs in our modern-day diets and the weight loss can be shocking. Cutting soda and ice cream is obvious for weight loss…it’s the wheat that is counterintuitive. Who knew that wheat was so sneaky?

Personally, I gave up wheat (maybe 98% of it) a few years ago and it’s made a real difference for me. This is the first in a series of articles that, hopefully, you’ll find informative and interesting, allowing you to make better decisions about eating wheat and what it does to your body. The next article will be more specific to diabetes and how wheat affects blood sugar, diabetes, and insulin.

Are We Better Off Because of This Outrageous Spending On Health Care?

By | Health, nutrition, wellness

Our politicians are in full force, debating health care…who should be covered and who should pay the bill (private insurance, Medicare-for-all, or a hybrid)?  This is a hot topic because health care is expensive. The costs continue to rise and many people don’t have health insurance. But with all the focus on how expensive health care is and who is going to pay for it, no one is talking about the core problem: AMERICANS ARE SICK.

Americans have access to the best doctors and hospitals, the newest drugs, and the most cutting-edge technology available in the world. Still, our nation is the 35th healthiest in the world. As the richest and most powerful country in the world, this ranking is a disgrace.

Cuba placed five spots above the U.S., making it the only nation not classified on the list as “high income” by the World Bank. According to the American Bar Association Health Law, one reason for the island nation’s success may be its emphasis on preventative care over the health care model in the U.S., which focuses on diagnosing and treating illness instead.

Health care costs will continue to rise. We’re also in a new period where, for the first time in history, there are more people over 65 years of age than under 5 years of age. That means that ther are more elderly people and, in America, an aging population equates to more chronic disease, more doctor and hospital visits, more medication use, and more disability. About 50% of the U.S. adult population has either pre-diabetes or diabetes. Half of all Americans have cardiovascular disease. Three out of four adults in America are either overweight or obese. This means more Americans are sick than healthy.

Here’s a statistic for you: The total economic cost of obesity is estimated to be $1.72 Trillion per year. Rather than politicians arguing about who should pay for this health care disaster, the obvious (though ignored) question is: WHY ARE WE SO SICK?

A major part of this answer is right in-front of us: what we are eating and other lifestyle choices! Active lifestyles and exercise are very important, but the most important daily decision has to do with what foods we’re going to eat. If we can get better at making healthier decisions (ie: not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight BMI, minimum 30 minutes of daily activity, limiting alcohol, eating well), this whole conundrum regarding health insurance coverage and who’s going to pay for health care won’t go away, but it will get a lot less messy (healthier people need less health care).

Following are some interesting statistics:

1950 – U.S. spent $12.7 billion on health care (4.4% of GDP)

2015 – U.S. spent $3.2 trillion on healch care (17.8% of GDP)

2025 – health care cost estimated to be 20% of GDP

1970 – U.S. ranked 15th in healthy nations

2015 – U.S. ranked 33rd  in healthy nations

2019 – U.S. ranked 35th in healthy nations

1983 – $17 billion spent on prescription drugs in the U.S.

2000 – $76 billion spent on prescription drugs in the U.S.

2015 – $425 billion spent on prescription drugs in the U.S.

An Elimination Diet Will Change Your Eating Habits

By | General Health Topics, Nutrition

Last September my wife and I did this elimination diet called the Whole 30. It cuts out certain food groups, reintroducing them one-at-a-time in order to identify foods that are inflammatory and don’t agree with you specifically (everyone’s different).

What you DO EAT: Moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables; some fruit; plenty of natural fats; herbs, spices, and seasonings; tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, pecans, pistachios, walnuts).

What you DO NOT EAT for 30 days: No beans (black, red, pinto, navy, white, kidney, lima, fava, etc.), chickpeas, lentils or peanuts (peanut butter too). No soy (MSG, soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lecithin, soy milk). No added sugar or sweeteners, real or artificial. No alcohol…sorry. No grains (wheat, corn, quinoa, rice, buckwheat, oats, rye, barley, etc. No dairy (any type of cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, milk, cream in your coffee, ice cream, butter, kefir). No baked foods or junk foods (muffins, cookies, crackers, cakes, pies).

Since today is September 1st, I am, once again, doing a Whole 30. Mind you, I am not doing this to lose weight. While that may be the goal for most people that do this diet, I am doing it to change my relationship with food. Even though I was not trying to lose weight the first time I did the diet last year, I did end up losing 20 lbs. in 3 weeks. This year I want to see if I can lose no weight, but just really clean up my eating. Since doing the diet last year, I noticed some less than healthy habits creeping back in, so I figured it’s time for a re-set.

This diet takes some mental work and physical preparation. It’s kind-of hard because you’re shifting out of your automatic patterns (binging and eating without thinking about what you’re putting into your body), but I think people make it out to be way harder than it is. I like it because it’s a self-experiment that you’re doing for the betterment of your health. I’ve learned that what you eat is way more important than I ever gave credence to. I did ok with my eating, but allowed way too many infringements.

What ended up sticking for me after last year’s Whole 30 is that I almost completely eliminated wheat (all bread, muffins, crackers, beer, wheat pasta, sandwiches, pizza). I say almost because one or two times I’ve had a cheat desert, like pie with a crust. Everything else wheat is totally gone from my diet. I did re-introduce other grains back into my diet successfully, such as rice, oats, and quinoa. Although I did also re-introduce corn, I’ve cut back on it. I eliminated red wine, which, surprisingly, ended up being really toxic for me. After eliminating it for 30 days and then re-introducing red wine, it turned out to be really noxious to my system. I eliminated almost all dairy. I say almost because the only thing I allow is very occasional ice cream when we’re out as a family to get it. Otherwise, all cheese, cream cheese and yogurt is gone. I use cashew milk in my coffee and eat a special type of unsweetened almond milk Greek yogurt made by Kite Hill. Another thing that ended up being toxic for my system was black beans. While I re-introduced other types of beans, black beans ended up being particularly irritating to my gastric system. Another habit that I changed after the diet was that I don’t drink any alcohol during weekdays anymore, only on Friday or Saturday if I want a drink.

2 other things that I noticed while on the Whole 30 were that (1) my gastric system did way better and (2) my adult acne, which I’ve had for 40 years, totally cleared up like I’ve never seen before. It came back a little when I re-introduced foods, but nothing like before.

That’s the beauty of an elimination diet…you can wipe your system clean and then see what works and what doesn’t work for you. It’s completely specific to you and, I think, very revealing. If you feel like you’re on automatic pilot with your eating habits, it’s worth a try. But commit to all 30 days and see what your body tells you after.

Throughout Your Day, Add This One Habit For Vast Health Improvements

By | Exercise, General Health Topics

Data shows that, as a whole, exercise is something that our species struggles with. For most of us, it’s an additional demand that is added to our already overwhelming day. Data is showing that the majority of us would rather engage in sedentary leisure than an additional demand on our time. Exercise happens to be one of the easiest things to not prioritize in our schedules.

With close to 90% of the modern workforce engaged in sedentary and seated jobs (along with advancements in technology), we have had an astounding reduction of minor, simple movements that, in the past, would happen automatically throughout each day. The problem is that we’re not thinking about how we’re going to replace this lost activity. This lack of movement is directly associated with our dismal health statistics. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s …the statistics keep going up, not down.

Nowadays, a lot is talked about with a daily goal of 10,000 steps per day, but 15,000 is closer to what our prehistoric ancestors accomplished. For hundreds of thousands of years, what was considered a “normal level” of movement was significantly higher than our level today. It’s common knowledge that, as a species, we are becoming more sedentary. As long as people have to give up what little leisure time they have in order to exercise (which requires substantial motivation and effort), it’s unlikely that the 1/5th of the population that does exercise will increase in number.

The concept of exercise gets re-defined as “physical activity” when we integrate it into our daily lives, rather than, for example, taking an hour each morning to go to the gym. Data shows that as long as exercise and physical activity are dissociated from our daily work activities, many of us will continue to find reasons not to do it.

The difference in concept is to put many short, low-level activity expenditures throughout your daily routine, rather than to block off an hour of time for exercise.

What most people don’t understand is that even if you do exercise vigorously every day, but then go to work and sit for most of the day, your health risks are just as high as that of a couch potato. Many people have started using a standing work desk as a solution, but that’s only slightly better than sitting at a computer if you simply stand in one place for hours.



  •      A treadmill work desk, where people walk very slowly on a treadmill while doing their work
  •      A Fitbit, Apple watch, etc that buzzes throughout your day to remind you to move
  •      A free phone app called “Move,” which buzzes every 45 minutes, assigning a random exercise
  •      Writing down different exercises that you can implement at short, 1-minute breaks during your day (ie: wall sits, push-ups, body-weight squats, side lunges, side abduction leg raises, planks, burpees, walking stairs, Hindu push-ups, chair poses)

So if you already exercise, keep it up. But whether you exercise or not, get down on the floor during a TV commercial or while on a break at work and do a plank!



Image result for exercise at work

Brown Fat is not Just For Babies!

By | Exercise, General Health Topics

One of the reasons babies are so cute is because they’re plump. That’s because they have a generous supply of brown fat to keep them warm. But…once they’re adults, most of their brown fat has been lost.

Last week I read a small excerpt in Men’s Health magazine that referred to the usefulness of brown fat.  It had to do with how people exposed to colder temperatures develop more brown fat. So last week at 5 AM, on a 20-degree morning, I ran with only 2 layers rather than the 4 layers that I usually use…all in the name of brown fat!

I’ve also noticed that, at 55 years old, I can no longer eat whatever I want without gaining weight in my stomach. A frequent complaint amongst middle aged people is that we have to work-out twice as hard and painfully restrict our diets, just to get a fraction of the results as younger people. One reason is that brown fat naturally decreases with age…unless you do something about it.

Brown fat is packed with little metabolic-engines called mitochondria (that’s why it’s brown). Compared to white fat, brown fat is able to burn faster to give us energy. Just like we have ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL), consider brown fat as ‘good’ fat and white fat as ‘bad’ fat. Researchers have been surprised to find that brown fat and white fat have completely different origins. Brown fat is derived from muscle.

Conversely, white fat IS NOT derived from muscle, it is a way for the body to store excess calories that have not been used for energy; it’s the fat that we’re all familiar with. White fat STORES calories in large deposits around your body (remember, brown fat BURNS calories). White fat, especially in the midsection, puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol/triglyceride issues (metabolic syndrome).

Everyone has fat that constitutes part of their body make-up and each of us has a different amount that we’re born with. But under the right circumstances, white fat can turn to brown fat; that’s called the ‘recruitable’ type of brown fat.

Turns out that exposing your body to cold temperatures can help with this recruitment process. Research suggests that a couple of hours of exposure to cold temperatures can turn the recruitable fat to brown. Ice baths, cool to cold showers, and drinking cold ice water first thing in the morning are a few ways to promote this process, but the two ways that I like best are to sleep with your thermostat turned down (68 degrees or lower) and exercising out in the cold without too many layers. Interestingly, intermittent fasting is also a mechanism to develop more brown fat (ie: only eating food between the hours of 10 AM to 6 PM), but that’s to be discussed in another article.

Just the act of exercise itself, no matter the temperature, can promote the transformation of white fat to brown. It’s in the research stages, but it looks like it happens through a hormone called irisin. People who are inactive have been found to produce a lot less irisin than people who exercise often. Irisin is especially increased with intense aerobic interval training (think of sprinting for 100 yards rather than a slow, steady jog).

Irisin is called the ‘exercise hormone’ because it’s released during moderate to high-intensity aerobic activity. Think of when you’re breathing really hard and you can feel intense muscle exertion. Irisin is an anti-obesity and anti-diabetes hormone that regulates fat tissue and blood sugar. Irisin works in a few ways to fight fat: 1) It activates a protein that turns white fat to brown fat, which helps to continue to burn energy after you finish exercising 2) It inhibits the formation of white fat in the first place 3) It improves blood sugar regulation

Just sayin’… one more reason to get exercising and avoid sedentary lifestyles.

For Losing Weight, What’s More Important, Diet or Exercise?

By | Exercise, General Health Topics, Nutrition


Last September, my wife and I did an elimination diet (the Whole 30); I was astonished by the results. I was not doing it to lose weight, although I did. Instead, I was doing it to re-set how and what I ate and to eliminate cravings. It worked beautifully and it changed how I eat to this day. I am in my mid-50’s and have been starkly reminded that the amount of time it takes to exercise off a piece of cake or a morning muffin is disproportionately long to how long it takes to eat them.

As far as losing weight, diet is much more important than exercise. Exercise is critical for maintaining lean muscle mass and quality of life, but regarding weight loss, it’s not nearly as important as what you eat or drink. In other words, for weight loss, eliminating poor dietary choices is much more important than how much you exercise. Think of the equation CICO (calories in, calories out). 100% of ‘calories in’ come from what you eat and drink, whereas only a small portion (10-30%) of ‘calories out’ are lost through exercise.

There are 3 main sources of‘ ‘calories out’ :

  • BMR – Basal metabolic rate is the energy used to keep your body operating (ie: heart and brain function, breathing). It consumes 60-80% of calories that you take in.
  • Thermogenesis – The breaking down of foods. It consumes 10% of calories that you take in.
  • Physical activity – Exercise, going upstairs, walking, gardening, etc. It consumes 10-30% of calories that you take in.

The average person only loses, specifically from exercise, 5-15% of the calories that they take in (from what they eat and drink). Even if you’re a hardcore exerciser, you are only burning 30% of the caloric intake that you derive from foods. In addition, exercising will increase appetite. If you choose a burger, shake, and fries, it will kill that hour or two that you just spent in the gym.

For the average person, let’s say that 300-400 calories are burned with an hour at the gym. That can easily be undone by eating a few cookies, a Starbucks latte, or a scoop of ice cream. Even a high-intensity workout that burns 800-1,200 calories could be canceled out with 2 mixed drinks or 3 slices of pizza. With this scenario, it would be better to just eat less and not exercise. This all rings true in the common sayings “abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym” and “you can’t out-exercise your mouth.”

I should also clarify that some people may have weight gain issues from organic pathologies, such as thyroid or hormonal disorders. In such cases, blood-work is valuable. However, as a general rule, CICO is worthwhile to keep forefront in your mind.

If you’re someone who diets in the spring because you want to fit into your bathing suit in the summer, remember the story of the tortoise and the hare. People who slowly lose weight end up keeping it off in the long run. It really is something that you have to work on daily and constantly, not just for a season. Losing weight and maintaining ideal weight level involves lifestyle modifications and making better choices every time you eat or drink something. The big thing is to make sure that the calories that you do consume are nutrient dense (whole, clean, healthy foods loaded with nutrition) rather than empty calories (a lot of calories with little beneficial nutrition). For me, choices, like drinking water over juice at lunch-time, doing away with my daily bagel for breakfast, or forgoing the weekend growler of stout beer, are examples of small modifications that, over time, have helped reduce visceral fat in my abdomen.

Why Should You Lift Heavy Weights In Middle-Age?

By | Exercise, General Health Topics, Health, nutrition, wellness

I had a 40-year-old friend recently ask me, “why do I still need to lift weights?”  He’s more interested in stretching and running. Running and stretching are great, but adding in 2-3 days per week of strength training would be an important and beneficial addition, particularly at his age.

We are metabolically and hormonally designed to be anabolic (building our bodies) until about our mid 20’s. Muscles grow larger and stronger. But at some point in our 30’s, we start to lose muscle mass and function, and our bodies become more catabolic (breaking down). The cause is age-related sarcopenia (muscle loss), hormonal shifts, and weight gain.

Even if you continue to be active, you’ll still have some loss of muscle. The good news is that you can vastly slow and limit the decline if you use heavy, intense resistance training principles.

Inactive, sedentary lifestyles cause about a 5% loss of muscle mass each decade after age 30. Loss of muscle causes a decrease in strength, mobility, balance, and functional capacity (e.g. the capacity to get up and down stairs, do yardwork, get around on vacation trips).

Keeping a heavy resistance training program not only helps you maintain lean muscle mass, it also:

  • increases neurogenesis (forming new brain and nerve cells)
  • increases beneficial hormones that normally decline with age, such as growth hormone, testosterone, insulin-like growth factor, DHEA, while lowering the hormones of estrogen, insulin, and cortisol
  • Increases the ability to turn protein into energy
  • Creates a unique metabolic afterburn in the body where your metabolism stays elevated after the workout for 24-48 hours, burning more fat than sugar (carbs). Strength training and interval training create this afterburn much better than aerobic exercise
  • Helps bone become stronger and denser by stressing it
  • Acts as a storage mechanism for important proteins that help you recover from injury or illness

When we have muscle mass, it consumes a lot of calories just in order to maintain the muscle, even while we’re asleep. Fat needs zero calories in order to maintain itself. So, as we get older and we tend to lose muscle and gain fat, the aging body burns fewer calories. In addition, even as our metabolism slows down, most of us continue to take in as many calories or more as we did in our 20’s and 30’s. We have to remember that our appetites don’t naturally decline as we age.

It takes hard work, discipline, and a plan, but it’s never too late to build lean muscle mass. It’s important and totally worth the work. As far as anti-aging goes, it’s one of the most important things you can do.

The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life: the new sleep science

By | Health, nutrition, wellness

This article is very interesting but long.  I’ve highlighted a synopsis of the article in the red text, so just read that if you want the short abbreviation.

This is an article from by Matthew Walker on his new book, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Published by Allen Lane


Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker on why sleep deprivation is increasing our risk of cancer, heart attack and Alzheimer’s – and what you can do about it

Matthew Walker has learned to dread the question “What do you do?” At parties, it signals the end of his evening; thereafter, his new acquaintance will inevitably cling to him like ivy. On an aeroplane, it usually means that while everyone else watches movies or reads a thriller, he will find himself running an hours-long salon for the benefit of passengers and crew alike. “I’ve begun to lie,” he says. “Seriously. I just tell people I’m a dolphin trainer. It’s better for everyone.”

Walker is a sleep scientist. To be specific, he is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, a research institute whose goal – possibly unachievable – is to understand everything about sleep’s impact on us, from birth to death, in sickness and health. No wonder, then, that people long for his counsel. As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, rare is the person who doesn’t worry about their sleep. But even as we contemplate the shadows beneath our eyes, most of us don’t know the half of it – and perhaps this is the real reason he has stopped telling strangers how he makes his living. When Walker talks about sleep he can’t, in all conscience, limit himself to whispering comforting nothings about camomile tea and warm baths. It’s his conviction that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine. This situation, he believes, is only likely to change if government gets involved.

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. The reasons are seemingly obvious. “First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.”

But Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. When I give lectures, people will wait behind until there is no one around and then tell me quietly: ‘I seem to be one of those people who need eight or nine hours’ sleep.’ It’s embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional. They’re convinced that they’re abnormal, and why wouldn’t they be? We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.” In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

The world of sleep science is still relatively small. But it is growing exponentially, thanks both to demand (the multifarious and growing pressures caused by the epidemic) and to new technology (such as electrical and magnetic brain stimulators), which enables researchers to have what Walker describes as “VIP access” to the sleeping brain. Walker, who is 44 antd was born in Liverpool, has been in the field for more than 20 years, having published his first research paper at the age of just 21. “I would love to tell you that I was fascinated by conscious states from childhood,” he says. “But in truth, it was accidental.” He started out studying for a medical degree in Nottingham. But having discovered that doctoring wasn’t for him – he was more enthralled by questions than by answers – he switched to neuroscience, and after graduation, began a PhD in neurophysiology supported by the Medical Research Council. It was while working on this that he stumbled into the realm of sleep.

“I was looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, but I was failing miserably at finding any difference between them,” he recalls now. One night, however, he read a scientific paper that changed everything. It described which parts of the brain were being attacked by these different types of dementia: “Some were attacking parts of the brain that had to do with controlled sleep, while other types left those sleep centres unaffected. I realised my mistake. I had been measuring the brainwave activity of my patients while they were awake, when I should have been doing so while they were asleep.” Over the next six months, Walker taught himself how to set up a sleep laboratory and, sure enough, the recordings he made in it subsequently spoke loudly of a clear difference between patients. Sleep, it seemed, could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

After this, sleep became his obsession. “Only then did I ask: what is this thing called sleep, and what does it do? I was always curious, annoyingly so, but when I started to read about sleep, I would look up and hours would have gone by. No one could answer the simple question: why do we sleep? That seemed to me to be the greatest scientific mystery. I was going to attack it, and I was going to do that in two years. But I was naive. I didn’t realise that some of the greatest scientific minds had been trying to do the same thing for their entire careers. That was two decades ago, and I’m still cracking away.” After gaining his doctorate, he moved to the US. Formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he is now professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California.

Does his obsession extend to the bedroom? Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? “Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”

There is, however, a sting in the tale. Should his eyelids fail to close, Walker admits that he can be a touch “Woody Allen-neurotic”. When, for instance, he came to London over the summer, he found himself jet-lagged and wide awake in his hotel room at two o’clock in the morning. His problem then, as always in these situations, was that he knew too much. His brain began to race. “I thought: my orexin isn’t being turned off, the sensory gate of my thalamus is wedged open, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex won’t shut down, and my melatonin surge won’t happen for another seven hours.” What did he do? In the end, it seems, even world experts in sleep act just like the rest of us when struck by the curse of insomnia. He turned on a light and read for a while.

Will Why We Sleep have the impact its author hopes? I’m not sure: the science bits, it must be said, require some concentration. But what I can tell you is that it had a powerful effect on me. After reading it, I was absolutely determined to go to bed earlier – a regime to which I am sticking determinedly. In a way, I was prepared for this. I first encountered Walker some months ago, when he spoke at an event at Somerset House in London, and he struck me then as both passionate and convincing (our later interview takes place via Skype from the basement of his “sleep centre”, a spot which, with its bedrooms off a long corridor, apparently resembles the ward of a private hospital). But in another way, it was unexpected. I am mostly immune to health advice. Inside my head, there is always a voice that says “just enjoy life while it lasts”.

The evidence Walker presents, however, is enough to send anyone early to bed. It’s no kind of choice at all. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night (part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a person’s heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure).

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, and thus to cause a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone,” says Walker. “It’s not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.” Tiredness, of course, also affects motivation.

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. If you are tired, you are more likely to catch a cold. The well-rested also respond better to the flu vaccine. As Walker has already said, more gravely, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. A number of epidemiological studies have reported that night-time shift work and the disruption to circadian sleep and rhythms that it causes increase the odds of developing cancers including breast, prostate, endometrium and colon.

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The reasons for this are difficult to summarise, but in essence it has to do with the amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) that accumulate in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. What occurs in an Alzheimer’s patient is a kind of vicious circle. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brain’s deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on. (In his book, Walker notes “unscientifically” that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease; it is, moreover, a myth that older adults need less sleep.) Away from dementia, sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

And then there is sleep’s effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walker’s book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). Here he details the various ways in which the dream state connects to creativity. He also suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. If we sleep to remember (see above), then we also sleep to forget. Deep sleep – the part when we begin to dream – is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, sleeplessness has been linked to aggression and bullying; in adolescents, to suicidal thoughts. Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse in addiction disorders. A prevailing view in psychiatry is that mental disorders cause sleep disruption. But Walker believes it is, in fact, a two-way street. Regulated sleep can improve the health of, for instance, those with bipolar disorder.

I’ve mentioned deep sleep in this (too brief) summary several times. What is it, exactly? We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and it’s only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When Walker talks about these cycles, which still have their mysteries, his voice changes. He sounds bewitched, almost dazed.

During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting,” he says. “There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Researchers were once fooled that this state was similar to a coma. But nothing could be further from the truth. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when you’re awake. It’s an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: we’re still not exactly sure why.”

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? “They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isn’t enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit.” Is it possible to have too much sleep? This is unclear. “There is no good evidence at the moment. But I do think 14 hours is too much. Too much water can kill you, and too much food, and I think ultimately the same will prove to be true for sleep.” How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling “all-nighters”, at their desks or on the dancefloor. After being awake for 19 hours, you’re as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym (with the key difference that it is both free and, if you’re me, enjoyable). “People use alarms to wake up,” Walker says. “So why don’t we have a bedtime alarm to tell us we’ve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down?” We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Schools should consider later starts for students; such delajjys correlate with improved IQs. Companies should think about rewarding sleep. Productivity will rise, and motivation, creativity and even levels of honesty will be improved. Sleep can be measured using tracking devices, and some far-sighted companies in the US already give employees time off if they clock enough of it. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Those who are focused on so-called “clean” sleep are determined to outlaw mobiles and computers from the bedroom – and quite right, too, given the effect of LED-emitting devices on melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Ultimately, though, Walker believes that technology will be sleep’s saviour. “There is going to be a revolution in the quantified self in industrial nations,” he says. “We will know everything about our bodies from one day to the next in high fidelity. That will be a seismic shift, and we will then start to develop methods by which we can amplify different components of human sleep, and do that from the bedside. Sleep will come to be seen as a preventive medicine.”

What questions does Walker still most want to answer? For a while, he is quiet. “It’s so difficult,” he says, with a sigh. “There are so many. I would still like to know where we go, psychologically and physiologically, when we dream. Dreaming is the second state of human consciousness, and we have only scratched the surface so far. But I would also like to find out when sleep emerged. I like to posit a ridiculous theory, which is: perhaps sleep did not evolve. Perhaps it was the thing from which wakefulness emerged.” He laughs. “If I could have some kind of medical Tardis and go back in time to look at that, well, I would sleep better at night.”


Sleep in numbers:

■ Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep recommended by the World Health Organisation.

■ An adult sleeping only 6.75 hours a night would be predicted to live only to their early 60s without medical intervention.

■ A 2013 study reported that men who slept too little had a sperm count 29% lower than those who regularly get a full and restful night’s sleep.

■ If you drive a car when you have had less than five hours’ sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive having had four hours, you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.

■ A hot bath aids sleep not because it makes you warm, but because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops. To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.

■ The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.

■ There are now more than 100 diagnosed sleep disorders, of which insomnia is the most common.

■ Morning types, who prefer to awake at or around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.