Sleep hacking: How to control your mitochondrial clocks

Light controls your body clock. Hack it to get better sleep.

DAVE ASPREY: One of the biggest things you can do that isn't going to cost you anything is improve the quality of your sleep. It's funny, because when you get a good night's sleep regularly at the right time, your risk of cancer drops dramatically. Conversely, if you are a shift worker or you regularly fly all over the place and you don't take care of your biology, your chances of cancer go up a lot. One night of bad quality sleep can change your ability to regulate your blood sugar by up to 40%. Now, that's the path to diabetes. And what about Alzheimer's disease? People who don't get enough sleep and don't regulate their blood sugar also have problems with Alzheimer's disease. And the list goes on. So sleep is a foundational element. And if you really think about it, you can go three, four days without water maybe. You can go a month without food. But try and go three or four days without sleep. It's at least as important as water. But you don't see people going on water diets very often, but you do see people who just don't get enough sleep all the time. This is one of the primary anti-aging things.

But the problem with sleep is that, actually, a lot of people don't have time for sleep. And it's OK to not have time to sleep, because you have a job, you have a family, you have a social life, and you have stuff you wanted to do. So what are you going to do? Are you going to choose to die earlier or to get sleep? Or maybe there's a better way. And in Super Human, I talk about sleep hacking. And here's an example. I landed in New York last night, and I flew from the west coast from Seattle. Now, that's a recipe for a terrible sleep, for jet lag. But I changed the amount and the color of light that I allowed into my eyes on the airplane using patented glasses that I created called TrueDark. And in fact, if I look at my phone here, I track my sleep with a ring. It gives me a very detailed analysis. And I'll tell you my real numbers from last night. I didn't get as much sleep as I would have liked. But what I did get was five hours and 23 minutes of sleep. I didn't get to my hotel until 1:00 in the morning. And I was traveling with one of my kids. But I got two hours and 11 minutes of deep sleep. That's more deep sleep than a 20-year-old gets an eight hours. And I got 58 minutes of dreaming sleep. So I got better sleep than most Americans get on most nights even though I flew in the wrong direction three hours and was sleeping in a foreign environment. How the heck do you do that?

Well, the biggest thing is to turn the lights down at night. Just dimming your lights, turning off the bright white stuff in your kitchen and your bathroom after the sun goes down, it doesn't change the length you'll sleep necessarily, but it changes the quality of your sleep. And since I couldn't do that on the airplane or in the hotel room, I wore glasses that took out the bright colors, the blue light. And you go back to the '50s: We had incandescent bulbs, and not that many of them, and they weren't that bright. Now that we have these fluorescent lights and LED lights, we can have incredibly bright light right before bed. In fact, most of us do. And that sends a signal to the ancient parts of our body, sub-cellular things that control our aging and control how our body responds to the environment -- they're called mitochondria -- and inside your eyes, about 5% of your cells are melanopsin sensors. And these collect light. And you never see that light. It doesn't go into your visual cortex. It bypasses that, and it's just the timing signal. And if you're a computer scientist or a computer hacker guy, like I am, you understand that computing relies on a clock. So for this server over here and this server over here to do something, they both need to know what time it is, down to the microsecond. For all of the quadrillion cells in your body to do what they're supposed to do, they all need to know what time it is. And that's why every organ has a clock. That's why each cell has a clock. And that's why the master clock is stored in something called the SCN inside the brain. And light controls the SCN more than anything else. So does food intake, to a certain point.

So here's the deal. Don't eat after the sun goes down, turn the lights down as much as you can after the sun goes down, and black out your room. You could say, 'Really, I have to black out my room? I have blackout curtains.' Check this out. A study from Japan -- 68% increase in depression when people slept with the amount of light that comes around blackout curtains in a normal city. It doesn't take very much light at night in order to screw up the quality of your sleep and then the quality of your thinking. This was a study of about 800 men, so presumably, it's the same for women, or maybe even worse. And they were older. They were over 60. So maybe if you're 25, you can sleep in bright light, I just don't recommend it, because all the data we have say your risk of dying of everything goes up if you sleep in a brightly lit, noisy room. Eight hours doesn't matter. It's the quality of those eight hours that matters.

The flip side of darkness is, obviously, light. So what's light going to do for you? It turns out, if you want to sleep well at night, when you wake up in the morning, go outside, take off your glasses, take off your sunglasses, even take out your contacts, and just get 20 minutes of bright sunlight. And if, like me, you live far north -- I'm in Canada -- there's sometimes just isn't sunlight, so I actually use a sun lamp or really, really bright indoor lighting -- halogen lighting, though -- stuff that is rich and warm. In fact, even a little bit of ultraviolet light is good for you. It's good for your skin. It's good for your eyes. It's good for your brain. Too much of it isn't good for you. In fact, it can increase your risk of skin cancer if you're getting sunburns. But no sunlight on your skin, no sunlight in your eyes without protective glasses and things like that is not a good strategy to live a long time or even feel very good.

We all know about seasonal affective depression and the idea that some people get the winter blues. But it turns out you can give yourself the winter blues if you wear sunglasses outdoors all the time all summer long. So just make it a point. Wake up in the morning, go for a walk, open the window, and just look at some natural sunlight. And the reason this works is that that timing system in the body is looking for that. And if you give it the bright light, especially in the evening, it says, I don't know what time it is. And then all the different systems in the body that are supposed to work as a system in unison, they don't do that. And that's what leads you down that path of diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's.

  • You can go a month without food, or three or four days without water, but try to go three or four days without sleep. "It's at least as important as water. But you don't see people going on water diets very often, but you do see people who just don't get enough sleep all the time," says Dave Asprey
  • Quality sleep is foundational to good health, helping to ward off diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's. It's also a key strategy for anti-aging.
  • Dave Asprey shares what he's learned about sleep hacking: Don't eat after the sun goes down, turn the lights down as much as you can after the sun goes down, and black out your room – you'll need more than regular black-out curtains. Watch the video to find out why.

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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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