Latest Articles

Writing a To-Do List Might Help You Fall Asleep Faster

From time to time I struggle to fall asleep. Sometimes this is because of something to do with my sleep environment. Maybe it’s too hot or cold, for example. At other times I’ve eaten too much, too late. And now and then it’s because it’s Saturday night and I’ve been reckless and had too much booze and caffeine… again.
However, most of the time my difficulties falling asleep arise from rumination on something related to work. And it turns out that I’m not alone. About 26% of US adults struggle to fall asleep at least a few times each week, and preoccupation with worries may be a key contributor to this difficulty. When we don’t get as much work done as we intend, many of us cogitate over our perceived shortcomings. This deliberation can disrupt sleep, especially among people who expect a lot from themselves.
The good news is that new research has shown that we can use a simple strategy at bedtime to unclutter our minds and thereby free ourselves to doze off faster. So, what is this strategy and how can we try it? Read on for more!

How Blue Light Lowers Blood Pressure (Plus New TEDx Talk on Light and Health)

You are probably quite familiar with the pivotal role that visible light plays in the circadian system. Ambient light regulates circadian rhythms by interacting with light-sensitive cells in the eye, which in turn transmits a signal to the brain’s master clock. This enables our body to “know” what time it is, and modulate various organ systems accordingly.

These cells are particularly sensitive to blue light, which of course is why people are being more mindful about the timing of their exposure to bright light and light-emitting devices.

But we are increasingly realizing that blue light may affect the body in other surprising ways, beyond just circadian alignment. For instance, animal research has shown that inadequate exposure to blue light may impair memory and cognitive performance. And even our fat cells contain light-sensitive proteins, suggesting that blue light may be a regulator of fat cell function and metabolic health.

A new study has revealed that blue light may also play a role in blood pressure regulation. In fact, the study found that prolonged blue light exposure might even reduce blood pressure as much as an antihypertensive medication! Sound crazy? Check out the article – I’ll break down these findings and what they mean.

Ketones for Brain Injury? Podcast with Tommy Wood

Brain injury is more pervasive and problematic than many people think. Every day, about 150 people die from traumatic brain injury-related deaths in the US alone, and whether you participate in a contact sport, work in the military, or simply travel on roads, you may at some point suffer the kind of event that incites brain injury. The problem is that brain injury is associated with numerous negative health consequences, including mental health issues and diseases such as Parkinson’s. Fortunately, there are things that we can do to help us protect against the negative consequences of brain injury. There are good reasons to think that we may benefit from using exogenous ketones for brain injury, for example. In the latest episode of humanOS Radio, I speak with Dr. Tommy Wood about why.

Making Intermittent Fasting Easy: Fasting Fridays

Fasting has enjoyed a remarkable surge in popularity. Unless you have been living in a cave for the past two years, I’m sure you have noticed that. 

This might give the general impression that fasting is a fad, but fasting as a health practice is nothing new. Indeed, we know that Hippocrates – the father of modern medicine – advocated periodically abstaining from food as a way to stave off disease. And of course, for most of our history as a species, humans fasted (involuntarily) for periods of time due to a lack of continuous food availability. This suggests that our bodies evolved to endure it, and could be a hint that doing so intentionally might be advantageous.

But going without food is pretty hard. Sure, it’s easy to implement and study fasting with animals living in cages, who can only eat whatever is given to them. It is way harder with free living humans. This is especially true in the modern environment, where we have relentless access to hyper-palatable foods, and other people encouraging us to eat at all hours. Everything seems to work against us.

We have been contemplating the challenges and the benefits associated with fasting, and how to make it work. In this blog, I’ll very briefly review what fasting does in the body, and some of the basic methods out there. Then, I’ll talk about our own super easy approach to fasting – that pretty much anyone can do – and how you can implement it yourself.

Can We Fight the Aging Process by Removing Zombie (Senescent) Cells? Podcast with Paul Robbins

Aging is arguably the leading risk factor for chronic diseases in the modern world. People have historically thought of aging as an inexorable decline of function, driven by the passage of time – something that we simply have to accept, and that cannot be changed.

But what if aging were actually a modifiable risk factor?

Your chronological age, meaning the length of time that you have been alive, obviously cannot be changed. Yet we know that biological aging can vary significantly, even among individuals who are of similar chronological age. Research increasingly suggests that if we can better understand the fundamental mechanisms that underlie biological aging, we might be able to devise interventions that could prevent or delay age-related diseases.

One of these processes is cellular senescence. Cellular senescence is a phenomenon through which normal cells irreversibly cease to divide in response to genomic damage. Senescent cells accumulate in the body as we get older, and they actually do a lot of bad stuff in the body. Senescent cells secrete pro-inflammatory factors, like cytokines, which induces a state of chronic low-grade inflammation. But it gets even worse. These senescent cells can also drive other healthy neighboring cells into senescence. So senescent cells are basically microscopic zombies!

This has driven interest in identifying senolytics – compounds that can selectively kill senescent cells (while leaving normal cells alone).

In this episode of humanOS Radio, Dan talks with Paul Robbins. Paul is the principal investigator at the Robbins Lab at Scripps Research Institute. Notably, his lab has been screening for drugs that can safely and effectively clear out senescent cells.

This research has produced some remarkable results in animal models. For example, he and colleagues found that older mice that were given senolytics became faster and stronger, and experienced a 36% increased median post-treatment lifespan, compared to a control group. Wow!

That’s just a tiny snapshot of this incredibly important work. To learn more, please check out the interview!

Why Mental Work Makes You Overeat, and How Interval Training Can Help

The modern lifestyle is profoundly sedentary. This probably isn’t news to you. Contemporary post-industrial humans are uniquely inactive, compared both to our ancient ancestors and to other non-human mammals. Surveys suggest that Americans are spending an average of 13 hours per day sitting.

It’s easy to dismiss this as laziness, but for many of us, our livelihoods are tied directly to spending a lot of time sitting. Most Americans make their living not through physical labor, but from mental work, and that does not burn a lot of calories. It’s no wonder so many people struggle with their weight now.

But beyond the sheer reduction in energy expenditure, there is another, perhaps less obvious drawback associated with mental work: Cognitively demanding work seems to provoke overeating. You probably have experienced this yourself. And research bears this out.

Here’s a good example. In one study, students were assigned to either a 45-minute mental work session or a 45-minute rest session. Afterwards, they were presented with an all-you-can-eat buffet. Following the mental work session, the students consumed an additional 229 calories, compared to the rest group. But unfortunately, thinking really hard doesn’t burn a whole lot of energy. The researchers found that the mental work session only burned a measly 3 calories more than resting.

So, mental work is kind of a double whammy as far as energy balance. It doesn’t expend many calories, and it seems to compel people to take in more food. Alas, quitting our jobs and working on an Amish farm just isn’t a realistic option for most of us. So what can we do?

Luckily, a team of researchers may have found an elegant solution to this dilemma. Check out the blog to see what they found, and how you can take advantage of it yourself.

Atomic Habits for Achieving Your Goals. Podcast with James Clear

Why is it so hard for us to make healthy lifestyle changes – even when we have the knowledge to do better?

Most of us have a list of things we would like to change. Maybe you’d like to lose thirty pounds, or be able to do fifty pushups, or run a marathon. But each of these comes with a long list of associated behaviors – many of which aren’t intrinsically rewarding – that are required to achieve and maintain these goals. It’s no wonder the statistics on weight loss are so underwhelming.

On this episode of humanOS Radio, I talk with James Clear. James is an author and entrepreneur who is focused on habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, and other major media outlets.

In his latest book, “Atomic Habits,” James draws upon a wide array of evidence from psychology, biology, and cognitive neuroscience to construct a guide for building and reinforcing good habits and abolishing bad habits.

So what do I mean by habits? James defines habits as behaviors that are repeated enough times to be nearly automatic, and not demanding your cognitive effort or willpower. Like brushing your teeth, or heading to the gym at 5:00pm every day, or eating a smoothie every day for breakfast. These automatic processes, which are mostly mundane things that we take for granted, are actually foundational to all of our goals.

The problem, of course, is that we generally don’t see the immediate payoff for any of these behaviors. You don’t drop twenty pounds just switching from regular to diet soda one time. It is only after you’ve committed to these behaviors for a while – after your efforts have compounded – that we start to see the difference. That is why we need to develop a system to assess our current habits and build better ones. This is where “Atomic Habits” comes into play. Check out the interview to learn more!

Sleep: An Antioxidant for the Brain? Podcast with Mimi Shirasu-Hiza

Why do we need to sleep? Part of what makes sleep so fascinating, as a field of research, is that it is such an enigma. Sleep is a profoundly vulnerable state, leaving us at the mercy of predators and the environment, and unable to defend ourselves or our possessions. It’s also largely unproductive. Yet we spend about a third of our life in slumber.

Moreover, sleep seems to be nearly universal in the animal kingdom. Indeed, we have yet to identify an animal that clearly does not sleep at all, or one that can forego sleep without experiencing physiological consequences.

All of this, taken together, unambiguously shows that sleep is extremely important. And this makes it all the more remarkable that the actual purpose of sleep remains elusive.

One idea is that sleep may function as an antioxidant for the brain, protecting neural tissue from the ravages of oxidative stress. This hypothesis largely fell out of favor, but researchers have recently started to revisit this compelling notion.

In this episode of humanOS Radio, I talk to Mimi Shirasu-Hiza. Mimi is an associate professor of Genetics and Development at Columbia University. Her lab uses circadian mutants of fruit flies to unveil the molecular mechanisms that underlie circadian-regulated physiology. Mimi and her colleagues hypothesized that fruit flies with various genetic mutations that reduce their sleep might share a common physiological defect due to that sleep loss, but independent of the specific mechanisms driving their reduced sleep. And if they could find such a defect, that might reveal the core function of sleep.

Through an elegant series of experiments, Mimi and her team did indeed uncover a shared defect, which points to a potential purpose of sleep. Check out the interview to find out what they discovered and what it might mean for us!

The Surprising Role of Leg Exercise in Forming New Brain Cells

We have known for a long time that physical activity affects the brain. For instance, we know that regular aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved in learning and memory. In fact, just a single exercise session can favorably affect performance on tests of cognitive function.

But what about the other side of the equation? How does lack of physical activity – a state that is only becoming more common and relevant – impact the function of the nervous system?

A new study suggests that weight-bearing exercise – particularly using the large muscles in our legs – sends signals to the brain that are crucial to the formation of new brain cells. In this blog, I’ll go through this ground-breaking new study, and distill what it might mean for us.