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Sleep Comes First

One of the most exciting presentations I enjoyed at Paleo F(x) was Dr. Kirk Parsley’s discussion about his success in treating sleep disorders. I enjoyed his first presentation so much that I went to his second as well, and have since been in communication with him, happy to learn that he will soon have a website sharing his great information with everyone. I'll let you know when I see it.

Dr. Parsley is not only a sleep expert but has lectured extensively on wellness, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and hormonal optimization, health optimization and is currently completing a book on sleep optimization. Let’s pre-empt that website just a bit with a summary here of some of the exciting information I learned  from his presentation.

Dr. Parsley served as an Undersea Medical Officer at Naval Special Warfare Group One from 2009-2013, during which time he helped develop the group’s first Sports Medicine Rehabilitation center. As a former Navy SEAL himself and a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine since, he was the perfect person to solve the SEALS’ sleep problem. When he started working with them 70-80% of them were addicted to sleep aids.

That doesn’t sound good, but just how serious is it really?  What Dr. Parsley made very clear was that the state induced by a sleep aid isn’t actually sleep at all, but rather a kind of unconsciousness, one that completely lacks the characteristic brain wave patterns diagnostic of sleep. Without those characteristic brain wave patterns, the state of unconsciousness no longer provides the healing benefit of normal sleep.

That's right: a drugged sleep does you no more good than an absence of sleep. The predictable effects of sleep loss are all present when sleep is induced pharmaceutically, including:

  • Increased levels of hormones associated with tissue breakdown and
  • Development of type 2 diabetes and
  • Fat storage with
  • Disordered regulation of the appetite hormones

The increased cortisol causes increased hunger, arthritis, migraines, weight gain, and more.

Of more immediate concern is that loss of sleep predictably impairs our cognitive function. Our executive (decision-making) and memory functions are severely impaired. And, even more worrisome, after a couple days of inadequate sleep we lose track of how impaired we are. You can imagine how serious that becomes if the sleep deficit persists over a prolonged period of time.

We begin to suffer when we go 17 hours without sleep and deteriorate beyond that. The Guinness Book of World Records no longer tracks "how long can you stay awake without sleep" because they feel that it is a threat to life.


Not long ago – and for millions of years before that – our ancestors went to bed and rose with the sun. Before light bulbs we spent 10 hrs in bed each night and our biology is still wired for this.  The current estimate is that the average American spends 6.5 hours in bed (leaving you mildly impaired UNTIL you might catch an afternoon nap, after which you are restored, but again slide toward impairment sooner than 7.5 hour sleepers) 

Non-visual nerve cells in the back of our eyes sense the blue light wave lengths from the daytime morning sky and turn ON cortisol secretion, our master “get up and get it done” hormone, and simultaneously turns OFF our secretion of melatonin, which is the hormone that enabled us to withdraw from the world the previous evening and to enter into that restorative state we know as sleep. In the late afternoon when the blue stimulus fades, our pineal glands starts making melatonin, which suppresses cortisol and we slowly switch gears.

Although our current sources of blue light are now primarily indoor bulbs, iPads, and computer screens, they lack the full light power “punch” of walking outside in the morning sunlight. And, unfortunately for us, they do not naturally fade as the day progresses, so we remain blue-lit well into the evening. For many people, the blue light glow accompanies them all the way to a predictably dissatisfying night spent in bed. We have lost nature's way of cycling in and out of wakefulness and sleep.

In the process of gracing us with a gentle night’s sleep, melatonin also suppresses adrenal functions and heart rate, body temp, BP; slows brain and lowers glucose, bolsters our immune systems. The cumulative suppression allows us a period of rest and regeneration.

Losing 1 hour a night of sleep can predictably result in many unhappy outcomes:

  • 14 pound weight gain over a year
  • cognitive impairment equivalent to one alcoholic drink
  • 30-40% decreased libidoloss of self-assessment ability and
  • 30-40% increase hsCRP (marker of inflammation)

Ironically, all the hormonal shifts that happen secondary to lack of sleep can also start interfering with our ability to get a good night’s sleep. For example if your lack of sleep has shunted you in a pre-diabetic direction, the blood sugar surges and slides you experience in that shate can make it more difficult for you to sleep. And you will be unable to correct that pre-diabetic tendency without solving the sleep problem. Vicious circle!

What's a girl (or a guy) to do!?

Wise sleep solutions – which include a good assessment, and full lifestyle, nutritional and supplement interventions – must come first.

Watch this space next week for Part II (and a re-do of the current Sleep article on this site!) 

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