Dear Mark: Sleep and Oxidative Stress

Dear Mark,

The time change pretty hit me hard this year. I’ve noticed that as I age I value my sleep more and more. When I was in my 20s and 30s I use to be able to get by on about 6 hours of sleep each night. Now if I don’t get at least 8 hours I pay for it. What’s the deal? Is this just part of getting older?


What’s one lost hour of sleep when getting over the hump of daylight savings time? It might not seem like much, but as I’ve noted before, time changes wreak a special havoc over everything from traffic accidents to workman’s comp filings. (Add the stock market and heart attack rates to this inspiring picture.) Truth be told, however, many of us were delinquent long before the recent changeover. Maybe the switch was simply the last straw in a long term bout of sleep deprivation. Anyone? (You know who you are.) We know we feel like hell warmed over when we make a habit of skipping out on zzzzs. We justify it, minimize it, though, by telling ourselves that it can’t be so bad if caffeine and a shower can cure us before we walk out the door in the morning. Some latest research says different. When we do without solid sleep, we decrease our ability to process even moderate levels of oxidative stress – the arch enemy of the Primal Blueprint of course. The impact, as observed by Oregon State University researchers, leads to faster aging and measurable neurological decline.

The key here is a so-called “period” gene, one of four genes primarily responsible for the body’s circadian rhythm, the internal clock related to day and night cycles and the essential biochemical pattern that helps govern major physiological processes. Studies have long shown that messing with the body’s biological clock can impair cognitive function in the short term and over the long term impacts cardiovascular and kidney function, since sleep aids the body in organ renewal. Now there’s more systemic-focused evidence for sleep deprivation/disruption’s ominous reach.

The Oregon State researchers compared fruit flies of different ages whose period gene was either intact or not. “Middle age” and older flies without the intact gene fared progressively worse and showed significant damage when subjected to moderate levels of induced stress. Flies without the period gene “lost some of their motor ability to climb” and sustained “neuronal degeneration” reflective of neurological damage seen in Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, a singular application of moderate stress was enough to cut a middle aged fruit fly’s lifespan by 12% and an older fly’s by 20%, when compared to both normal (gene-intact) flies and younger mutant flies, which didn’t show significant damage from the induced stress. Based on their results, the researchers suggest that the period gene plays a significant role in regulating the cleanup of oxidative damage in the body and is subject to gradual decline as we age. The older we are, the more we physically benefit from following our body’s natural circadian rhythm – and the more we put ourselves at risk when we ignore it.

As much as we’d like to chalk up this study to the particulars of the insect world, researchers believe that these genes work much the same in humans and in fact operate in nearly every cell of the human body. Despite all the years and achievements of civilization, we humans are still subject to the basic natural rhythms of the wild. When we live in denial of this correlation, it inevitably comes back to bite us in the backside.

Eating and exercising Primally both diminishes our overall oxidative stress levels and bolsters our body’s ability to eradicate the oxidative damage that is an unavoidable part of living. This study underscores how we can either support or undermine our Primal efforts by cheating our bodies out of sleep. If we’re religious about working in our meat/veggies or our supplements throughout the day, why undo the good once the sun goes down? If we wouldn’t dream of skipping a workout, why give up the crucial biological defense of a decent night’s sleep?

We mostly have good intentions when we shortchange ourselves on sleep. Maybe we’re up paying bills, reading a great novel, spending quality time with the spouse, putting the finishing touches on tomorrow’s presentation – or little Suzy’s costume for the class play. When we look at the results from the lens of continual damage and Primal backsliding, however, we might see sleep in a new light – and be more likely to declare “lights out” when our primal rhythms rather than modern life dictate.

Your comments and feedback on the study? Let me know your thoughts. And come back tomorrow when I’ll be publishing a brand new Definitive Guide.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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