Lessons from a Houseplant: Part III- Light
In part I of “Lessons from a Houseplant”, we looked at why outdoor plants are stronger and more adaptable than houseplants. We then applied this idea to human beings using some basic tenants of biology. We looked at why our culture is set up to encourage us to be weak houseplants and how it’s affecting our health and our ability to adapt to stressful circumstances.
In “Lessons from a Houseplant: Part II”, we looked at how we can manipulate our diet to become stronger and healthier. We looked at adding supplementation as our own Miracle-Gro, to patch the holes in our “soil”. We also looked at the benefits of fasting and creating a controlled nutrient scarcity, and how that benefits us both mentally and physically. Check out that article in the link above.
In this post we’re going to shift our focus to another environmental stimulus that we have in common with our plant brethren. We’re going to explore Light, both literally (in the form of sunlight) and figuratively (as sleep/wakefulness). If you didn’t read our disclaimer in our last post, I recommend that you do so, or you can click the medical disclaimer link at the very bottom of the page. As always, when we’re exploring the edges, and ultimately going outside of our comfort zone, we have to have increased awareness of our body/mind and know when to stop and when to keep going.
With that out of the way, let’s step into the light. For the sake of this article, let’s look briefly at our relationship with light literally, in the form of UV rays, and well as metaphorically, in terms of sleep. We’ll begin by looking at light literally, in the form of sunlight.
Outdoor plants are constantly being subjected to different levels of sunlight. The weather creates an unpredictable environment that forces plants to be able to adapt and maintain their health and energy levels whether in scorching sun or a week of clouds. We humans certainly have a different relationship with light as it’s not needed for direct energy production, but it is still worth checking out as light is an integral part of maintaining a healthy body/mind.
We’ll start with looking at varying up our exposure to sunlight. It’s no longer a secret that Vitamin D is integral in a large number of biochemical processes in the body. We are also now realizing that most people are chronically deficient in this vitamin. We need to get outside and expose our skin to the sun’s rays in order to naturally build vitamin D levels.
Ironically enough, with all the fear of developing skin cancer from sunlight, vitamin D is one of the most important factors in preventing cancer, and the best way to get it is to be exposed to direct sunlight. The sun is not the enemy, but you can always have too much of a good thing. Chronically getting too much sunlight and not getting enough are both associated with increased risk of disease.
While we’re inundated with information about how bad the sun is for us, we rarely hear about the benefits of being out in the sun. Yet the reality is that, worldwide, there are many more cases of disability and disease from a lack of sunlight than from an excess of it.
The overall health benefits of sunlight are vast and have been shown to help all kinds of different issues. Sunlight is one of the biggest regulators of circadian rhythm. It’s essential for us to get the right quality and quantity of sleep. The variation in natural light throughout a day creates our body’s daily cycles. Unfortunately, being inside under artificial lighting and staring at screens all day long can disrupt that.
Sunlight is also is beneficial for our eyes and skin. The indoor artificial environment of electronic screens and fluorescent lighting ensures that our eyes aren’t naturally challenged and causes us to lose the ability to adapt to bright/low light conditions as well as the the ability to see far away objects.
Sunlight is also integral for proper immune function, bone health, digestion, metabolism and energy, mood regulation, and disease prevention. While we aren’t 100% sure how sunlight does all of these things, the proposed mechanisms seem to be related to mostly to the actions of vitamin D. This article does an awesome job of explaining all of these benefits of having regular exposure to sunlight.
For even more information on the benefits of sunlight, google “Heliotherapy” or “Light therapy”. By varying up the time that we’re in the sun, we can gain all of the benefits of sun exposure, but also limit the chances of getting skin cancer. It’s ok for the skin to regularly get faintly pink, it creates the necessary dose of stimuli to force our skin to adapt and create natural sunscreen. Our troubles occur when we overdo it and turn into that lobster guy who can’t be touched without excruciating pain.
We aren’t huge fans of sunscreen, and we prefer to limit time in the sun as opposed to slathering ourselves with chemicals. That being said, I live in Minnesota and spend as much of the summer as possible on a lake and out in the sun. In order to not get fried, sunscreen becomes a must. Use your discretion, learn by starting slow, especially in the late spring/early summer when UV-rays are the most intense and our skin/eyes are deconditioned. Most importantly, get outside and let the sun and your body do the work to get you healthy and keep you feeling and performing your best!
Let’s now transition our approach to light and look at sleep. We talked a little bit about how sunlight drives our circadian rhythm and controls the quality/amount of sleep that we get. We also now know that electronic screens and artificial lights can disrupt our sleep patterns by tricking our brain into favoring serotonin (wakefulness) over melatonin (sleepiness).
Sleep is also one of the hottest issues in health today as we better understand just how important it is for us physically, mentally, and emotionally, to consistently get adequate amounts of quality sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown to cause numerous health issues. For the athlete, not getting the right amount, and quality, of sleep leads to decreased cognitive and athletic performance, and well as decreased ability to recover following training/competition.
So that means that every night we should get the prescribed 7-9 hours of sleep right? Overall yes, but I also think that there is some benefit to varying up your sleep patterns occasionally. When the body needs to repair itself, either from an illness, or after unusually intense physical activity, more sleep than 9 hours may be needed. The occasional 12 hours of continuous sleep, when needed, can be beneficial for the body. To most people this makes sense. But what about skipping sleep? Can taking a night off from sleep be of any benefit? We think so…
Before you freak out and throw your computer at the wall, give me a chance to explain. First, acute sleep restriction has actually been shown to be beneficial as a treatment for depression.
Skipping a night of sleep can also help reset faulty sleep patterns. Many people would love to sleep for 8 quality hours every night, but their patterns are so screwed up that they don’t sleep deeply and they often go long stretches throughout the night of not sleeping. While a “sleep fast” won’t instantly cure this (explore stress, diet, and hormone imbalances), staying up for 36-40 hours straight can help reset your biological clock. After completing a sleep fast, we usually are exhausted and can go to bed early, sleep deeply for 8-12 hours, and wake up feeling rested the following day. If we then continue the pattern of going to bed early and getting up at around the same time every morning, we can build up better sleep patterns which can ultimately help normalize our biological clock. Just as with anything, we often times need a dramatic break from normal patterns in order to build up new, better ones.
Let’s also explore the challenge of staying up all night, and what that means. The simple act of consciously staying up all night creates a mental and physical challenge that allows us to grow stronger and better able to face future challenges. It’s important to point out that I’m not talking about downing Jägerbombs and partying your way through the night, and I’m also not talking about cramming for a test or staying up all night finishing your work presentation.
These challenging endurance tests (we already talked about fasting in our last post) should be done as an event in themselves and with as little external stress as possible. It’s important to sink into the experience of abstaining from food or sleep and seeing what the body and mind feel like both during and after. Sleep fasts should also not be done regularly, I’ve found that once a month to once every couple of months seems to work well.
Maybe doing a sleep fast isn’t right for you. There are a number of other ways of varying up your sleep patterns that are worth trying. Most of us sleep in a monophasic cycle- essentially we sleep for an uninterrupted 8 or so hours a night and then are up for the other 16 hours. But what happens if we choose a biphasic approach to sleep in which we sleep for two 4 hour periods with a gap in between? There’s good evidence that our ancestors actually slept this way, sleeping for a period of time, then waking up for a few hours in the middle of the night, then going back to sleep until the sun came up. While I haven’t tried biphasic sleeping yet, many people swear by it. They find that they’re able to wake up after a 4-hour snooze and work for a couple of hours, then go back to sleep for another 4 hours, and wake up feeling rested and ready to go. If you’re interested, here’s a good article to help you get started.
Another way to change up your sleep pattern is to try polyphasic sleep. I haven’t personally tried this method either and the science supporting it is rather shaky so I won’t do more than let you know what it is. This form of sleep, supposedly used by the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Nikola Tesla, Napoleon Bonaparte, and others, involves sleeping for a small amount of time (20-45 minutes) every 4-6 hours throughout a whole 24-hr cycle. There are a number of different named polyphasic cycles and a quick Google search with give you all the information you could need, if you want to give it a go.
Remember, regularly getting good quality and quantity of sleep is one of the most important things that you can possibly do for your health. If you do experiment with different sleep patterns or sleep fasting make sure to do it safely. As always, we are interested in hearing your experiences with any of these personal experiments. If you have tried any of these methods, please email us and share what your experiences were with them!
That’s concludes our look at light. Stay tuned for our next Lesson from a Houseplant in which we’ll look at our relationship to temperature and how we can use extreme temperature exposure to be create strength and health.
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