10 Natural Sleep Aids: What Works and Why

By now, the average person grasps just how important sleep is for our overall health. It seems like every month there’s a new popular science book extolling the virtues of sleep. Parents remember the zombified newborn days and can see (and hear), firsthand, what happens when a toddler doesn’t get enough sleep. And on a visceral level, we feel the need for slumber. Even if we’re unaware of or refuse to accept the health dangers of long-term sleep restriction, there’s no getting around the abject misery of a bad night’s sleep.

We all want better sleep. We all need better sleep. But how?

Sleeping pills are not the answer for most people.

(But please note: Don’t discontinue or alter a prescribed treatment or medication regimen without consulting your doctor…and, likewise, don’t begin a new regimen—like those below—without running it by your physician.)

In one recent “positive” study on the effects of sleeping pills, almost every single subject suffered one or more side effects, ranging from headaches to nausea to irritability to dizziness to dysgeusia (a condition where your sense of taste is altered).

In another, taking Ambien the night before decreased cognitive performance and increased subjective sleepiness the next morning.

Studies aside, there are thousands of horror stories about people ruining their lives (or behaving in a way that had the potential to do so) after taking sleeping pills. Twitter rants that get you fired, sleep driving, tooth grinding, furniture rearranging, sleep eating. And those are just the ones that people live to tell.

That’s not to say sleeping pills are useless. They’re legitimate drugs to be used for specific medical conditions, in specific patient circumstances. They aren’t to be trifled with. But if you’re just trying to “get better sleep,” you’ve got options. And I’m not even mentioning the lifestyle and behavioral modifications you can make to improve your sleep.

Here are my favorite natural sleep aids….

1. GABA

GABA is the inhibitory neurotransmitter. It calms the brain. It soothes the brain. It de-stresses the brain. And it’s a major factor in the creation of melatonin, the hormone our brain uses to trigger sleep onset. Insomniacs have reduced brain GABA levels compared to non-insomniacs; the same goes for people with sleep apnea. Restoring physiological levels of GABA, then, is a first line of defense against poor sleep.

Oral GABA has a blood-brain barrier problem—it doesn’t cross it particularly well. Children have more permissive BBBs, but most of my readers aren’t children. Nitric oxide tends to increase GABA diffusion across the blood brain barrier, and there are a couple of ways to increase nitric oxide in conjunction with taking GABA to make the latter more effective for sleep.

You could sunbathe. That increases nitric oxide release. The only problem is that most sunbathing occurs during the midday hours, not at night. It’s unclear how long the boost from sunlight lasts, though it certainly can’t hurt.

You could take apocynum venetum, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine that increases nitric oxide release. In fact, one study showed that taking GABA with apcynum ventum improves sleep quality.

Before you start sedating yourself, see if GABA has an effect.

2. Melatonin

When it’s bedtime for your brain, your pineal gland starts pumping out a hormone called melatonin. This initiates the onset of sleep and triggers subjective feelings of sleepiness; it also sets your circadian rhythm.

Supplemental melatonin crosses the blood brain barrier and acts very similarly to endogenous melatonin.

Don’t use melatonin every night. Not because you’ll get “addicted” (you won’t) or “your natural production will stop” (it won’t), but because you should focus on producing your own. If I get a big dose of late night blue light, I might nibble on a little melatonin. If I have more than a single glass of wine at night, I’ll have some melatonin before bed as alcohol depresses its production. And when I travel, I always take a few milligrams an hour before my desired bedtime in the new time zone.

The main reason you shouldn’t rely on melatonin for everyday use is that supplemental melatonin pharmacology doesn’t quite emulate endogenous melatonin pharmacology. The way most people take it is in a single dose before bed. The way the brain produces it is consistently through the night. If you want to emulate physiological levels of melatonin, you’re better off taking a single dose of instant release melatonin followed by a dose of slow release melatonin, or a supplement that includes both forms. Even then, it’s not the same.

3. Collagen

I still remember the first time I drank a big mug of bone broth at night. It was one of the not-as-rare-as-you’d-think cold “winter” nights in Malibu. I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, and got about 3/4 of the way through a mug of chicken foot broth before, apparently, falling asleep right then and there. A bit of research the next day revealed that glycine, the primary amino acid in collagen/gelatin/broth, can have a powerful effect on sleep quality. Not only that, glycine also lowers body temperature (an important part of the sleep process) and improves wakefulness the next day. And if you’ve got REM sleep behavior disorder, glycine may be the solution.

In fact, the glycine-sleep effect was another consideration in creating Collagen Fuel and Peptides. Everyone talks about the benefits to joint health, performance, skin, nails, hair, and general inflammation, but I want folks to also discover the benefit of glycine-enhanced sleep, too.

If you take collagen, aim for at least 10 grams at night. If you’re taking straight glycine, 3 grams is the minimum dose. Those are threshold doses; more may help even more.

4. Magnesium

We talk a lot about “age-related” declines in health, vitality, performance, and basic physiological functions. We also talk about how much of what we call “age-related” isn’t inevitable. It’s not so much that the passage of time degrades our bodies and how they work, but that we become more susceptible to poor lifestyle, dietary, and exercise choices because of compounding negative interest. We’re born with robust health and if we fail to maintain it, our health worsens as time progresses. If we never stop moving, lifting weights, and eating right, aging doesn’t happen to the same degree.

One thing that changes with age is how we sleep. In older people, sleep architecture is different: More time is spent awake and there’s less slow wave sleep. Sleep spindles, those oscillating bursts of brain wave activity, begin disappearing. Sounds inevitable, right? Except that research shows that taking magnesium reverses these age-related changes to sleep architecture.

Taking some Natural Calm (a great magnesium supplement) after your CrossFit workout and falling asleep faster is one thing. But to actually restore youthful sleep architecture? Amazing.

5. CBD Oil

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, CBD is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis.

And to me, the most interesting aspect of CBD lies in its potential to improve sleep. A 2017 review provides a nice summary of the effects of CBD on sleep:

In insomnia patients, 160 mg/day of CBD increased sleep time and reduced the number of arousals (not that kind) during the night.

Lower doses are linked to increased arousals and greater wakefulness. Higher dose CBD improved sleep.

In preliminary research with Parkinson’s patients, CBD reduced REM-related behavioral disorder—which is when you basically act out your dreams as they’re happening.

More recently, a large case series (big bunch of case studies done at once) was performed giving CBD to anxiety patients who had trouble sleeping. Almost 80% had improvements in anxiety and 66% had improvements in sleep (although the sleep improvements fluctuated over time).

Here’s how to find a good CBD oil.

6. Theanine

Theanine is a chemical found in tea, especially tea grown in shady conditions. Because it is structurally similar to glutamate and easily passes the blood brain barrier, theanine binds to various glutamate receptors in the brain, inhibiting the action of some and promoting the action of others. It also increases serotonin, GABA, and glycine in the brain—all chemicals that can pave the way for better sleep.

Theanine is another of those sleep aids that isn’t expressly about sleep. It’s about relaxation, about letting you get out of your own way. If in the course of relaxation and stress reduction you end up taking care of the thing that’s messing up your sleep, theanine can be said to be a big sleep aid.

This is a good theanine. I also make a supplement (Adaptogenic Calm) that contains theanine and other stress-reducing compounds.

7. Lutein and Zeaxanthin

One of the most powerful sleep aids is wearing a pair of orange safety goggles that blocks blue light after dark. Viewed after dark, blue (and green) light suppresses melatonin secretion, pushes back sleep onset, and throws off your entire circadian rhythm. Blocking the light with goggles allows normal melatonin production to proceed and promotes earlier bedtimes and better, deeper sleeps.

What if you could take a supplement that simulated the blue-blocking effect of a pair of orange safety goggles? Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, plant-based pigments found in colorful produce and pasture-raised eggs that are actually incorporated into the eye where they offer protection from sunlight and inhibit the melatonin-reducing effect of nighttime light exposure. Human studies show that taking lutein and zeaxanthin on a regular basis improves sleep quality, reduces sleep disturbances, and lowers dependence on supplemental or pharmaceutical sleep aids.

Here’s a good one. Trader Joe’s also has a good supplement called Super Vision.

The best natural sleep aids restore the ancestral sleep baseline. At baseline, humans should be walking around with good GABA levels. They should be getting enough magnesium, collagen/glycine, and carotenoids from their diet. It’s normal to produce melatonin after dark. And even though humans haven’t been dosing themselves with CBD or theanine for very long, it also isn’t normal to be inundated with chronic, low level stress and persistent anxiety—the type of stress that ruins our sleep, the type of anxiety that CBD and theanine can regulate.

What else?

8. Lemon Balm

Lemon balm is an herb in the mint family. The fragrance is intoxicating (I’ve even used lemon balm in a roasted chicken), but not the effects. It doesn’t directly induce sleep—it’s not a sedative or a hypnotic—but if stress and anxiety are getting in the way of your sleep, lemon balm will help clear them out.

9. Valerian

Valerian root has a long history as an anti-insomnia herb. The ancient Greeks used it and traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medical traditions continue to use to it to treat bad sleep. Valerian contains a compound that slows down the brain’s metabolism of GABA, thereby increasing GABA levels and letting what the brain already produces hang around even longer.

I’ll admit I’m more ambivalent about these last two options. While they’re certainly gentler than pharmaceutical sleep pills, and lemon balm in particular is a legit way to deal with stress and anxiety, their efficacy for sleep is questionable. The evidence just isn’t there, though I grant that many people report good results.

10. Combinations

Many of these individual compounds become more powerful and more effective combined with each other. Since these aren’t pharmaceutical drugs with very narrow safety profiles rife with contraindications, taking them together usually isn’t an issue, but check in with your doctor anyway (especially if you’re taking other medications or have known health conditions).

And today’s list isn’t exhaustive. There are other compounds, herbs, and supplements that can probably help people improve their sleep.

Most of the adaptogens, like ashwagandha or rhodiola rosea, have been shown in one study or another to improve sleep in humans. Anything that helps get you back to baseline, back to homeostasis, back to normal—will restore your sleep if it’s suffering. And if you’re suffering, your sleep is likely suffering because sleep is such a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Anything that improves your health will also probably improve your sleep.

This goes without saying, but don’t limit yourself to natural sleep supplements. Don’t forget about the importance of lifestyle, of exercise, of diet, of morning light exposure and nighttime light avoidance. Supplements can help, but they can’t be the foundation for good sleep hygiene. You’re just asking for trouble—or subpar results.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Now, let’s hear from you. What natural sleep aids have you found most useful? Is there anything I overlooked or forgot? Let me know down below.

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References:

Pinto LR, Bittencourt LR, Treptow EC, Braga LR, Tufik S. Eszopiclone versus zopiclone in the treatment of insomnia. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2016;71(1):5-9.

Dinges DF, Basner M, Ecker AJ, Baskin P, Johnston S. Effects of Zolpidem and Zaleplon on Cognitive Performance After Emergent Tmax and Morning Awakenings: a Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. Sleep. 2018;

Yamatsu A, Yamashita Y, Maru I, Yang J, Tatsuzaki J, Kim M. The Improvement of Sleep by Oral Intake of GABA and Apocynum venetum Leaf Extract. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol. 2015;61(2):182-7.

Held K, Antonijevic IA, Künzel H, et al. Oral Mg(2+) supplementation reverses age-related neuroendocrine and sleep EEG changes in humans. Pharmacopsychiatry. 2002;35(4):135-43.

Kim S, Jo K, Hong KB, Han SH, Suh HJ. GABA and l-theanine mixture decreases sleep latency and improves NREM sleep. Pharm Biol. 2019;57(1):65-73.

Rondanelli M, Opizzi A, Monteferrario F, Antoniello N, Manni R, Klersy C. The effect of melatonin, magnesium, and zinc on primary insomnia in long-term care facility residents in Italy: a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2011;59(1):82-90.

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Hemp Oil: How Should You Take It?

The burgeoning CBD hemp oil scene has made finding a product easier than ever, but it’s also made choosing a product harder. If you recall my post from years ago on decision fatigue, you’ll know what I’m talking about: the paralysis of too many choices…. I know my readership, and I know you’re the type of people who will wonder about optimizing their CBD ingestion. This stuff isn’t cheap, and it’s perfectly rational to want to get your money’s worth.

While the compound itself—cannabidiol, or CBD—doesn’t change from product to product, the way it’s administered does.

There are oral hemp oil supplements—gummies, capsules, infused teas, chocolates. Things you eat and drink and digest.

There are sublingual hemp oil supplements—sprays, tinctures, lozenges. Things you swish and swirl around your mouth.

There are topical CBD—creams, lotions, and balms.

There are patches—things you rub and attach to your skin.

There is high-CBD cannabis and CBD-only vape juice. Things you can vaporize and inhale.

But how do you choose? What are the differences between the various routes of administration?

What To Consider When Choosing A CBD Product

Speed of absorption. How quickly do you want the CBD to take effect?

Intensity. How powerful do you want your CBD “experience” to be?

Duration. How long do you want it to last?

Effects. Where do you want it to take effect?

CBD Product Choices: The Rundown

Oral

Oral CBD is the most common method of administration. It’s simple, easy, and intuitive. Everyone swallows pills, eats food, and drinks fluids. There’s almost no way to mess it up (choking aside).

Oral CBD is readily absorbed. Like most everything else that travels through the digestive system, it goes to the liver to be metabolized and converted into different metabolites. The liver is so central to oral CBD that people with poor liver function actually end up with higher serum CBD after taking it orally, since their livers aren’t as good at metabolizing it into different compounds. This liver route also means it takes longer for oral CBD to take effect, but it lasts longer.

Taking an acute oral dose every once in awhile is less effective than consistent dosing because of the liver’s tendency to regulate its bioavailability. When you take it on a regular basis, CBD—being fat soluble like other cannabinoids—gathers in your adipose tissue where your endocannabinoid system can theoretically utilize it on an ongoing basis.

  • Speed: Slow
  • Intensity: Low to moderate (depending on dosage)
  • Duration: Long
  • Effects: Systemic

Sublingual

Sublingual CBD goes under the tongue for absorption via the mucosal membranes in the mouth, which are highly permeable. From there, it bypasses the portal vein—the passage that leads from the digestive tract to the liver—and heads straight for the blood. And then whatever’s left over and not absorbed sublingually gets swallowed and makes it into the digestive tract, so nothing’s wasted.

You have several sublingual options….

Tinctures: Little dropper bottles.

Sprays: AKA oromucosal spray; think CBD-infused Binaca (anyone remember Binaca?).

Lozenges: CBD lozenges that slowly dissolve in your mouth and enter through the mucosa.

The longer you let the CBD sit in your mouth, the more you’ll absorb. 60-90 seconds appears to be the most commonly recommended period of time.

  • Speed: Fast
  • Intensity: Low to high (depending on dosage)
  • Duration: Moderate
  • Effects: Systemic

Inhaled

The original way to get CBD, inhaling CBD, is the fastest-acting and the most intense (with intensity meaning “effectiveness,” not “this will get you messed up, man,” since CBD is not psychoactive). The vapor or smoke enters the lungs, whose alveoli act as a direct conduit to the bloodstream. Inhalation is also the most legally precarious (depending on where you live) because many inhalation CBD products also contain THC, which remains illegal in most places.

You can smoke cannabis bred to be very high in CBD and low in THC, but there will always be some THC present. You couldn’t exactly call this non-psychoactive (or legal in most places) either due to the THC.

There’s also CBD-only vape juice/E-liquid that you can vaporize and inhale.

It’s certainly effective, though if you’re going for efficiency it’s not “optimal.” Your lungs can’t absorb all the CBD in the smoke or vapor; a significant portion is exhaled and lost to the atmosphere. Plus, there’s the whole fact that filling your lungs with smoke is a major stressor. Vapor might be safer, but I’m skeptical.

  • Speed: Fast
  • Intensity: Low to high (depending on dosage)
  • Duration: Shorter
  • Effects: Systemic

Topical

Like other cannabinoids, the CBD molecule is highly hydrophobic and thus cannot pass through the aqueous layer of the skin to reach general circulation. However, if you lather enough of it on to an isolated patch of injured rat skin, it can interact with peripheral cannabinoid receptors that reduce pain and inflammation at a local level. This hasn’t been confirmed in live humans, but anecdotal reports are positive.

  • Speed: Fast
  • Intensity: Unknown
  • Duration: Unknown
  • Effects: Local

Which One Should You Choose?

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t use CBD myself (though I’m not opposed to it and am open to incorporating it in the future if it proves to be uniquely helpful). As a result, I don’t have any strong personally motivated opinion about specific products. What I can give is my objective take on the available evidence, which is fairly light and preliminary:

The best-studied CBD administration methods are oral and sublingual. The majority of human studies have utilized those two routes. There are quite a few positive studies on smoked or inhaled CBD, too, but those often include THC and fail to isolate CBD. If you’re only interested in CBD and not in THC (or it’s illegal where you live), those studies probably don’t apply to you.

In the large set of case studies that found CBD helped patients improve their sleep, the subjects took CBD capsules.

In a study on CBD and pain, the subjects used an oromucosal spray.

In epilepsy patients, oral CBD capsules were incredibly effective.

For general use, whether it’s for anxiety, inflammation, pain, or “general wellness,” oral and/or sublingual use seems to be the real ticket. You know how much you’re consuming. You get a long lasting, fairly fast-acting duration of action. You get the quick absorption into the bloodstream of inhaled CBD without losing any due to exhalation. And if you don’t absorb it all through your oral mucous membranes, you’ll simply swallow and digest the rest. Nothing is lost.

What about you, folks? I know there are some experienced CBD users out there reading this. What’s your favorite method of administration, and why?

Take care everyone.

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References:

Taylor L, Crockett J, Tayo B, Morrison G. A Phase 1, Open-Label, Parallel-Group, Single-Dose Trial of the Pharmacokinetics and Safety of Cannabidiol (CBD) in Subjects With Mild to Severe Hepatic Impairment. J Clin Pharmacol. 2019;

Lattanzi S, Brigo F, Trinka E, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Cannabidiol in Epilepsy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Drugs. 2018;78(17):1791-1804.

Richardson JD, Kilo S, Hargreaves KM. Cannabinoids reduce hyperalgesia and inflammation via interaction with peripheral CB1 receptors. Pain. 1998;75(1):111-9.

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The Definitive Guide To What Breaks a Fast

One of the most common questions I get is “Does [x] break a fast?”

What they’re really inquiring about is: “Does this interfere with, negate, or nullify the benefits of fasting?”

These benefits include:

Ketosis: Fasting is the quickest way to get into ketosis, an metabolic state characterized by increasing fat burning, fat adaptation, and—in some people—improved cognitive function.

Fat Loss: When you’re fasting, you’re not eating, and not eating is the best way to force your body to burn the fat it already possesses. Fasting also means no additional calories are coming in, and many people find that fasting is a great way to control their calorie intake.

Autophagy: Autophagy, or “self-eating,” is the process by which our cells prune damaged components, maintain proper function, and keep aging at bay. Fasting triggers autophagy. Breaking the fast will stop autophagy.

Let’s go through the most popular queries one by one and figure out how each one affects an intermittent fast.

Common Drinks

Coffee

Depends on who you ask. Some say the fact that coffee triggers a metabolic response means it breaks the fast. I say that coffee increases fat mobilization and burning, independently triggers autophagy (something we’re looking for when we fast), and makes it easier to stave off hunger. For my full treatment, check out this post on coffee and fasting.

I’m going to say “no.”

Tea

Tea contains no calories, improves metabolic health, and can aid fat burning. All signs point to it being great during a fast. Of course, if you had a tablespoon of sugar and a half cup of milk, you’re breaking the fast. But tea itself is a great addition.

I’m going to say “no.”

Yerba Mate

Yerba mate is essentially non-caloric, like tea or black coffee. It also has beneficial effects on glucose tolerance, which is a big plus.

I’m going to say “no.”

Bone Broth

I covered this in full a few months ago. Go read that post. In short, a bit is probably okay. Just keep in mind that the more gelatinous your broth is, the more collagen protein it will contain and the greater its potential to inhibit autophagy. This isn’t established in humans yet (see the collagen section below), but it’s worth considering. A nice salty broth has gotten many a faster through a tough fast, especially if they’re still learning the ropes and need some electrolytes.

I’m going to say “technically yes” but “realistically no.”

Lemon Water

A tablespoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice has a couple calories and a decent amount of potassium. Combined with salt, lemon water is actually a nice way to hydrate during a fast without breaking it.

I’m going to say “no.”

Diet Soda

Diet soda may mess with your gut. It’s linked to weight issues, though not conclusively and certainly not in a causative manner; it’s just as likely that the relationship can be explained by overweight and unhealthy people using diet sodas in a bid to lose weight. I don’t like them myself, and I’ve witnessed people fail to ever kick the sweet tooth as long as they drank diet sodas. But many people find they do improve dietary adherence and do improve fasting tolerance. If that’s the case, they are very pro-fasting.

I’m going to say “no.”

Juice

A juice fast isn’t really a fast. You’re consuming fewer calories than you might eating normal food, but you’re still consuming a good number of calories—most of them carbohydrate, no less.

I’m going to say “yes” unless you’re specifically engaging in “juice fasting,” in which case it’s still not fasting despite what you call it.

Common Drink Additions/Condiments

Cream (Unsweetened)

Technically, as a source of calories, cream breaks a fast. But it doesn’t provoke an insulin response when consumed in isolation, it doesn’t impact ketosis, and many people find it makes sticking to the fast easier.

I’m going to say “technically yes, but realistically no—just keep it to a couple teaspoons or less.”

Almond Milk

It depends on the almond milk. A full cup of the standard sugar-free almond milk has just 36 calories, about a gram of carbs, 2 grams of fat, and a gram of protein. That’s almost nothing. You could probably get away with a quarter or third cup and have minimal impact on your fast, but why not just drink some water or coffee?

I’m going to say “technically yes,” but you can get away with a little bit.

Butter

Like cream, butter doesn’t provoke an insulin response in isolation. It’s more calorically dense than cream, though, so watch how much you eat.

I’m going to say “technically yes, but realistically no as long as you’re not using more than a teaspoon.”

MCT Oil/Coconut Oil

MCT oil is pure fat and thus calorically dense, but it has three benefits going for it. First, it doesn’t provoke an insulin response in isolation. Two, it increases energy expenditure. Three, it converts directly to ketones. People new to fasting can often speed up the fat adaptation process by incorporating a little MCT oil. Coconut oil is the main source of MCT oil, so it’ll have similar effects, though not as pronounced.

I’m going to say “technically yes, but realistically no—and it may even enhance your fasting experience when consumed in moderation.”

Cinnamon

I don’t advise eating cinnamon alone, dry, and isolated. It’s a terrible and potentially deadly idea. But in some coffee or tea during a fast? Sure. It can even improve insulin sensitivity.

I’m going to say “no.”

Salt

Salt does not break a fast. Actually, adding a pinch or two of salt to your water during a fast can increase your tolerance of the fasting process and improve hydration status.

I’m going to say “no.”

Non-caloric Sweeteners—First Natural, Then Artificial

Stevia

Stevia contains no calories and has no effect on insulin secretion (if anything, it increases insulin sensitivity). However, it’s often used to sweeten foods that do contain calories, so be mindful of how you’re using it.

I’m going to say “no.”

Monk Fruit

For a good overview of monk fruit, read this. Suffice it to say, monk fruit is similar to stevia in that it’s a non-caloric, naturally-occurring sweetener with unique health effects. It will not break your fast.

I’m going to say “no.”

Swerve

Swerve is a sweetener that blends erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and oligosaccharides (a prebiotic fiber that tastes kinda sweet) with natural flavors. Erythritol has no effect on insulin or blood glucose (you just pee it out mostly). I couldn’t find any studies on oligosaccharides during a fast, but as humans cannot by definition digest them, they shouldn’t affect the course of a fast.

I’m going to say “no.”

Xylitol

See the gum section above. Stick to reasonable amounts.

I’m going to say “no.”

Sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda)

Sucralose does not provoke an insulin response or increase blood glucose—great news for fasters who want to use it—but it does seem to impair whole body insulin sensitivity. That’s bad for everyone.

I’m going to say “no,” but there are other downsides.

Aspartame

Those same studies on monk fruit and stevia also tested aspartame, finding similar results. Aspartame does not provoke an insulin or glucose response. I’m no fan of the stuff, but I don’t see any evidence that it will break a fast.

I’m going to say “no.”

Supplementary Powders, Oils, Etc.

CBD Oil

Assuming you’re doing the kind of hemp oil that comes in droppers and not the kind that you pour from a culinary oil bottle, the caloric content can’t possibly impact your fast. There are no studies examining the metabolic effects of CBD in the fasted state, but I don’t see any reason why it would impact ketosis, autophagy, or fat-burning—and without psychoactive THC involved, you won’t be getting the munchies.

I’m going to say “no.”

Protein Powder

Protein powder provokes an insulin response, which opposes autophagy, which means you’re breaking your fast. Plus, protein powder contains calories.

I’m going to say “yes.”

Collagen

If you’re strict and technical, then yes, collagen breaks a fast. There’s evidence that glycine—the most prominent amino acid in collagen—can inhibit autophagy, but it was a convoluted animal study where inhibiting autophagy with large doses of glycine after brain injury actually improved outcomes. It probably doesn’t apply to someone adding a scoop of collagen to their coffee. Besides, even if it slightly reduces autophagy, a little collagen won’t negatively impact ketosis, fat-burning, or energy intake.

I’m going to say “technically yes,” but “realistically no.” Avoid if your main focus is autophagy, though.

Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs trigger an insulin response and thus stop autophagy and the fast. That said, many proponents of fasted training recommend using BCAAs before a workout to help preserve muscle and improve the post-workout anabolic response.

I’m going to say “yes.”

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is made by double fermenting the sugars present in apple juice. First, yeast convert the sugars to alcohol. Next, the alcohol converts to acetic acid. The result is a liquid that’s virtually calorie-free. Studies showing that consuming vinegar lowers the blood glucose response to a subsequent meal aren’t really relevant if you’re fasting, but they don’t hurt.

I’m going to say “no.”

Electrolyte Powder/Tabs

Electrolyte powders/tabs used to come festooned with sucrose, making them decidedly anti-fasting. These days, most of them are sweetened with stevia or some other natural non-caloric sweetener. Even the ones that have a little bit of sugar (1-2 g) are probably okay to consume without much negative effect. Best of all, electrolytes can really help you tolerate a fast.

I’m going to say “no.”

Breath-Freshening Items

Gum

If we’re talking sugar-rich gum, the answer is yes. Those definitely break a fast. If we’re talking xylitol gum, the answer is more mixed. In healthy individuals, 30 grams of pure xylitol triggers a small but significant rise in glucose and insulin. That might sound scary to a prospective IFer, but most people aren’t chewing gum made with 30 grams of xylitol. The average piece of xylitol gum barely weighs a gram.

I’m going to say “no,” unless you’re chewing gum made with real sugar or you’re throwing back 30 pieces of xylitol gum in a sitting.

Toothpaste

I always consume my toothpaste (around a tablespoon of the good stuff per brushing) and I’ve never had it knock me out of ketosis, autophagy, or in any way shape or form break my fast. I’m kidding. I don’t consume my toothpaste, but brushing your teeth doesn’t break a fast.

I’m going to say “no.” Don’t eat it though.

Mouthwash

Pretty much the same as toothpaste. Look for a brand that doesn’t contain sugar or one of the artificial sweeteners above that trips insulin. As the instructions (and common sense) suggest, don’t drink it.

That’s it, folks. If you have additional questions about what does or doesn’t break a fast, leave them down below. Thanks for reading, and I hope you found the post helpful. Forward it on if you did.

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References:

Hansson P, Holven KB, Øyri LKL, et al. Meals with Similar Fat Content from Different Dairy Products Induce Different Postprandial Triglyceride Responses in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Cross-Over Trial. J Nutr. 2019;149(3):422-431.

Anton SD, Martin CK, Han H, et al. Effects of stevia, aspartame, and sucrose on food intake, satiety, and postprandial glucose and insulin levels. Appetite. 2010;55(1):37-43.

Ili? V, Vukmirovi? S, Stilinovi? N, ?apo I, Arsenovi? M, Milijaševi? B. Insight into anti-diabetic effect of low dose of stevioside. Biomed Pharmacother. 2017;90:216-221.

Noda K, Nakayama K, Oku T. Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1994;48(4):286-92.

Müller-hess R, Geser CA, Bonjour JP, Jéquier E, Felber JP. Effects of oral xylitol administration on carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in normal subjects. Infusionsther Klin Ernahr. 1975;2(4):247-52.

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Dear Mark: Exercise-Induced Asthma, CBD for Diabetes, Warm-ups In the Morning

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First, what’s the deal with exercise-induced asthma? Is there anything we can do to lessen its impact and incidence? Second, is CBD oil helpful for diabetics? And finally, do bodyweight exercises always require warm-ups? What about workouts in general—do you need to warm-up before every single session?

Let’s find out:

The first question comes from Caue Cavallaro:

since you are the go-to person when it’s about health, for me, do you have any material related to exercise induced asthma? I had it every now and then but since I started training for triathlon it’s happening more often. Thank you!

This is a classic response. When I was doing triathlon (and training others in the sport), exercise-induced asthma was incredibly common. These were some of the fittest people on the planet, and yet they were wheezing and coughing like they were completely out of shape.

The common denominator was inflammation and oxidative stress. Back then, most of us didn’t know anything about either—and we were loading our bodies with tons of both. Anything you can do to reduce excess inflammation and oxidative stress in a healthy, sustainable manner will help.

First and foremost, how are you training? I’d really consider getting your hands on Primal Endurance or reading this post. The quick and dirty version is that to train the aerobic pathway, you have to go easier and slower than you think. Take 180 and subtract your age. That’s your target heart rate. Stay under it to remain aerobic. You’ll go so slow and so easy that it won’t even feel like you’re training. This will increase how fast you can go while remaining in the aerobic fat-burning zone, and it will limit your tendency to overtrain. Overtraining is the primary reason for exercise-induced asthma because when you overtrain, you’re heaping excessive inflammation and oxidative stress on your system. And you’re doing it every single time you train.

This “easier” style of endurance training is totally applicable to triathlon. Spend a good month or so (longer for most, but you’re probably reasonably fit and ahead of the game) focusing on that for the bulk of your training, building that aerobic base. Pepper in some more intense stuff, some “race pace” running/swimming/biking, some strength training and sprints.

How are you eating? Too many seed oils high in omega-6 fats and too many refined carbohydrates (to support the overtraining, of course) will tilt the balance toward inflammation and oxidative stress. Switch over to more saturated and monounsaturated fat sources, like butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil. Be sure to eat fatty fish or take fish oil to balance out your omega-3:omega-6 ratio. Eat fewer carbs, and even consider going keto to enhance your fat-adaptation. The low carb approach goes hand in hand with training easier in the aerobic zone, as it demands less carbohydrate.

You’ll want to support your glutathione production with whey protein, raw dairy, and NAC supplements. Glutathione is the body’s premier in-house antioxidant. We most famously use it to detoxify harmful substances like alcohol and reduce oxidative stress, but glutathione also combines with nitric oxide to become a potent bronchodilator called nitrosoglutathione. Bronchodilators open up the airways and facilitate air flow. Having inadequate glutathione can impair your production of nitrosoglutathione and make your asthma worse—or trigger it.

Choline can help. Studies have shown that getting some extra choline reduces the airway inflammation and oxidative stress in people with asthma. You can take a choline supplement or eat a few egg yolks each day.

Good luck!

Regarding CBD/hemp oil, Carmen asked:

Is there oil for diabetics??

They’ve actually looked at CBD for diabetics. In animal studies, it reduces the incidence of diabetes and shows promise against diabetic complications like high glucose-induced endothelial dysfunction.

But the only human study was a bit of a dud. It compared CBD alone, CBD with THC, and THC alone in people with type 2 diabetes. Only the THC alone improved blood sugar, pancreatic beta cell function, and lipid numbers. CBD was ineffective, if harmless.

When you say, as soon as you wake up, do a quick superset of pushups – doesn’t it require a warm-up session beforehand? Can you really do them right away, as soon as you get out of bed? Is a warm-up not always essential?

I mean, you don’t have to do them right away. I can definitely see an argument for brushing the teeth and having some coffee first. For waking up a bit to get the most out of your workout. But if you work out on a regular basis and have a good base level of strength—which our commenter seems to have—you should be able to do basic bodyweight exercises without much of a warm-up.

If pushups are a major effort for a particular person, then a warm-up is a good idea.

As for the essentiality of warm-ups in general? Warm-ups become necessary when we stop moving for most of the day and do a big workout a few times a week. Warm-ups are necessary when we sit for 10 hours a day, using terrible posture the entire time. Warm-ups are important if you’re going really hard, really intense, and really heavy (think a big CrossFit WOD, a set of heavy deadlifts, or something similar). Warm-ups aren’t as essential if you make your entire lifestyle a movement session.

Thanks for reading, everyone. If you have any comments, input, or questions, leave it down below!

Take care.

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References:

Mehta AK, Singh BP, Arora N, Gaur SN. Choline attenuates immune inflammation and suppresses oxidative stress in patients with asthma. Immunobiology. 2010;215(7):527-34.

Weiss L, Zeira M, Reich S, et al. Cannabidiol arrests onset of autoimmune diabetes in NOD mice. Neuropharmacology. 2008;54(1):244-9.

Rajesh M, Mukhopadhyay P, Bátkai S, et al. Cannabidiol attenuates high glucose-induced endothelial cell inflammatory response and barrier disruption. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2007;293(1):H610-9.

Jadoon KA, Ratcliffe SH, Barrett DA, et al. Efficacy and Safety of Cannabidiol and Tetrahydrocannabivarin on Glycemic and Lipid Parameters in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Parallel Group Pilot Study. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(10):1777-86.

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