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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What Breaks a Fast: Supplement Edition

Last week, I explored the impact of all the various foods, beverages, and food-like substances people consume while fasting—and hoping to maintain a functionally fasted state. Does MCT oil break the fast? What about coffee, tea, or bone broth?

There were more than a dozen, and I even did a follow-up. Today I’m going to discuss whether commonly-consumed supplements break the fast.

Let’s go:

Fish Oil

Fish oil is pure fat. If you’re taking the average supplemental dose of 1-2 grams of fish oil, it’s not a problem. That’s not even a teaspoon. It’s about 9-18 calories.

You may burn slightly less fat than you would otherwise, but in the grand scheme of things, a few grams of fish oil won’t break the fast.

Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil is fish oil with extra vitamin D and vitamin A. As long as you keep the doses low enough, cod liver oil won’t break the fast.

Multivitamin/Multimineral

Multivitamins do not break a fast. They are usually non-caloric. However, not all of their components will be absorbed very well on an empty stomach, so keep that in mind.

If you’re still not on board, note that in the older studies with really overweight people who fasted for upwards of a year straight, they usually supplemented with a multivitamin.

Food-Based Multivitamin

A popular one I’ve seen around—Alive, made from kale and raspberries—has just 2 grams of carbs per dosing. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a deal breaker—or a fast-breaker.

Gummy Vitamins

Gummy vitamins have the potential to be about 5-6 grams of sugar, a gram of protein (from gelatin), and a gram of fat (if including omega-3s) per serving, so they’d arguably break the fast. Plus, they taste like candy and are likely to stimulate cravings and make fasting harder.

Gummy vitamins break the fast.

Potassium

Potassium is non-caloric and does not break the fast. In fact, it can help you handle the fast better by replenishing electrolytes.

Potassium doesn’t break the fast.

Creatine

Creatine contains no calories and has no effect on insulin secretion (or glucose in the absence of calories).

Creatine does not break the fast.

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, protein powder breaks the fast.

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, collagen doesn’t break the fast.” Avoid if your main focus is autophagy, however.

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, BCAAs break the fast.”

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is fat soluble and thus comes packaged in an oil carrier, but the dosage is so small that it won’t affect your fast.

Unless you find that 1/8 teaspoon of olive oil ruins your fast, vitamin D won’t break a fast.

Probiotics

Probiotics contain no calories and will not break a fast. However, they are best absorbed in the presence of food—the food protects them as they travel through the digestive system, and most probiotics occur naturally in food—so taking them during a fast is probably, mostly useless.

Probiotics don’t break a fast, but why take them during one?

Prebiotics

Pure prebiotics will not break a fast, as they contain no digestible carbohydrates. Prebiotic-enriched foods will break a fast, as they do contain calories.

Adaptogens

Adaptogens are compounds, usually herbs or herb derivatives, that modulate your stress response. They improve your ability to tolerate and respond to stressful situations; they don’t blindly inhibit the stress response if the stress response is warranted. They keep you honest and counter unnecessary stress responses. They contain no calories, unless you’re chowing down on a big hunk of maca or ashwagandha root. In fact, most adaptogens have traditionally been consumed in tea form, extracting the active compounds and leaving behind any calories. Have at ’em.

Adaptogens do not break the fast.

Mushroom Extracts

Medicinal mushroom extracts come from mushrooms, which are technically food. But the amounts you take are so low—usually no more than a teaspoon—that they won’t impact your fast or provide any significant amount of caloric energy. Four Sigmatic has those “mushroom coffee” blends you add to hot water. They can get up to about 30 calories per serving, but even that’s going to let you maintain most of the fasting benefits.

Mushroom extracts don’t break the fast.

Melatonin

I used to keep the old Trader Joe’s melatonin on hand because it was half a milligram, whereas most other melatonin supplements are in the 3-5 mg range. It was also sweet, tasting like those white Valentine’s Day mint hearts you used to get back in the day. I haven’t come across any sweetened melatonin supplements since Trader Joe’s phased those out, but that’s the only thing I’d worry about on a fast.

Melatonin does not break a fast.

Final Note: Most supplements are okay to take on a fast, though the lack of food may make absorption more difficult. If you have any other questions about supplements on a fast, drop them down below. Thanks for reading, everybody.

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Dear Mark: What Breaks a Fast Followup

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering a round of questions drawn from the comment section of the “What Breaks a Fast” post. You folks had tons of follow-up questions about whether other types of foods or compounds break a fast. Does a teaspoon of honey? Does elevated insulin from BCAAs? Does coconut milk? Does pure prebiotic fiber? What about longer fasts—are they recommended? And how about unsweetened cocoa powder? What explains my ability to predict your questions? Do sausages break a fast? Does liquor? How should you exercise?

Let’s dig right in:

Hey, what about honey? 1 tsp in morning tea?

A teaspoon or less of honey is fine and won’t negate the benefits of fasting. I alternate between doing collagen coffee and coffee with cream and teaspoon of sugar (which was my typical morning coffee for over a decade). No reasonable person should fear a teaspoon of sugar or honey.

For what it’s worth, honey isn’t “just” sugar. It elicits a more beneficial (or less negative) metabolic response than other forms of sugar.

I’m shocked about the BCAA. I used to fast and take BCAA’s (yes, to continue dynamic exercise). I used to find it extremely difficult to fast compared to now when I fast without taking them. Does that mean that the insulin response made fastic more difficult?

It’s possible. Insulin impairs lipolysis—the release of stored body fat into circulation for energy usage—and the success of fasting depends on lipolysis. Without lipolysis, you can’t access all that stored energy.

Thank you very much for this info!! I am a butter-coffee-for-breakfast drinker, and I always worry about the ingredients breaking a fast. Could you please comment on coconut milk (in the can)? I love putting that in my coffee/breakfast.
Thanks.

Coconut milk is a less concentrated source of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs (as in MCT oil). MCTs convert directly to ketones, making MCT oil and to a lesser extent coconut oil or coconut milk a potential “boost” for fasting. Still, energy is energy, and any energy you take in is energy you won’t be pulling from your body.

I find MCTs and coconut to be more useful when someone is just getting the hang of fasting or ketosis—as a nice boost to get things moving in the right direction.

Keep your coconut milk under a tablespoon and you’ll be fine.

Does prebiotic (resistant starch) fiber break a fast? Acacia senegal or potato starch? Thanks!

No. If you’re worried, test your postprandial blood sugar after eating the fiber.

Great input Mark as someone 3days into a 7day water fast with electrolytes of course what’s your view on longer fasts.

Check out the post I wrote on long fasts. Potentially beneficial but the risks accumulate the longer you go. You just have to be even more careful and methodical.

How about unsweetened cocoa?

A tablespoon runs just over 12 calories (depending on the brand; some cocoa powders contain more fat and thus more calories), with around a gram of net carbs and a gram of fat. Also a nice source of potassium and magnesium, along with a ton of polyphenols which can have fasting-mimicking effects on their own.

Eating enough unsweetened cocoa powder to knock you out of your fast would be incredibly repulsive. Probably impossible.

Cocoa is definitely a nice addition.

Okay it’s almost creepy the way Sisson answers my questions before I even ask them! I was wondering about this yesterday and then this post popped up in my inbox.

How does he do that…? ?

Kraft-Heinz has a strong relationship with Google and Amazon, and the Kraft acquisition gave me access to Alexa/Google Home datasets and the ability to predict what my readers are wondering about.

Just kidding, though it’s scarily not out of the realm of possibility anymore.

What about a small snack of paleo sausages, smoked or dried? So meat and fat (beef, pork or lamb), and some spices. Maybe 100g worth.

Well, that’s a legit snack bordering on a small meal. That will break the fast, but it’s not all for naught. There is the whole “fasting-mimicking diet,” where you eating very few calories for several days out of the week and retain many if not most of the benefits of full-on fasting.

Let’s just say if you ate a small snack of paleo sausages on your “fasting” days, you’d still be way ahead of 99% of people.

But do try a full-on fast at least once. You might surprise yourself.

Great post! What about alcohol? Specifically, a shot or 2 of liquor. I would assume beer and wine would break a fast, but what about whiskey or tequila?

When alcohol enters the system, utilization of all other energy sources is suspended until the alcohol is burned. Back in 1999, researchers did a study where they gave fasting adult men the equivalent of a couple shots of liquor. They stopped releasing stored body fat, stopped burning body fat, and began burning way more acetate (a product of ethanol metabolism). They didn’t exactly “break” the fast, but all the metabolic trajectories we love about fasting took a big pause.

Good morning Mark,
How does one exercise in the morning while fasting? When to eat?

You can exercise any way you like, but I change how I train based on when I’m going to break the fast with food.

If I’m going to break the fast with a meal right after, I train any way I like. I’ll do sprints, HIIT, weights, anything.

If I’m going to keep fasting after the workout, I like to stick to strength training and low-intensity movement (walking, hiking, standup paddling). The strength training is essential during a fast because it’s an anabolic signal to your muscles—move it or lose it. Simply lifting heavy things during a fast can stave off muscle loss.

That’s it for today, folks. Stay tuned later this week for “What Breaks a Fast: Supplements Edition.”

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Dear Mark: Antibiotic Recovery, Sprinting on Keto, Preparing for Bad Sleep

For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions. First up, what can a person do to help their gut recover its barrier function after too many antibiotics? Are there any foods, supplements, or dietary strategies? Second, what can explain rapid fatigue during sprint sessions on a keto diet? Is this simply part of the deal, or are there modifications you can make? And finally, what do I do when I know I’m going to get a bad night’s sleep?

Let’s go:

Mark – any idea how to cure leaky gut caused by overuse of antibiotics. Tried raw dairy for a month to no avail.

First of all, check out my post on leaky gut. Read through it and follow my suggestions for preventing and treating intestinal permeability. It’s a great place to start.

Then, let’s look at some other interventions that have been shown to improve recovery from antibiotic therapy. While most of the studies referenced don’t explicitly describe antibiotic-induced leaky gut, anything that improves gut function and restores healthy gut bacteria will also normalize leaky gut—since it’s the eradication of native gut bacteria that causes antibiotic-induced leaky gut.

Fermented dairy. You tried raw dairy. What about fermented dairy? While raw dairy has its merits, it’s fermented dairy that just works for recovery from antibiotics. Yogurt is a good option to try, although the evidence is a bit inconsistent. Kefir is probably better; it’s been shown to improve patients’ tolerance to triple antibiotic therapy during treatment for H. pylori infection. This is even worth consuming during antibiotic therapy, as many of the probiotic bacteria found in fermented dairy show resistance to common antibiotics.

Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut are also must-eats. The fermented cabbage contains ample amounts of L. plantarum, a bacteria strain that’s been shown to prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea in piglets (another omnivorous mammal). Good options exist in stores (check the refrigerated section; shelf-stable pickles and kraut aren’t lactofermented), and even more are available in farmer’s markets, but the best way to get the most bacteria-rich vegetable ferments is to make your own.

Supplemental probiotics are fantastic here, too: large doses of the desired microorganisms delivered directly to your gut. Some of the strains used in Primal Probiotics, like B. clausii and S. boulardii, have been shown to be effective against antibiotic-related diarrhea, so that could be a good choice.

Don’t forget the food for your gut bugs: prebiotics. You need to eat fermentable fibers and other prebiotics like resistant starch to support the growth and maintenance of the helpful bacteria that improve gut barrier function. Consider eating cooked and cooled potatoes, unheated potato starch, leeks, garlic, onions, green bananas, apples, pears, berries, and pretty much any fruit or vegetable you can get your hands on. Plenty of them are low-carb enough to work on a keto diet, if that’s your desire. Oh, and dark chocolate is a great source of fiber and polyphenols, which have prebiotic effects in the gut.

Incorporate intermittent fasting. Going without food for a spell gives your gut a break and induces autophagy, which can help with tissue healing.

Get dirty, too, to introduce potentially helpful bacteria. Go out and garden. Go barefoot at the park (do your due/doo diligence, of course) and practice tumbling, or roughhouse with your kids (or friends). Don’t immediately rush to wash your hands all the time (unless you’ve been handling raw meat and/or dog poop).

Whatever you do, don’t stress too much about the antibiotics you had to take. Stress is awful for gut health and you’ve already taken the antibiotics—which were probably necessary—so that ship has sailed.

If probiotics with prebiotics aren’t helping (or making things worse), you might want to try going the opposite direction—removing all plant foods and doing a carnivore diet for a few weeks. While I have doubts about the long term viability and safety of eschewing all plant foods, enough people have written to me about their great experiences resolving gut issues with a bout of carnivory that it’s worth trying.

When on a strict keto plan, why do I become so quickly fatigued while attempting a HIT sprint workout?

The first five seconds of a sprint are primarily powered by phosphocreatine (or creatine phosphate), a “quick burst” energy source that burns hot but disappears quickly. This is the stuff used to perform max effort Olympic lifts, short sprints, and other rapid expressions of maximum power. It doesn’t last very long and takes a couple minutes to replenish itself. A keto diet doesn’t affect our creatine phosphate levels. If anything, it should improve them if we’re eating meat.

After five seconds, anaerobic metabolism of muscle glycogen provides the lion’s share of your energy needs. The longer your sprint, the more glycogen you’ll burn. The less glycogen you carry in your muscles, the shorter your sprint. Because once you run out of creatine phosphate and glycogen, you’re left with aerobic metabolism—great for longer distances, not so great for max effort sprints.

Keto dieters tend to walk around with less glycogen in their muscles. If that’s the case, longer sprints will be harder.

If you want to keep sprinting:

Do shorter sprints. Try a 10-second hill sprint rather than a 20-second one. Really go hard. Heck, you can even do 5-second sprints and derive major benefits; just do more of them and make sure to recover in between. There’s no rule saying you have to sprint for 20-30 seconds.

Take longer rest periods. Give your muscles a chance to replenish more creatine phosphate (and take creatine or eat red meat and fish, which are the best sources of dietary creatine).

Eat 20-30 grams of carbs 30 minutes before a sprint session. See if it helps. Alternatively, you can eat the 20-30 grams of carbs after the sprint session to replenish lost glycogen stores (without really impacting your ketone adaptation, by the way).

Most people figure out their sprinting sweet spot while doing keto. They may have to play around with the dosages, durations, and rest periods, but you can usually make it work. Be open to trying new permutations.

If you knew you were going to have a poor nights sleep, what measures would you take to reduce some of the damage?

I would exercise hard that night. Normally, a bad night’s sleep tanks your insulin sensitivity the next day, giving you the insulin resistance and glucose tolerance of a diabetic. A good hard interval session the night before a bad night’s sleep, however, counters the next-day insulin resistance.

I would make the most of it. Don’t dawdle. Don’t beat yourself up because of the impending sleep deprivation. It’s going to happen. You have to accept it, not let it destroy you.

Enjoy it. A little-known acute treatment for depression is sleep deprivation. That’s right: a single night of sleep deprivation has been shown to ameliorate depression in patients with clinical depression. Sometimes the effect lasts up to several weeks. It’s not a long term or sustainable fix for clinical depression, obviously, and you can’t do it every single night—chronic sleep deprivation is a major risk factor for developing depression—but it can improve your mood if you give in to it.

I would set out a jar of cassia cinnamon. I always add cassia cinnamon to my coffee in the morning after bad sleep; cassia cinnamon the day after a bad night’s sleep attenuates the loss of insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for writing in and reading! If you have any input on today’s round of questions, let me know down below.

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References:

De vrese M, Kristen H, Rautenberg P, Laue C, Schrezenmeir J. Probiotic lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in a fermented milk product with added fruit preparation reduce antibiotic associated diarrhea and Helicobacter pylori activity. J Dairy Res. 2011;78(4):396-403.

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