Do you really have control over your own genetic expression?
On this show with my good buddy Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter, you’re about to learn how to upgrade your mental performance and get rock-solid sleep.
Shawn is the irresistible crooner behind the mic on his podcast, The Model Health Show. I’m just going to say, too, that Shawn is smiling every single time I see him. A terrific guy who truly walks the walk, he’s got an incredible backstory about getting started in epigenetics, health, and sleep.
On today’s show with Shawn, you’ll learn:
- How sleep can make you muscular, skinny, fat, or anything in between
- How sleep affects your gene expression
- The link between sleep and aging
- How sleep impacts athletic performance
- Why you get great sleep at the beach and so much more!
Abel: A graduate of The University of Missouri St. Louis with a background in biology and kinesiology, Shawn founded Advanced Integrative Health Alliance, a successful company that provides Wellness Services for both individuals and organizations worldwide. Shawn is also a dynamic keynote speaker who has spoken for TEDx, universities, and numerous organizations.
We were just geeking out about this before the interview… Can we start by discussing the genetic relationship between your quality of sleep and its effect on epigenetics?
There’s this booming field of science called epigenetics. For many years, we thought we were under genetic control, that our genes were determining if we are fat or skinny, if we have heart disease or diabetes, and even our attitudes.
You’d say, “I’m angry all the time because it’s in my genes.” We bought into that, which lead to the opportunity to buy drugs to modulate what’s going on and support those particular genes.
It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just the reality of how the system works. We’re looking for ways to help people through treating symptoms rather than an underlying cause.
The science of epigenetics looks at what’s above genetic control. Epi meaning above. Dr. Bruce Lipton is a forefather of this understanding, looking at the things that influence what your genes are doing.
We only share about 20,000 different genes. Fruit flies have more genetic variation than we do.
We are all closely related, so how do we all look so different and have so many expressions? It’s because of these epigenetic influences: external and internal environment.
The internal environment is what you have most control over, and that’s going to lead to certain things getting expressed and others going dormant.
When I was 20 I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. The the discs were deteriorating between vertebrae in my spine. When I was 15, my hip broke just from running. That’s one of my genetic predispositions and that gene was activated to have that expressed.
Long story short, I was able to turn that around. I got a scan done nine months later, after turning my health around and focusing on the right stuff. I was regenerating my tissue. I grew a half inch in height that I had lost. Doctors said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
That lead me on a journey to meeting many incredible doctors and health practitioners over the years who taught me that you have the utmost control over what your genes are doing.
Sleep plays a huge role on your expression of DNA and RNA.
Your DNA determines what printouts of you are coming out. Whatever you see in the mirror… that’s a certain version of yourself. You can start to print out better copies of yourself, or crappy copies.
What you’re doing with your circadian clock is determining what your genes are doing. Are you getting that healthy, vital version of yourself or the broken down, soggy, Scooby Doo mystery version of yourself?
Abel: It’s a prime example of a reason we should all prioritize sleep. I’ve mentioned it so many times on the show: Eat right, move… sure – but the secret weapon is sleep. What happens when you’re sleep deprived? In the book you mention that the prefrontal cortex of your brain loses 12 – 14% of its glucose when you’re not sleeping properly.
You talk about this stuff and a lot of great health experts in the field do, too, but sleep isn’t a sexy topic. Not as sexy as the next new diet or exercise program, which is insane x 50,000.
You can actually get more results by doing nothing.
When you’re sleeping, your body is actually changing from that great workout, and it’s assimilating that great food you ate. It’s turning those inputs into you, and getting rid of the stuff that’s not you. Most of that process is happening while you’re asleep.
If you go in the gym or for a run out in the forest, you’re in better shape before you go than after the workout. After, your inflammatory biomarkers are going to be elevated, your hormones wonky, cortisol up, and you’re going to have weirdness in your blood sugar.
You just did a great workout, which is known as a hormetic stressor—A positive stressor as long as you’re getting good sleep. Anabolic deep sleep.
When you’re sleep deprived, you’re losing about 6% of the glucose in your brain—12% of that in the frontal cortex. This is the center for control, willpower, and decision-making. You essentially get a little dumber.
You become like a Planet of the Apes version of yourself. You’re changing yourself at a fundamental level. If you told yourself, I’m going to do The Wild Diet, eat great, do what Abel and Shawn recommend for exercise, but you find yourself up at 2am doing the laptop lapdance watching Netflix… then the hunger comes on.
Never in the history of the world have I heard someone say at 2 am, “I want some broccoli right now.” No, you’re going to want the chips, ice cream, and cookies.
This is due to evolutionary biology. You’re hard-wired to seek that quick energy to get glucose to the brain.
You’re going to be dictating what you eat by your quality of sleep.
Abel: How do you balance getting up early (productivity) with getting enough sleep?
This is getting to the Winnie the Pooh adage. I have a four year old, so we’re reading the American masterpiece, Winnie the Pooh. “Early to bed early to rise, makes a bear healthy, wealthy and wise.”
We know the early bird gets the worm and that kind of thing. I’m actually demonstrating research that people who are morning people tend to be more successful in business overall.
Of course there are people who are night owls, crushing it in life and feeling like their creativity is sparked at night. But as a general population, we have to understand we’ve really kind of tried to press on evolution to become night owls.
First of all, you’re not an owl. Only recently in civilization have we been able to manufacture a second daytime.
We are out of sync with nature. When the lights go out on the planet, that’s our cue to seek shelter. Even with the advent of lamps and fire, we can’t ignore what nature is saying to us. We’re getting deep biofeedback, and we know that something is wrong. For some people it might be chronic migraines, or an inability to lose weight, or even depression.
You’re going to have symptoms when you’re out of sync with life.
There’s a physician study where the researchers had physicians complete a task, then they deprived them of sleep for 24 hours. When they came back and did same task, they made 20% more mistakes and it took them 14% longer to do the same exact thing.
When you stay up late to get something done, you’re sacrificing the quality of your work and your effectiveness.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to go to bed at 10:00pm. You might go to bed at midnight and get up at 8:00am. I’m not a stickler for those details.
INCREASE SLEEP QUALITY WITH THESE HACKS
Abel: It’s strange… When it comes to sleep deprivation there’s a second wind phenomenon. Like when you’re in college you stay up later and power through it. You’re up til midnight or 2am, but it’s kind of this half-sleep state. You’ve realized you’re not really doing anything but you’re (kind of) awake. Avoiding that state allows me to stay on schedule. As soon as you push it, it doesn’t just mess you up that night, it spills over into the days and the nights ahead. How do you nip that in the bud?
It’s called accumulating sleep debt. I promise this is not like a debt to a buddy. It’s more like a debt to Vinnie, the strongarm who will have you swimming with the fishes. Sleep debt is difficult to pay back if it’s chronic.
If you lose sleep for a day or two, your body is equipped to clean that up. But more than that, it’s really tough.
10:00pm – 2:00 am is the biggest anabolic window. It’s not carved out in stone. It depends on time of year, time zone, distance from equator… but it’s important to understand that you have this time, period. This anabolic window is when you’re producing the greatest amount of anabolic hormones and reparative enzymes… if you’re asleep during this time.
Around 9pm, when it gets dark outside or maybe an hour or two within that time, melatonin is naturally going to rise and you’ll have an increase in the enzymatic reparative processes for the sole purpose of repairing tissues, the body, and the brain. But if you stay up past that window, that process will be used to keep you awake.
We’ve all had that time where we’re driving home and we’re tired and we think we have to get to sleep early… then we’re up at 1am watching TV.
We don’t get ready for sleep anymore. We get ready for a date, to go out to eat, dinner, or ready for our day. We don’t get ready for bed, we stumble into our bed. We kiss our phone good night and drop.
I’ve been talking about this stuff for half a decade now… Dave Asprey has been on top of this game, as well. Our electronics. It’s what I’ve pushed to the forefront in Sleep Smarter… Give yourself a screen curfew.
Get off your electronics an hour before bed and you’ll get better sleep.
Two hours of iPad use before bed is enough to suppress melatonin. Melatonin and cortisol have an inverse relationship, so cortisol is up. Melatonin is the “get good sleep” hormone.
It can be difficult to quite screens before bed cold turkey. This is because of dopamine. It’s not that the electronic device is causing dopamine production. Dopamine is about seeking. It’s a type of exciting feeling it creates in the body.
What’s so great about the internet is there’s an infinite amount of information to seek. Maybe you’re googling The Wild Diet and two hours later you’re watching hunting videos. It takes you down the internet black hole.
It’s the seeking brain, but you also get this instant gratification. Dopamine is secreted every time you find more posts on Pinterest. You get a little opioid hit each time.
For my Mac, we use f.lux, which essentially dims down your screen. Being able to turn the lights down will help your body produce melatonin.
The best thing is to give that screen a curfew. This is tough. You have to replace that time with something equally or more fulfilling.
Talk to someone you love. Have sex. Have a great meal. Have great conversation. Read a book you’ve been wanting to read. Find something to put in that place that fulfills you. Put that fire out so you can get better sleep.
Abel: You talk about the importance of wearing pajamas. When I put my work pants on, I feel like I want to work. Same things happens at night if you put on your pajamas. Your brain says: “Now it’s time to go to sleep.”
Even the word “pajamas” is comforting. This happens with so many things, but when we put on pajamas it triggers something and it helps facilitating getting ready for bed. A classic thing is taking a bath. It’s sleep medicine for kids. Get a nice bath and read a book, it’s part of that ritual.
I like to use magnesium. I pour it into the bath water and take a hot bath, but if your core body temp is too high before you go to bed, that can cause problems. So follow it up with a cold shower or give yourself enough time, maybe 2 – 3 hours before you go to bed.
Dr. Kelly Starrett read my book and said if there’s one thing he could add, it’s the power of bodywork to activate the vagus nerve using gut smashing. It’s essentially attaching the gut to the brain. That means getting in and doing some work on a princess ball or gut smashing.
Abel: Even if you massage that gut area yourself, it’s amazing how much tension is stored there. You can tell it’s activating the nervous system and shifting the way your brain is working.
That might sound metaphysical, but I’ve heard that and experienced it. Our bodies hold up tension and stuck memories and stuck energy, so moving that around is helpful. Just self-massage. I talk about it in the book. There’s a specific acupressure point that has shown to increase production of melatonin.
Ancient wisdom has been teaching this stuff for so long, and now modern science is proving it.
Abel: Can you talk about grounding and EMF pollution?
This goes back to the beginning—we are part of nature and getting disconnected from that can be damaging to your health in many different ways. The surface of the earth is brimming with free electrons. Inflammatory response is basically this unmatched proton, so bringing in an electron to neutralize that event basically neutralizes inflammation.
Your tissues are extremely conductive. You’ve all shocked somebody just from touching them. We know from seeing scary movies that if you’re taking a bath and Mike Myers or Freddie Kruger comes in and throws a toaster into the water, you’re going to die. It’s just understanding that your body and tissues are very conductive.
We think we’re a solid, distinct entity, but we’re truly connected. That energy is right there emanating from the surface. By getting into direct contact with the earth, you’re going to absorb electrons and this has been clinically proven to reduce inflammation.
Grounding will help decrease your nighttime cortisol, which has an inverse relationship with melatonin. And it’s also been found to keep cortisol normalized during the day. We tend to have higher levels of cortisol because we’re disconnected with the earth. Even the food you eat can help you connect.
Grass is conductive. Dirt, soil, concrete slightly, asphalt is not. Large bodies of water are conductive and so is sand. We know this when you go to the beach and lay in the sand, you’re knocked out. Your body is syncing up with life itself. It’s such a rejuvenative sleep.
BEST SLEEP POSITION FOR APNEA, SNORING, AND GETTING MORE ZZZ’S
Abel: What about sleep position? I know it can be challenging to change habits.
When we’re talking about things like acid reflux, changing your sleep position can eliminate that. Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing for a few minutes. You’re going to get a surge of cortisol because it’s kind of like a really weak person trying to choke you out.
Their sleep cycles are getting interrupted, which is not just about the anabolic sleep. There are other parts to the sleep cycle.
Non-REM sleep is where memory processing is happening. It’s when you convert what you’ve learned today on the Fat-Burning Man show into a long-term memory.
What we want to do is stack conditions by addressing things like sleep apnea and getting in the right position. You’re more likely to have apnea if you’re laying on your back. For a lot of people, nine times of ten it’s because they have a lot of weight on their frame. The CPAP machine can give you a start, but it’s not addressing the cause.
Snoring could be pretty tough on partners. It happens more often for people with a smaller breathing pathway, a large neck, or for those who are carrying more weight. But smoking, drinking alcohol, not staying hydrated, and eating before bed all contribute to snoring problems because they create inflammation in the body. They are hormetic stressors.
Changing sleep position is critical here. You’re more likely to snore if you’re laying on your back—corpse position or soldier position. The best position is on the side. Remember when you were in the womb? Fetal position.
Laying on your belly is another option. I talk about some of the research, even about putting babies there. There are acupressure points getting activated when you’re on your belly. You may have incidence of early wrinkling, skin problems, and back problems, so I talk about a way to do that in my book.
No sleeping position is wrong, there’s a way to do it and a way to avoid issues.
Abel: You also talk about pillows. Some people have huge pillows. I notice when I’m at a hotel, I get up and my neck hurts. I’ll wake up on my stomach with my head turned all the way around like in a horror movie.
You’re kind of at the mercy of your pillow. There’s a great aunt of mine who would always bring her pillow over—now that makes sense.
One trick is to tuck the pillow under my neck to create some pushback. I’ll end up with my arm as my impromptu pillow. Intellipillow does this by design.
Abel: I was reading a recent article about a hoodie with a built-in pillow. So many of us are so sleep deprived. People are really struggling to get it in there. What are some tips?
It boils down to stacking conditions in your favor. In Sleep Smarter there are 21 different strategies.
Exercise is one of the lowest-hanging fruits. Exercise is clinically proven to help you sleep better… if you do it at the right time. A study done at Appalachian State University had a group of people a exercise at various times. Group A worked out at 7am, B at 1pm, and C at 7pm. Group A spent up to 75% more time in the deepest most metabolic stages of sleep.
You’re going to start the template for great sleep. Why? You’re helping to set your circadian timing. Cortisol should be elevated when you wake up and then it gradually goes down and your melatonin kicks in.
You’re going to get your body into a new rhythm with cortisol peaking in the morning.
Abel: I’ll take a high intensity workout in the morning over a shot of espresso. Your body really digs a good sweat.
Another thing is to get some sun. Allow that light to get into your eyes and land on your skin. It can help you later on in the day. Science is showing there’s a huge effect from these tiny little things like grounding, moving, and getting sunlight.
People tend to think about things the wrong way. I’m going to start by getting up earlier and then be sleepier at night. That’s backward. You should go to bed earlier so you wake up earlier.
Your skin has photoreceptors as well. That’s why we can tan or burn. The sun is what allows us to have life on this planet and we’ve been taught to be afraid of it. There’s a healthy way to go about it, and it’s important for resetting your circadian timing.
A lot of people are radically deficient because we’re desk jockeys away from windows. Just getting sunlight directly on your skin through a window might not seem advantageous, but getting it in through your optical perceptors is still important.
I did an experiment where I achieved impressive strength gains by working out in the afternoon. But I was still doing 5 – 10 minutes of something in the morning—Quick power walk, power yoga… Working out in the evening has to be about 4 hours before bed to level your cortisol out and get your body cooled off.
These 24 hours gyms are ridiculous. They’re marketing to people who are unaware of how much they’re damaging their entire hormone cycle.
Getting up at 3 am to run on a treadmill is not advantageous to your sleep cycle.
Why does sleep even matter? Everybody knows sleep is important, but you have to actually know what’s going on in your body. The University of California showed that sleep deprivation is the single biggest trigger for accelerated loss of your telomere length.
In college, for example, we’ll bypass the whole system. You can get away with it then. Whereas today you’ll be in a coma for a month. You’re shortening your telomere length and accelerating the time you won’t be able to do stuff. It just hits you out of nowhere. I’m talking about people in their early to mid 20s and 30’s. You hit a huge wall, and it doesn’t have to be like that if you honor your sleep.
Sleep isn’t necessarily a sexy topic, unless you make it sexy… and try to do that.
SLEEPING ON THE NIGHT SHIFT
Abel: There are a lot of listeners who work the night shift. What if someone has to work through the night?
Get a new job if you can. I have to keep it real. I do honor you and appreciate that you do the work to support your family and your community.
I understand and appreciate you. I work with nurses and I just had a guy who started residency, but when he started off he wasn’t doing well. He transformed his health and got his sleep dialed in, and it changed the game for him.
Here’s the big thing: The World Health Organisation has actually classified shift work as a carcinogen—a cancer causing agent. This is well known. Melatonin is likely our most powerful anticancer hormone. If you’re suppressing it by not honoring your body’s clock, you can really screw up the system. You’ll see incidence of cancer, and in the nurse study, breast cancer was 50% higher in nurses who worked overnight.
I promise you it’s not the only job you can do. If you’re telling yourself you “have to do this” and it’s not a passion, seek out another form of employment. For those who are serving—firefighters, police officers, health professionals—you are doing an incredible service for our society and we need you. It’s up to us as a society to push this stuff to the public at large so people who make these decisions can do it a little differently.
I make a recommendation on a strategy of doing this in cycles. Your body can clean this mess up pretty well if given the proper amount of time.
Maybe instead of making less senior people work the overnight shift for five years, do two months on and ten months off so your body has time to be normal. There’s a lot of damage when you’re not sleeping overnight.
Abel: “Blue Death” is a phenomenon you see in police officers and firefighters who are sleep deprived for years on end. When they retire and finally slow down, death rates skyrocket because all of that borrowed time comes back to haunt them.
It’s the decision-making factor. There’s radical increase in poor food choices, higher cholesterol (the bad kind), high rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are seen in police officers who work overnight.
There are also higher rates in accidental death, which is well known if you look at the research. It’s important to understand there is another way to honor our sleep cycles in these places that need people to work overnight.
If it’s your job and you’re here to serve, there’s a better way to do it. Stack every other condition in your favor. Get your room like the batcave—super dark, electronic free, quiet.
People with a TV in their room have 50% less sex. There are exceptions, but overall it’s a distraction. Your sleep is going to be screwed up if you’re watching television before bed.
Women who are having trouble sleeping are 14% less likely to want sex the next day.
The chapter on nutrition was the most important and fun chapter to write. I love talking about sleep and gut health. Sleep and food. There are compounds in food that help you sleep better.
Nutrigenomics is a science that talks about how food changes your gene expression.
WHERE TO FIND SHAWN STEVENSON
PLUS, his book Sleep Smarter just launched and you can grab your copy anywhere books are sold!
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BEFORE YOU GO…
I just want to share a comment from Andrew about last week’s episode of Fat-Burning Man with Jay Cardiello:
“The TV show made all of the trainers look INSANE. You do such a good job with these interviews of humanizing everyone and letting them present their positions in an authentic way. So much more interesting than seeing their caricatures on television.”
Thanks Andrew. This is exactly why I host my own show – so we can make sure people like Jay can spread knowledge about health outside the confines of the traditional media machine. I love my job. 🙂
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Now, here are a few of my own sleep hacks to help you catch more fat-burning, muscle-building, appetite-controlling Zzz’s:
- Get some sunshine when you wake up in the morning. This will help normalize your circadian rhythm, your body’s hormone-production clock. I walk the dog or do a quick workout outside in the sun most days.
- Have a caffeine curfew: Avoid caffeine after noon. If I’m being naughty, I might cut it off by 2 or even 3pm, but being strict with your caffeine curfew works wonders.
- Try calming herbs like chamomile and lavender. Smelling these always reminds me of being tucked into bed by my mom as a kid. Have a warm mug of chamomile tea, or try diffusing lavender essential oil in your bedroom. Kava tea is one of my other go-to nightcaps that we picked up in Fiji. I’m going to be honest – it tastes like dirt, but gives a relaxing vibe that can snap you out of crazybrain before you hit the sack.
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How do you get a good night’s sleep? Share what works best for you in the comments below.