The Brain and the Body

The Pass It On series is an interview segment where BioMark sits down with trail blazers who have strived to make health and wellness work for lives on their own terms. We hope this inspires you to find the best fit for yourself, too.


BioMark: Hey Swee Lin, welcome back! The last time, you shared really insightful advice on eating habits and moderation. You even brought the whole conversation of nutrition to the realm of the brain, which is interesting because it seems that the brain is central in health and wellness. In fact, recently the Nobel Peace Prize of Medicine went to a trio of sleep scientists. With this growing development in mind, let’s kick off this discussion with how we can take care of our brains and optimise our sleep.

Swee Lin (SL): Sure! So, we should all work with our natural circadian rhythm. While I believe that we are generally really different and respect bio-individuality, the majority of people are still designed by nature to sleep when the sun sets and to wake up at the early dawn. The thing with our current society and economy is that we lose track of the importance of sleep.


When we consider our circadian rhythm, two hours after the sun sets, our bodies start to produce melatonin. Melatonin is the sleep hormone that has a production cycle that mirrors a typical bell curve. It starts at 9PM, peaks around 12AM, and starts to taper off around 3AM. So, try to get to bed by 10-11PM! You can shift the majority of what we do late at night to the morning instead.


If you’re an email checker, wake up early at 5AM and check your email. If you want to watch Netflix and you tend to binge on it, there is a way to resolve that. Go to sleep at 10PM and wake up at 5AM so that you get that recommended 7 hours of sleep. When you get up, you can watch an hour of Netflix before you have to leave for work. So we’re not taking away your joys or entertainment, we’re just shifting how you plan your day. It’s basically a different approach to time management.


BioMark: That’s interesting, so what happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

SL: When we don’t get enough sleep or if we get poor quality sleep, there is a whole cascade of negative effects within our body.  If we don’t sleep well enough, our body tends to produce more cortisol in the brain. Cortisol is the stress hormone and when it starts to go off, other hormones start to cascade with it. For example, ghrelin, the human hunger hormone, goes up when you are sleep-deprived. So your body is primed to eat more and whatever that you’re eating, you’re going to store faster as fat because it is under pressure to keep you alive. And when we are blessed with access to too many calories, this overconsumption isn’t very helpful.


On a very practical level, there are studies out there that show that cognitive function suffers. Your ability to solve problems creatively, your decision making, and memory are get compromised. Researchers have shown that, as a result of mild sleep deprivation, the dendrites in the hippocampus of mice shrank and became thinner. This messes up memory and ability to function.


Additionally, it is really important to be asleep between 10M-3AM because melatonin production is highly related to human growth hormone (HGH) production. As we get older our HGH levels start to slow down. And when you don’t repair or replace cells as easily, you start to age. So if you’re trying to prevent that, why wouldn’t you go to sleep to maximise the healing, restorative benefits of human growth hormone while you’re asleep? It’s not about giving up things you like, but it’s about working with your circadian rhythm.


BioMark: While we may understand the cons of the lack of sleep, the toughest thing is taking that first step. How did you go about making changes and ones that last?

SL: There are some basic habits that you can adopt for yourselves. For example, I try to make sure that, for a couple of nights a week, I actively take the phone charger out of the room, put the phone out, and give my device a break. I bought a very cheap old-fashioned plastic alarm clock that I have to set manually to wake me up. You don’t have to do this every night. But if you stick with this for a few nights a week, it really makes a huge difference.


The other thing is to recognise that while doing something by yourself is tough, it’s easier when you have a community. So if I can get whole departments, or whole floors of colleagues, behaving one way, and they all understand the reason for the change, then the behavior becomes more supported. The ideal is to get people to be aware of that, to adapt it, and change it.


BioMark: Considering that a lot of people are busy with long work hours, what advice do you have on structuring exercise into their daily regimes?

SL: Sure, let me start by sharing about the Blue Zone Communities. What is found in these communities is that in nearly all of them, they do not physically exercise in the way we would describe it. They won’t go for yoga classes or run on treadmills. Rather, they are physically active as part of their everyday lives – they walk more and use their bodies intuitively with the work they have to get done. Unfortunately, working in a knowledge economy, a lot of us are very sedentary. Some tips I share with busy executives include types of physical health hacks to do even in corporate attire. These are 5-10 minutes long and include a right balance of some strength, cardiovascular, and stretching exercises that can be done, potentially even in heels as I have tried.


BioMark: Would you be able to tell us more?

SL: Sure, you can start to do that every 2 or 3 hours. It gets your circulation going. I have a fitbit on me and I have it buzz hourly to remind me to get 250 steps. I remember even in my early days when I was working in consulting and I would sometimes get into the office early, or if I was working late at night, I would deliberately brisk walk 2-3 laps around the office to get that circulation going.


Tune in next time for the final installation of our 3-part series with Swee Lin.

For more information, check out Swee Lin’s page here.

Like what you are reading? Check out Part 1 and Part 3 of our series with Swee Lin.

Alternatively, reach out to us with suggestions on who would love to hear from next.


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