Category Archives: Metabolic Syndrome

Disease Begins in the Mucus

Hippocrates famously said, “All disease begins in the gut.” I think we can narrow it down further: much modern disease begins in the mucus.

In a recent post, I put up this picture:

Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs), including defensins and cathelicidins, constitute an arsenal of innate regulators of paramount importance in the gut.

A depleted mucosal layer leads to inflammation and gut permeability.

It’s from a paper on the role of antimicrobial peptides in maintaining gut health. [1] The point of the left panel is that a healthy gut is characterized by a thick mucosal layer that shields our intestinal and immune cells from direct contact with bacteria. The inner mucus layer is infused with antimicrobial peptides to minimize its bacterial content. The outer mucus layer contains a population of friendly mucin-degrading bacteria – symbionts like Akkermansia who evolved to feed on our mucus. These friendly bacteria provide another layer of defense against infectious pathogens; bacteria tend to be quite good at keeping out competitors. Akkermansia has been found to prevent obesity.

In an unhealthy gut, on the other hand, the mucosal layer often gets stripped away. The image (right panel) attributes this to infection, which is one possibility, but nutritional factors also matter. For example:

  • Deficiencies of vitamins A or D will reduce production of antimicrobial peptides, making it easier for pathogens to reach our gut cells;
  • On very low-carb diets, production of mucin-2, the primary constituent of gut mucus, may be limited in order to preserve glucose for the brain (see “Dangers of Zero-Carb Diets, II: Mucus Deficiency and Gastrointestinal Cancers,” Nov 15, 2010);
  • Deficiencies of dietary fiber, vinegar, choline, and other nutrients may impair gut motility, leading to concentrations of partially digested food and bacteria at specific points in the intestine.

Regardless of why it happens, once bacteria come into direct contact with our gut and immune cells, they trigger inflammation and tend to loosen the gut barrier. This allows live bacteria and cell wall components from dead bacteria to enter the body from the gut.

Endotoxins – toxic compounds released when bacteria die, such as lipopolysaccharides from the cell walls of gram-negative bacteria – are immunogenic and inflammatory. A large influx of endotoxins into the body is “endotoxemia” – poisoning by endotoxins. As little as 2 nanograms LPS per kilogram body weight will induce fever, and 1 microgram LPS per kilogram of body weight will induce shock. [2]

Diseases caused by endotoxemia include:

  • Hepatitis [3]
  • Diabetes [4]
  • Heart disease [5]
  • Obesity [6]
  • Pulmonary hypertension [7]
  • Dyslipidemia [8]
  • Chronic kidney disease [9]

Many of today’s most prevalent diseases are caused by chronic endotoxemia.

So it behooves us to avoid it. If endotoxemia is fundamentally caused by the loss of a protective mucosal layer in the gut, how do we assure healthy production of mucus?

A recent paper sheds valuable light on that question.

Natural Whole Foods, High-Fat Diets, and Gut Health

It’s well known that in mice, “high-fat diets” induce endotoxemia. But these diets aren’t necessarily high in fat – any pelleted rodent food in which fat provides more than 20% of calories may be called “high-fat.” The critical difference of “high-fat diets” from chow is that they are composed of purified nutrients – starch, sugar, oil, vitamins, and minerals – whereas chow is composed of natural whole foods such as wheat, corn, and seeds.

A recent study tried to distinguish whether the cause of endotoxemia is the fat, or the purified starch, sugar, and oil. It made up three diets of varying fat content (8%, 48%, and 74% of energy respectively), but composed of natural whole foods. [10]

The result was remarkable:

[U]sing complex [i.e. natural whole foods] HFD, no associations were observed between dietary lipid amounts and the magnitude of endotoxemia, inflammation, and physiological alterations developed.

It turns out the endotoxemia that typically develops on high-fat diets is due to getting the calories from purified sources – starch, sugar, oil – rather than from whole foods. On a whole foods diet, the amount of endotoxin entering the body is more or less independent of the amount of fat consumed.

This is surprising in one respect. Lipopolysaccharide is fat-loving and enters the body along with dietary fat. So it stands to reason that a higher-fat diet would carry more endotoxin into the body.

But it turns out the body has mechanisms to regulate how much endotoxin enters the body. It wants a small amount so that the immune system can sample the gut microbiome, but not so much as to cause inflammation.

The primary mechanism for controlling endotoxin influx? Mucus production. The study noted that the mice eating higher-fat “had an increased number of goblet cells … [and] an increased MUC2 production.” MUC2 is mucin-2, the primary component of mucus in the gut.

Here is a picture with mucin-2 in the mucin-producing goblet cells stained red:

disease begins in mucus 02

It’s obvious that mucin production goes up dramatically as the fat content of the diet increases.

The study concludes,

“We show that, in complex HFDs based on chow ingredients and milk fat, there was no association between dietary lipid amounts and the magnitude of metabolic endotoxemia or low-grade inflammation.”

If high-fat diets are healthy, we can thank our mucin-producing goblet cells.

One last note: the fact that mice can produce healthy amounts of mucus on a 74% fat diet does not necessarily mean that humans can do the same. Humans have much larger brains than mice, and as a result our carbohydrate needs are larger. It’s possible that mice can maintain mucus production on a low-carb diet better than humans can.


[1] Muniz LR, Knosp C, Yeretssian G. Intestinal antimicrobial peptides during homeostasis, infection, and disease. Front Immunol. 2012 Oct 9;3:310.

[2] Warren HS et al. Resilience to bacterial infection: difference between species could be due to proteins in serum. J Infect Dis. 2010 Jan 15;201(2):223-32.

[3] Parlesak A, Schäfer C, Schütz T, Bode JC, Bode C. Increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules and endotoxemia in patients with chronic alcohol abuse in different stages of alcohol-induced liver disease. J Hepatol. 2000 May;32(5):742-7.

[4] Moreno-Navarrete JM et al. Circulating lipopolysaccharide-binding protein (LBP) as a marker of obesity-related insulin resistance. Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Nov;36(11):1442-9.

[5] Lepper PM et al. Association of lipopolysaccharide-binding protein and coronary artery disease in men. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007 Jul 3;50(1):25-31.

[6] Cani PD et al. Metabolic endotoxemia initiates obesity and insulin resistance. Diabetes. 2007 Jul;56(7):1761-72.

[7] Dschietzig T, Alexiou K, Richter C, Bobzin M, Baumann G, Stangl K, Brunner F. Endotoxin causes pulmonary hypertension by upregulating smooth muscle endothelin type-B receptors: role of aldose reductase. Shock. 2008 Aug;30(2):189-96.

[8] Lassenius MI et al. Bacterial endotoxin activity in human serum is associated with dyslipidemia, insulin resistance, obesity, and chronic inflammation. Diabetes Care. 2011 Aug;34(8):1809-15.

[9] McIntyre CW et al. Circulating endotoxemia: a novel factor in systemic inflammation and cardiovascular disease in chronic kidney disease. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2011 Jan;6(1):133-41.

[10] Benoit B et al. Increasing fat content from 20 to 45 wt% in a complex diet induces lower endotoxemia in parallel with an increased number of intestinal goblet cells in mice. Nutr Res. 2015 Apr;35(4):346-56.


Red Meat and White Rice, Oh My!

This started as a note for an Around the Web, but has grown … so it will stand on its own.

The Red Meat Study

The Paleosphere has been abuzz about the red meat study from the Harvard School of Public Health. I don’t have much to say about it because the claimed effect is small and, at first glance, not enough data was presented to critique their analysis. There are plenty of confounding issues: (1) We know pork has problems that beef and lamb do not (see The Trouble With Pork, Part 3: Pathogens and earlier posts in that series), but all three meats were lumped together in a “red meat” category. (2) As Chris Masterjohn has pointed out, the data consisted of food frequency questionnaires given to health professionals, and most respondents understated their red meat consumption. Those who reported high meat consumption were “rebels” who smoked, drank, and did not exercise. (3) The analysis included multivariate adjustment for many factors, which can have large effects on assessed risk. Study authors can easily bias the results substantially in whatever direction they prefer. I’ve discussed that problem in The Case of the Killer Vitamins.

So it’s hard to judge the merits of the red meat study. However, another study from HSPH researchers came out at the same time that was outright misleading.

The White Rice and Diabetes Study

This study re-analyzed four studies from four countries – China, Japan, Australia, and the United States – to see how the incidence of diabetes diagnosis related to white rice consumption within each country.

Here was the main data:

The key thing to notice is that the y-axis of this plot is NOT incidence of type 2 diabetes. It is relative risk within each country for type 2 diabetes.

I looked up diabetes incidence and rice consumption in these four countries. Here is the scatter plot:

Here is the complete FAO database of 86 countries, with a linear fit to the data:

UPDATE: O Primitivo has data for 162 countries and a better chart. Here it is – click to enlarge:

If anything, diabetes incidence goes down as rice consumption increases. Countries with the highest white rice consumption, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, have very low rates of diabetes. The outlier with 20% diabetes prevalence is the United Arab Emirates.

A plausible story is this:

  1. Something entirely unrelated to white rice causes metabolic syndrome. Possibly, the something which causes metabolic syndrome is dietary and is displaced from the diet by rice consumption, thus countries with higher rice consumption have lower incidence of metabolic syndrome.
  2. Diabetes is diagnosed as a fasting glucose that exceeds a fixed threshold of 126 mg/dl. In those with impaired glucose regulation from metabolic syndrome, higher carb intakes will tend to lead to higher levels of fasting blood glucose. (Note: this is true for carb intakes above about 40% of energy. On low-carb diets, higher carb intakes tend to lead to lower fasting blood glucose due to increased insulin sensitivity. However, nearly everyone in these countries eats more than 40% carb.) Thus, of two people with identical health, the one eating more carbs will show higher average blood glucose levels.
  3. Therefore, the fraction of those diagnosed as diabetic (as opposed to pre-diabetic) will increase as their carb consumption increases.
  4. In China and Japan, but not in the US and Australia, white rice consumption is a marker of carb consumption. So the fraction of those with metabolic syndrome diagnosed as diabetic will increase with white rice consumption in China and Japan, but will be uncorrelated with white rice consumption in the US and Australia.

Thus, diabetes incidence may be lower in China and Japan (due to lower incidence of metabolic syndrome on Asian diets), but higher among Chinese and Japanese eating the most rice (due to higher rates of diagnosis on the blood sugar criterion). This explains all of the data and is biologically sound.

What did the HSPH researchers conclude?

Higher consumption of white rice is associated with a significantly increased risk of type 2 diabetes, especially in Asian (Chinese and Japanese) populations.

No: Internationally, higher consumption of white rice is associated with a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and the Chinese and Japanese experience is consistent with that. Carb consumption is associated with a higher rate of diabetes diagnosis within populations at otherwise similar risk for diabetes. White rice consumption is correlated to carb consumption especially strongly in Asian (Chinese and Japanese) populations.

Food Reward and “Eat Less, Move More” in Diabetes

Of course, the study authors knew that diabetes incidence is lower in countries that eat more white rice. How do they reconcile this with their claim that white rice increases diabetes risk?

The recent transition in nutrition characterised by dramatically decreased physical activity levels and much improved security and variety of food has led to increased prevalence of obesity and insulin resistance in Asian countries. Although rice has been a staple food in Asian populations for thousands of years, this transition may render Asian populations more susceptible to the adverse effects of high intakes of white rice …

In other words, rice-eating countries have higher physical activity and more boring food – just look at the notoriously tasteless cuisines of Thailand, China, and Japan – and their inability to eat high quantities of food has hitherto protected Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Indonesians from diabetes.

However, once those rice eaters become office workers and learn how to spice their rice with more varied flavors, the deadly nature of rice may be revealed.

Stephan Guyenet writes that “Food Reward [is] Approaching a Scientific Consensus.” It certainly seems so; it is emerging as a catch-all explanation for everything, a perspective that can be trotted out in a few concluding sentences to reconcile a hypothesis (white rice causes diabetes) with data that contradict it.


To me, the HSPH white rice study doesn’t look like science. It looks like gaming of the grant process – generating surprising and disturbing results that seem to warrant further study, even if the researchers themselves know the results are most likely false.

Consensus or no – and consensus in science isn’t necessarily a sign of truth (hat tip: FrankG) – the food reward perspective seems to me an incomplete explanation for what is going on. It puts a lot of weight on a transition from highly palatable (Thai, Japanese, Chinese) food to “hyperpalatable” (American, junk) food as an explanation for obesity and diabetes. It seems to me that the lack of nutrients and abundance of toxins in the junk food may be just as important as its “hyperpalatability.” It’s the inability of the junk food to satisfy that is the problem, not its palatability.

I’m glad that the food reward perspective may start being tested against Asian experiences. That may shed a lot of light on these issues.

Mobility and Health: Some Thoughts

I’d like to thank Todd Hargrove for his guest post (How to Do Joint Mobility Drills, July 26, 2011). It was thought-provoking, and I thought I’d share my reflections on it.

What Is the Goal of Exercise?

When it comes to fitness, the blogosphere tends to emphasize strength and athleticism. This is great, but there are other dimensions to health and fitness that are maybe a bit under-discussed.

As a 48-year-old recovering chronic disease patient, I am not looking to become a competitive athlete, enjoyable though that might be. Rather, I want to maximize health and longevity, and be able to freely and pleasurably move through all the challenges and opportunities life may present. I’ll be happy if I can:

  1. Be strong enough to freely manipulate my body plus a heavy load.
  2. Be fit enough to run 3-4 miles with pleasure, play an hour of tennis without getting sore, and sprint faster than common criminals.
  3. Be mobile enough to move freely and gracefully through the full natural range of motion of all joints without crackling, stiffness, or soreness.
  4. Develop good posture, circulation, and neurological function, so that my body naturally arranges itself in healthy positions.

The first three goals are not too different from Jamie Scott’s prescription for surviving a natural disaster. He asks: Could you lift yourself over a wall or up to a balcony to escape a tsunami? Sprint-jog 3-4 miles over shattered ground and obstacles to escape the liquefaction zone of an earthquake? Walk 3-4 hours over hills daily when roads are impassable? Get into a low squat to fit in a small shelter, or squeeze through a small opening?

But I have a special interest in neurological health. I had chronic ear infections as an infant, culminating in surgery, and ever since have had poor balance. My central nervous system infection made it much worse. Three years ago I had to sit down to put pants on or take them off; walked into doors; and fumbled and dropped things, as the complete loss of our former collection of wine glasses can attest. With diet and antibiotics I’ve recovered; my balance is now similar to what it was in my 20s – which is to say, poor.  I can now stand on one foot for about 20 seconds before I have to put down the other foot to balance myself; that would have been 1 or 2 seconds three years ago, but Shou-Ching can do it indefinitely. When we go hiking in the mountains, Shou-Ching clambers up or down steep rocky slopes like a mountain goat; I have to move with care.

Falls are a major cause of health impairment, broken bones, and mortality in the elderly. It would be great if I can improve nervous system function and balance before I get old and falls become dangerous.

I’m very pleased to start this blog’s discussion of fitness with Todd’s post, because mobility and neurological function are critically important to fitness at all ages – and may be crucial to good health as we age.

The Concept of Body Maps

Let me paraphrase one of the key points of Todd’s post this way:

The brain maintains “maps” of the body … These maps may become inaccurate, out of synch with the physical body … As a result the brain may believe a movement is impossible or dangerous and block its performance, even if the body is fully capable of performing the movement … With training the brain can learn the true movement capabilities of the body and revise its maps to more accurately reflect reality, thus increasing the body’s ability to move freely.

The idea that brain “maps” of the physical body, rather than the actual body, are what sets the limits to motion reminded me of a TED video I had seen by Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran. He is a neuroscientist who investigated the problem of “phantom pain” in the lost limbs of amputation victims, and showed that the pain could be cured by “mirror box” therapies that fooled the brain into manipulating the lost arm and thereby re-drawing the brain’s body maps. Here is his fascinating TED talk:

Todd explains how improper brain maps can lead to chronic pain, and how repairing the brain maps can end the pain. This is an important idea for those suffering from chronic pain.

Use It Or Lose It

Todd observes that

While movement will clarify maps, lack of movement will tend to blur them. In a famous experiment, researchers found that sewing a monkey’s fingers together for a few weeks caused its brain to map the fingers as one unit, not as two separate parts capable of individual movements.

So if I want my brain to remember what my body is capable of, I need to regularly take my body through a diversity of movements.

This is an important reminder for someone who spends 12 hours per day at a desk. Get away from the desk, even if only for a few minutes a day, and move!

The Strategy of Slow, Mindful Movement

When I was young I wanted to do everything fast. (Shou-Ching complains that when I’m behind the wheel of a car, I think I’m still young.) But now I’m starting to appreciate the benefits of slow motion.

Todd’s list of ways to “maximize the benefit of mobility exercise” emphasizes slow, mindful movements. A few thoughts on each:

Avoid pain and threat.” Since the purpose of the brain’s body maps is to prevent dangerous movements from happening, to re-draw the maps we have to teach the brain that “dangerous” movements are actually safe. For this to be persuasive, they must actually be safe. But this corollary may be less obvious:

Make sure the movement does not … create other signs of threat such as holding the breath, grimacing, collapsing your posture, or using unnecessary tension.

I’m a fan of the mobility videos of Kelly Starrett at, and he frequently advises one never to make a “pain face” or grimace, but rather to maintain a cheerful “Zen face.” A grimace during a challenging stretch or movement may be enjoyable, but it might detract from the value of the exercise. Interesting!

Be mindful and attentive.” This one comes easily to me: I am introspective and enjoy listening to my body and paying attention to muscles, breath, and blood flow during exercise. It’s good to know that’s beneficial.

Use novel movements.” I like routine, but routine mobility drills are unproductive. Movements need to explore new capabilities.

Easy does it.” Move slowly and gently. This calls to mind the classic Chinese exercise forms, like Qi Gong and Tai Chi; they are characterized by slow, flowing, graceful movements.

Be curious, exploratory, and playful.” I like the evolutionary inference Todd makes here:

All animals engage in the most play during the times of their lives when the educational demands are the highest. This means that play is the best solution to difficult education problems that evolution has found.

I think we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that adulthood implies seriousness and sobriety. No! Rather, good health implies lifelong playfulness.

In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, in the Dedication, Boswell writes:

It is related of the great Dr. Clarke, that when in one of his leisure hours he was unbending himself with a few friends in the most playful and frolicksome manner, he observed Beau Nash approaching; upon which he suddenly stopped. “My boys,” said he, “let us be grave – here comes a fool.”

Let us not be fools, and play!

Can Rhythmic Movement Be an Ultradian Therapy?

I’ve done several posts on the subject of circadian (day-night) rhythms, and how enhancing these rhythms with diet, light, sleep, and exercise may be therapeutic for many diseases. See, for instance, Intermittent Fasting as a Therapy for Hypothyroidism (Dec 1, 2010) and Seth Roberts and Circadian Therapy (Mar 22, 2011).

But humans have other natural biorhythms that cycle more frequently. These “ultradian rhythms” can be quite short. For instance, some hormones are released in pulses – I believe insulin and thyroid hormone may operate this way – and I believe a common interval between pulses is 6 seconds.

Many classic movement forms, like yoga or qi gong, emphasize that movement should be synchronized with breathing, and that breathing should be slow and rhythmic – often with about ten breaths per minute, or six seconds per breath.

The coincidence between these numbers intrigues me. If enhancing circadian rhythms is therapeutic for disease, might enhancing ultradian rhythms by mindful “synching” of the breath to their period be therapeutic for hormonal dysfunction?

It’s just a thought. Many people with glucose regulation issues have disrupted ultradian rhythms for insulin secretion. The ultradian clocks in their pancreatic beta cells aren’t working properly. Wouldn’t it be interesting if mindful breathing, as in yoga, could improve insulin secretion and glucose regulation?

This is not such a far out idea. Consider these quotations from recently published papers:

Mind-body modalities based on Eastern philosophy, such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and meditation … have many reported benefits for improving symptoms and physiological measures associated with the metabolic syndrome…. Findings from the studies reviewed support the potential clinical effectiveness of mind-body practices in improving indices of the metabolic syndrome. [1]

Participation of subjects with T2DM in yoga practice for 40 days resulted in reduced BMI, improved well-being, and reduced anxiety. [2]

Yoga-nidra practiced for 30 minutes daily up to 90 days, parameters were recorded every. 30th day. Results of this study showed that most of the symptoms were subsided (P < 0.004, significant), and fall of mean blood glucose level was significant after 3-month of Yoga-nidra. This fall was 21.3 mg/dl, P < 0.0007, (from 159 +/- 12.27 to 137.7 +/- 23.15,) in fasting and 17.95 mg/dl, P = 0.02, (from 255.45 +/- 16.85 to 237.5 +/- 30.54) in post prandial glucose level. Results of this study suggest that subjects on Yoga-nidra with drug regimen had better control in their fluctuating blood glucose and symptoms associated with diabetes, compared to those were on oral hypoglycaemics alone. [3]

[F]asting plasma insulin was significantly lower in the yoga group. The yoga group was also more insulin sensitive (yoga 7.82 [2.29] v. control 4.86 [11.97] (mg/[kg.min])/(microU/ml), p < 0.001). [4]

There are fifty-six papers in Pubmed on “yoga diabetes”, and only four of them date before 2002. Most were published after 2008. This is an emerging area of research, but it would be interesting if slow, mindful movement proves to be an effective therapy for metabolic disorders. Maybe exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous to heal disorders like diabetes and obesity!

The Best Exercises for Mobility

I asked Todd what traditional movement forms he would most recommend. He replied:

In my blog I made some lists of exercises styles, traditional and modern, which are in line with what I recommend: the Feldenkrais Method, Z-Health, Alexander Technique, and tai chi are at the top of the list.

My favorite is the Feldenkrais method, but I think for purposes of your blog, some tai chi videos would be perfect, because they really provide a picture of what I’m talking about. You can’t do tai chi without observing all of the guidelines I provide at the end. And it looks cool.

You might include a point that the magic of tai chi is not so much in the specific forms they use, but in the WAY they move – smooth and slow. And the mind state while moving – mindful, relaxed, attention to small details and subtleties. You could apply this tai chi style to anything and get benefit – sitting, standing, walking, lifting weights or doing joint mobility drills.

All of these movement disciplines are extremely interesting, and I hope to get help exploring them in future blog posts. I know that a number of Z-Health Master Trainers have read our book, and hopefully one of them will teach us about Z-Health.

In closing, here are some videos of Qi Gong and Tai Chi movements. With videos available on DVD or on YouTube, there’s no need to join a class to learn mobility drills. You can play a video in your TV and practice slow, mindful, relaxed movements at home.

Perhaps the most valuable movements, in my view, are those used as “warm-up” exercises in Tai Chi or beginning movements in Qi Gong. Here is a well-made introductory video:

Here is a beautiful exhibition of Tai Chi:

Thanks, Todd. I very much appreciate the opportunity to learn about fitness from an expert!


[1] Anderson JG, Taylor AG. The metabolic syndrome and mind-body therapies: a systematic review. J Nutr Metab. 2011;2011:276419.

[2] Kosuri M, Sridhar GR. Yoga practice in diabetes improves physical and psychological outcomes. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2009 Dec;7(6):515-7.

[3] Amita S et al. Effect of yoga-nidra on blood glucose level in diabetic patients. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2009 Jan-Mar;53(1):97-101.

[4] Chaya MS et al. Insulin sensitivity and cardiac autonomic function in young male practitioners of yoga. Natl Med J India. 2008 Sep-Oct;21(5):217-21.

Seth Roberts and Circadian Therapy

A while back I noted that hypothyroidism is a circadian rhythm disorder and that dietary steps that restore circadian rhythms, like intermittent fasting and daytime eating, should be therapeutic (“Intermittent Fasting as a Therapy for Hypothyroidism,” Dec 1, 2010).

Many other disorders besides hypothyroidism feature disturbed circadian rhythms:

  • Sleeplessness and poor sleep
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric disorders
  • Dyslipidemia, metabolic syndrome and obesity.
  • Neurodegenerative disorders

Circadian rhythm disruption also suppresses immune function and increases vulnerability to infectious disease.

Restoring or strengthening circadian rhythm may be therapeutic for all of these conditions. Even for healthy people, tactics for enhancing circadian rhythms may improve health.

Which brings us to Seth Roberts.

Seth Cured a Sleep Disorder With Circadian Therapy

Seth is a well-known blogger, a Paleo dieter and psychologist, author of  The Shangri-La Diet, and a great self-experimenter.

Seth recently gave a talk that tells the history of his self-experimentation.

It turns out he suffered from disturbed sleep for many years. He experimented to find cures for 10 years; nothing worked. But then he got a lead.

When a student suggested he eat more fruit, he started eating fruit for breakfast. His sleep got worse! This was exciting to Seth because it was, in 10 years, the first thing he tried that changed his sleep.

He had the idea of trying no breakfast. It turned out that skipping breakfast improved his sleep. One of his slides:

This directly supports our idea that intermittent fasting (confining eating to an 8-hour window each day) should be therapeutic for circadian rhythm disorders such as disturbed sleep and hypothyroidism.

But what’s exciting is that Seth continued his experiments to find other ways to improve his sleep. As a psychologist, he knew that human contact controls when we sleep: people are most awake at the times they have contact with other people, and asleep when isolated.

He knew that watching TV can have effects similar to socializing. So he tried watching Jay Leno one morning. He slept very well the next night.

It turns out that looking at human faces is almost as good as real socializing. Here is Seth’s data relating mood to whether he looked at faces:

Seth also tracked his mood over the course of the day. The response of mood to seeing pictures of human faces clearly followed a circadian (24-hour) rhythm:

Another thing that relates to circadian rhythms is exercise: we normally exercise during the day and rest at night.

For a scholar, the easiest way to exercise is to stand rather than sit (for instance, by working at a standing desk). Seth tried standing 9 hours a day – and it cleared his sleep problem!

Of course, standing is not a very strenuous exercise. Seth found that if he just stood on one leg, the effect was much more intense, and he could fix his sleep problem with only minutes of one-legged standing per day.

He also found that eating more animal food improved his sleep. It’s possible that animal fat may enhance circadian rhythms more than other foods.


I found this fascinating – because it adds more evidence regarding the centrality of circadian rhythms in health – and exciting, because it shows that simple tactics can be therapeutic for circadian rhythm disorders.

In the hypothyroidism post, I suggested the following tactics for improving circadian rhythms:

  • Light entrainment: Get daytime sun exposure, and sleep in a totally darkened room.
  • Daytime feeding: Eat during daylight hours, so that food rhythms and light rhythms are in synch.
  • Intermittent fasting: Concentrate food intake during an 8-hour window during daylight hours, preferably the afternoon. A 16-hour fast leading to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, and the more intense hormonal response to food that results from concentration of daily calories into a short 8-hour time window, will accentuate the diurnal rhythm.
  • Adequate carb intake: Eat at least 400 “safe starch” carbohydrate calories daily during the afternoon feeding window. Relative to a very low-carb diet, this will increase daytime insulin release and, by increasing insulin sensitivity, may reduce fasting insulin levels. It will thus enhance diurnal insulin rhythm.

To these, we can add several more based on Seth’s findings:

  • Looking at human faces: If you work at a computer, keep a window up that cycles among photos of faces, or shows a video of a talk show; keep photos of your family near your screen.
  • Standing: Work at a standing desk or, failing that, get in the habit of standing on one leg rather than two.
  • Animal fat: Eat a diet high in animal fats.

These tactics cured Seth’s sleep disorder. Might these tactics also cure or greatly improve other circadian rhythm disorders – including hypothyroidism and psychiatric disorders like depression and bipolar disorder? Could looking at human faces help the obese lose weight and improve their lipid profiles?

I don’t know but I’d certainly give these techniques a try before pharmaceutical drugs. I believe these techniques deserve clinical testing as therapies for all diseases associated with disrupted circadian rhythms. I believe that they may be just as beneficial for the healthy: by improving immune function, they may delay aging and extend lifespan.

A few weeks ago, when I posted a video of Don Rumsfeld defending the use of a standing desk (the same video was later linked by John Durant and Mark Sisson), I brashly stated, “There are few single life adjustments more likely to improve your health than working at a standing desk.”

Perhaps that statement wasn’t as exaggerated as it may have seemed!

Seth’s Talk