Frontlines of Personal Science: Confirmation of After Dinner Sweets Effect

During the last week I have looked into the possibility that my sleep can be further improved — in addition to the bedtime honey improvement — by eating a similar amount of sugar (fructose and glucose) a few hours before bedtime. After I accidentally slept better than usual (or even better than usual), I tried to determine why. Several things had been unusual the day before. Two tests (here and here) pointed to the sugar (honey or banana) a few hours before bedtime.

Last night (Christmas Eve) I tried again. I ate a banana (132 g, peeled) about 3 hours (7 pm) before I fell asleep (10 pm). I fell asleep within a minute and woke up, after an apparently dreamless night, feeling perfectly rested. On my 0-100 percentage scale (100% = completely rested, no detectable tiredness), which I have been using for about 8 years, it was the first ever 100%.  I had slept about 6 hours, a good amount of time.

To celebrate, I had a cup of black tea. I didn’t need it to wake up but I like the taste. I reflected that countless people had drunk tea or coffee to wake up. I had found a better way.

Discovery that an hours-before-bedtime sweet improves sleep (in addition to bedtime honey — that’s what’s interesting) is significant not just for the obvious practical reason (better sleep) but also because it is the confirmation of a prediction. After I slept unusually well, I thought of six possible reasons. The notion that sugar improves sleep pointed to one of them. The results of every test I’ve done (three nights) have agreed with that prediction. I believe the only real test of a theory (such as an explanation) is whether it makes correct predictions — especially, whether it leads to the discovery of new cause-effect relationships. Many things people say haven’t passed that test. An example is weight control. That low-carb diets cause weight loss has been known since the 1800s. Many explanations have been proposed; not one has made correct predictions, as far as I know. In contrast, my theory of weight control led me to three new ways to lose weight (sushi, low-glycemic foods, and fructose water).

I doubt it’s a placebo effect because the sleep improvement has happened whether I expect it or not. A commenter named Paolo Paiva, after reading my posts about this, realized something similar had happened to him:

Today I told my wife how deep I had slept and connected it to the 1 tbspoon of honey and 1 tbspoon of apple cider vinegar mixed with half a cup of water before bed (it tastes really good). Then I saw this post and remembered that yesterday I had had banana flour pancakes topped with honey 3 hours before bedtime!

Thanks, Paolo. May you continue to sleep well. May the rest of you sleep equally well.

Merry Christmas!

Front Lines of Personal Science: More Progress on Sleep

To recap: Three days ago I slept extremely well, better than usual. I wondered why. What had made the difference? That day (the day before the night I slept so well) had been different from previous days in at least five ways (e.g., chocolate, new brand of honey). I repeated four of them, and did not sleep better than usual. That suggested the remaining difference — I had eaten yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (8 g?) a few hours before bedtime — was responsible. (Every night I had 1 tablespoon — 20 g — honey at bedtime. It wasn’t that.) Then I repeated all five elements, including yogurt, blueberries (125 g) and honey (14 g) two hours before bedtime. I woke up wired (jittery). Very rested, but wired, which wasn’t pleasant. Too much sugar, perhaps.

The next night I had a banana roughly two hours before bedtime. (In addition, I repeat, to 1 tablespoon honey at bedtime.)  A banana has about 6 g glucose, 6 g fructose, and 3 g sucrose, similar to 1 tablespoon honey. I had a strong craving for something sweet at that time, which was new to me — I almost never eat dessert. In the evening I had more brain power than usual. Yet at bedtime I fell asleep quickly, in about a minute. 

The next morning I woke up and felt great. Almost perfectly rested, neither tired nor wired. Even though I’d only slept 4.7 hours, a bit low for me. It really was the yogurt, blueberries and honey — almost surely their sugar, which is almost all they have in common with a banana — that had made me sleep so well.

Conclusion: For the best sleep, have sugar after dinner and sugar at bedtime. By sugar I mean a glucose/fructose mixture but for all I know sucrose would work, too.

Science in Action: Unexplained Changes in Brain Speed

This is me a few days ago. I did a choice reaction time task many times. Each dot is a session with enough trials to supply 32 correct answers.The y axis is in “percentile” units, meaning speed relative to recent performance. If my speed was at the average of recent performance, the percentile would be 50, for example. Higher percentiles = better performance = faster (shorter reaction time). Each point is a mean; the vertical bars are standard errors. The dotted line is the median of the means.

The graph shows that Friday afternoon I was suddenly unusually slow. After dinner, I returned to normal. A change from 60%ile to 20%ile to 60%ile resembles an IQ change from 105 to 87 to 105 (an 18-point change).

At the same time accuracy was roughly constant:

Because accuracy was roughly constant, the change in speed was not due to a shift on a speed-accuracy tradeoff function.

There are two puzzles here. 1. Why were my scores low Friday afternoon? 2. Why did they recover after dinner? On Friday I didn’t feel well. As a result, I didn’t eat much. Maybe my blood sugar was lower than usual. I usually eat 30 g butter twice/day. On Friday I didn’t have any. At dinner I did have moderate amounts of pork fat (but not butter) and sugar (in lemon citron tea). Friday 6 pm I had a cup of black tea. Although I haven’t noticed effects of tea on these scores, there’s a first time for everything.

Here is a clue to what makes my brain work well (= fast), I conclude. Butter causes sudden improvement, I have found; which makes it plausible that lack of butter (and other animal fat) could cause sudden degradation. Another possibility was that my blood sugar was low Friday afternoon. (I didn’t think of this at the time, and didn’t measure it.)  I’m surprised that something as important as brain function would be as fragile as these results imply. When various nutrient deficiencies are studied with conventional measures, it generally takes weeks or months without the nutrient for the bad effects to become apparent. It takes many weeks without Vitamin C to get scurvy, for example.

These results raise the intriguing possibility that everyone has sudden ups and downs in brain function and that these ups and downs can be detected at high signal/noise ratios. If so, we can use these ups and downs to learn how to make our brains work well. These results also imply — because my choice reaction time test required only a laptop — that anyone can detect them, study them, and learn what causes them. No experts needed. What a change that would be.


Brain Surprise! Why Did I Do So Well?

For the last four years or so I have daily measured how well my brain is working by means of balance measurements and mental tests. For three years  I have used a test of simple arithmetic (e.g, 7 * 8, 2 + 5). I try to answer as fast as possible. I take faster answers to indicate a better-functioning brain.

Yesterday my score was much better than usual. This shows what happened.

My usual average is about 550 msec or more; my score yesterday was 525 msec. An unexplained improvement of 25 msec.

What caused the improvement? I came up with a list of ways that yesterday was much different than usual, that is, was an outlier in other ways. These are possible causes. From more to less plausible:

1. I had 33 g extra flaxseed last night. (By mistake. I’m not sure about this.)

2. The test came at the perfect time after I had my afternoon yogurt with 33 g flaxseed. When I took flaxseed oil (now I eat ground flaxseed), it was clear that there was a short-term improvement for a few hours.

3. Many afternoons I eat 33 g ground flaxseed with yogurt. Yesterday I ground the afternoon flaxseed an unusually long time, making made the omega-3 more digestible.

4. I did kettlebells swings and a kettlebell walk about 2 hours before the test. These exercises are not new but usually I do them on different days. Yesterday was the first time I’ve done them on the same day. I’m sure ordinary walking improves performance for perhaps 30 minutes after I stop walking.

5. I had duck and miso soup a half-hour before the test. Almost never eat this.

6. I had a fermented egg (“thousand-year-old egg”) at noon. I rarely eat them.

7. I had peanuts with my yogurt and ground flaxseed. Peanuts alone seem to have no effect. Perhaps something in the peanuts improves digestion of the omega-3 in the flaxseed.

8. I started watching faces at 7 am that morning instead of 6:30 am or earlier.

Here are eight ideas to test. Perhaps one or two will turn out to be important. Perhaps none will.

After I made this list, I read student papers. The assignment was to comment on a research article. One of the articles was about the effect of holding a warm versus cold coffee cup. Holding a warm coffee cup makes you act “warmer,” said the article. Commenting on this, a student said she thought it was ridiculous until she remembered going to the barber. She sees the person who washes her hair (in warm water) as friendly, the barber as cold. Maybe this is due to the warm water used to wash her hair, she noted. This made me realize another unusual feature of yesterday: I had washed my hair in warm water longer than usual. I think I did it at least 30 minutes before the arithmetic test but I’m not sure. In any case, here is another idea to test. I found earlier that cold showers slowed down my arithmetic speed.

This illustrates a big advantage of personal science (science done for personal gain) over professional science (science done because it’s your job): The random variation in my life may suggest plausible new ideas. As far as I can tell, professional scientists have learned almost nothing about practical ways to make your brain work better. You can find many lists of “brain food” on the internet. Inevitably the evidence is weak. I’d be surprised if any of them helped more than a tiny amount (in my test, a few msec). The real brain foods, in my experience, are butter and omega-3. Perhaps my tests will merely confirm the value of omega-3 (Explanations 1-3). But perhaps not (Explanations 4-8 and head heating).

Science in Action: Why Energetic?

Last night I slept unusually well, waking up more rested and with more energy than usual.  I slept longer than usual: 7.0 hours versus my usual 5.1 hours (median of the previous 20 days).  My rating of how rested I felt was 99.2% (that is, 99.2% of fully rested); the median of the previous 20 days is 98.8%. Because the maximum is 100%, this is really a comparison of 0.8% (this morning) with 1.2% (previous mornings); and the comparison is not adjusted for the number of times I stood on one leg to exhaustion, which improves this rating. During the previous 20 days I often stood on one leg to exhaustion six times; yesterday I only did it four times. Above all, I felt more energy in the morning. This was obvious. I have just started to measure this.  At 8 am and 9 am, I rate my energy on a 0-100 scale where 50 = neither sluggish nor energetic/energized, 60 = slightly energetic/energized, 70 = somewhat energetic/energized, and 75 = energetic/energized. My ratings this morning were 73 (8 am) and 74 (9 am). The median of my 9 previous ratings is 62. The energy improvement (73/74 vs 62) is why I am curious. I would like to feel this way every morning.

What caused it? I had not exercised the previous day. My room was no darker than usual. My flaxseed oil intake was no different than usual. I had not eaten more pork fat than usual. However, four things had been different than usual:

1. 2 tablespoons of butter at lunch. In addition to my usual 4 tablespoons per day.

2. 0.5-1 tablespoons of butter at bedtime. Again, in addition the usual 4.

3. 1 tablespoon (15 g) coconut butter at bedtime. Part of a longer study of the effect of coconut butter. Gary Taubes suggested this. I had eaten 1 T coconut butter at bedtime 13 previous days. On the first of those 13 days, I had felt a lot more energetic than usual in the morning. On the remaining days, however, the improvement was less clear. I started measuring how energetic I felt in the morning to study this further. Last night was Friday night. On the previous two nights (Wednesday and Thursday) I had not eaten the coconut butter. Maybe absence of coconut butter followed by resumption of coconut butter is the cause.

4. Fresh air and ambient noise. Following a friend’s suggestion, I opened one of my bedroom windows.

My first question is whether the improvement is repeatable. If so, I will start to vary these four factors.







Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 4)

I blogged earlier how I suddenly got better at an arithmetic task. The apparent causes of the improvement were butter and standing. I’m not sure this is right; I will do more tests.

While I was trying to figure out the cause something even more extreme happened:

2010-03-22 even more anomalous resultsNotice the last two points. The previous anomaly was slightly below 600 msec. The new one is close to 550 msec. After observing it, I repeated the test 20 minutes later and got essentially the same result.

I’m blown away. I’ve been doing tests like this — simple measures of mental function — for about two years. Nothing like this happened during those two years.

My scores on this particular test averaged about 640 msec. Sometimes they’d be lower (as low as 610) but I had no idea why. The average stayed around 640. Now, within days, the average goes down to about 600 (presumably because I was eating butter regularly) and then down to almost 550. In other words, that 640 could be improved almost 20%! The improvement has nothing to do with practice; I was extremely well-practiced on this task. (And practice doesn’t produce such a sudden improvement.)

This is something we care deeply about — how well our brains work. Unless I’m a lot worse at arithmetic than everyone else, this suggests that for many people great improvement is possible. In an astonishingly small way. (I didn’t make any big changes during this time.) In a week.

Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 3)

Previously on Seth’s Blog: A few weeks ago, during a brief test, I did simple arithmetic (e.g., 3+8, 4*0) substantially faster than usual. The next day, under the same conditions, it happened again. I thought of four possible reasons for the improvement:

  • 30 g of butter I’d eaten a few hours earlier.
  • A cobblestone mat I’d stood on earlier for 5 minutes.
  • Walking for 10 minutes before the test.
  • Standing (rather than sitting) during the test.

I guessed it was the walking.

Since then I’ve been gathering data to choose between these possibilities. I’ve been eating butter regularly to see if there’s a chronic speed-up. And I’ve been doing pairs of tests 20 minutes apart. The first test provides a baseline against which to judge the results of the second test. To measure the effects of the cobblestone mat I stood on the mat between the tests. To measure the effect of walking, I walked during the time between the tests. To measure the effect of standing, I stood during the second test but not the first.

The results so far suggest, to my surprise, that two of the four factors helped: butter and standing. How wrong I was!
At Berkeley, one of my students did a self-experiment that compared different ways of studying. She measured how long she stayed awake while studying foreign vocabulary. Worst turned out to be the conventional way: sitting at her desk in silence. Best was lying on her bed listening to hard rock. My new results are sort of a bigger version of the same thing: conventionally we avoid butter and sit while doing intellectual work.

Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement (part 2)

Yesterday I blogged about a sudden improvement in how fast I could do arithmetic. The improvement was much larger than normal variation and happened after I did four things that I rarely did. In chronological order:

1. Ate about 30 g of butter.

2. Stood on a cobblestone mat (for 5 minutes, which was all I could bear).

3. Stood during the test.

4. Walked for 10 minutes just before the test.

To find out which mattered, I did them again in the same order and at the same times of day, but with tests before and after each one.  If performance suddenly improved after one of them, then I’d know.

Here’s what actually happened.

2010-03-10 arithmetic time vs time of testThe last six points are the relevant results. The first of the six points (627 msec) was before everything. The second (613 msec) was after butter but before the cobblestones. The third (630 msec) was after the cobblestones but before standing. The fourth (610 msec) and fifth (603 msec) were while standing but before walking. The final one (581 msec) was while standing after walking.

I was surprised and pleased how closely the first and last scores repeated the earlier difference. The first score was close to the previous baseline; the last score was close to the previous outlier. A big improvement seems to be under my control.

Before doing these tests, my best guess about what caused the improvement was the walking. But the scores were improving before the walking so that’s unlikely. Perhaps the walking was one of several factors that helped. The data suggest, if anything, a shocking conclusion: butter made my brain work better. An alternative, less consistent with Occam’s razor, is that butter, standing, and walking all produced smaller improvements, which together added up to the big improvement. The cobblestones produced a short-lived decrement.

That pork fat improved my sleep obviously supports the butter interpretation. I should be less surprised than anyone else, but still . . . Last week I noticed something else that supports the butter explanation. At a restaurant with a friend, the waiter brought bread and olive oil. I asked for butter. I spread all of it on a piece of bread, then asked for more butter, and spread all of that on another piece of bread. (About 30 g butter total.) It was the first time I’d eaten a large amount of butter at a meal. An hour or so later, I felt unusually good, some combination of calm and warmth. I never noticed this after eating pork fat, but butter may be to pork fat as hamburger is to steak: Easier to digest. The pork fat is within cell walls; the butter fat isn’t.

Science in Action: Mysterious Mental Improvement

For a few years, I’ve been making daily measurements of how well my brain works. I got the idea after I found that omega-3 (from flaxseed oil) improves my balance. It improved other mental functions as well. Tim Lundeen, using an arithmetic test, found similar results. These results suggested to me there might be a lot we don’t know about how our environment affects our brain.

If so, tracking myself might turn up interesting anomalies — clues to big environmental effects. The first one I found involved flaxseed oil. There turned out to be a short burst of improvement after I took it. The second anomaly I found also involved flaxseed oil. When I switched from Chinese flaxseed oil to American flaxseed oil (Spectrum Organic), a few days later my arithmetic scores suddenly improved. Something was wrong with the Chinese flaxseed oil.
The third revealing anomaly — which doesn’t involve flaxseed oil — happened yesterday (see below). Each point on the graph is one testing session.  Each session consists of 32 simple arithmetic problems (e.g., 3+5, 7-6) and takes about 3 minutes. I use R on my laptop to collect the data. I type the answer or the last digit of the answer (e.g., if the answer is 13 I type “3”) as fast as possible. Here are the results from almost a year of this task:
2010-03-09 arithmetic time vs time of test

The Y axis is the time it took to do one problem. Yesterday, the graph shows, I suddenly got much faster. My score dropped about 50 msec — far more than normal variation.

What caused the drop? I can think of four possibilities:

1. The test was standing. Usually I test myself sitting.

2. The test happened after I’d been walking on my treadmill for 10 minutes. That too was very rare.

3. I’d had about 30 g of butter 2 hours earlier.

4. I’d stood on my cobblestone mat 2 hours earlier.

My guess is that it’s #2 (10 min walking). The previous record low score, in January, might have come after I did Dance Dance Revolution for 30 minutes or so.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 17)

The story so far. Standing on one foot till exhaustion twice during the day vastly improved my sleep that night. I slept longer and, especially, woke up much more rested.

Theory. I have a theory about what’s going on. When muscles are stressed — used until some of the muscle fibers break — two things happen: 1. More muscle fibers grow (= you become stronger). Everyone knows this. 2. A chemical is released by the muscle that travels to the brain and increases depth of sleep. This is a new idea. The big picture is that sleep is controlled by many things; this is one of them. Morning light is also important but that is pretty obvious, at least to sleep researchers. Morning light appears to control both the timing and depth of sleep. These muscle-produced hormones appear to mainly affect depth of sleep; I don’t notice any change in when I sleep. The evolutionary rationale is plain: We grow muscles better when we’re asleep. If we need to grow muscles more than usual, we need more sleep than usual.

New data. I want to understand what the effect depends on. What makes it weaker or stronger — especially stronger? As my legs grew stronger, the effect became slightly weaker, presumably because it was harder to produce new muscle growth in a practical amount of time. My main measure of the effect is how rested I feel when I awake. I assess that on a 0-100 scale where 0 = just as tired as when I fell asleep and 100 = completely free from tiredness. I reached scores of 100 years ago when I was on my feet for 9 or 10 hours during the day and once or twice on camping trips. Standing that much is impractical so 100 appeared impossible to reach regularly. In Berkeley, during the months before I discovered this effect,  this score averaged about 95.  After discovery of this effect, it was usually 99 — a big easy-to-notice improvement.

But 99 was impossible to maintain because as my legs got stronger it started to take a really long time to exhaust them. I shifted to standing on one bent leg. This obviously reduced how long I needed to stand to produce exhaustion but it was less effective (presumably because fewer muscles were involved). When I shifted from standing one-legged however I wanted (two bouts/day) to standing with the leg bent most or all of the time (four bouts/day), the scores went down to 98 or 97. After a week or so of bent-leg standing I started using the cycle 50 seconds bent, 10 seconds straight; I repeated this as long as I could.

Here is a graph showing how long I stood.

standing duration

The interesting point is that the strength increase finally levelled off at a bearable amount of time, yet the effect has persisted. If I spend about 8 minutes 4 times a day watching TV or a movie (and standing on one bent leg at the same time) I can substantially improve my sleep. This is practical. It’s the easiest exercise I’ve ever done. No special equipment. Watch TV at the same time. Big benefit. I’ve tried other muscle-building exercises, including push-ups done two different ways, jump-roping, and something vaguely resembling a biceps curl done with a thick rubber band. None has had a detectable effect. For example, after a day with jump-roping and two bouts of one-legged standing, I sleep about as well as after a day with just two bouts of one-legged standing.

Can I say again how wonderful it is to wake up totally rested? It seems almost within my grasp.

Previous posts about this.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 16)

A few days ago I spoke on the phone to someone who’d written me that one-legged standing improved his sleep. I mentioned this replication earlier but the new details are interesting.

He is a 35-year-old man with an office job. He now works in the Washington, D.C. area. Until about a year ago, his sleep was fine. He would sleep 7-7.5 hours no matter when he went to bed.

About a year ago he went through a tough time with a lot of stress and anxiety. After that he started waking up after only 6 hours of sleep. He’d wake up early in the morning, 3 or 4 am, still tired but unable to fall back asleep. This is exactly the problem I had when I started to self-experiment to try to sleep better.

He went to a doctor for help. (I considered seeing a doctor.)  The doctor prescribed:

1. Ambien. It worked for 1 or 2 nights.

2. Lunesta. Like Ambien, it worked for only the first few nights.

After using these two drugs, the problem got worse. Now he awoke after only 4 hours of sleep. He tried non-prescription drugs:

3. Melatonin. It made him foggy during the day.

4. Tylenol PM. It worked okay, but he would still wake up after 6 hours.

Then he decided he didn’t want to take pills of any sort — even if they worked, he’d have to take them for the rest of his life. (This is why I didn’t go to a doctor and never tried pills.) He tried conventional alternative treatments:

5. Changed his attitude about the problem. Although he was waking up very early, he wasn’t tired during the day. He had four extra hours. After this change in attitude, he began to fall back asleep a few hours after waking up. Gradually the amount of time he was awake in the middle of the night got shorter.

6. He has cold feet. He can’t fall asleep when his feet are cold. He read somewhere that if you imagine your feet are warm, they will warm up. This gave him an idea. What if he imagined going into an MRI-like machine that induces sleep? He started doing this. When he’d wake up at 2 a.m., he’d imagine himself going into this machine. This enabled him to fall back asleep with a short latency.

In August he read my posts about this and started one-legged standing, often while watching TV. He does it without stretching the other foot: puts one foot on top of the other or behind the other. He might or might not balance. Usually stands on a pillow. He does it until it hurts, twice for each leg. In the beginning it took only 5-10 minutes but now it has gotten much longer and he has started doing other things, such as wearing a backpack with books, to shorten the time.

From my point of view the main points are these: 1. He had tried several other treatments. Some were awful, some were okay, but none sustainably solved the problem. Not only did one-legged standing help, it apparently helped more than six other plausible treatments, including two powerful and expensive drugs. 2. What he did differed from what I did — verbal descriptions are always inexact and omit a lot — but still worked well right away.


Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 15)

Yesterday I went to San Francisco early in the morning.  Because of my discovery about standing and sleep, I had slept very well. In Berkeley, it looked like morning: empty streets, angle of light. I felt jet-lagged: I should have been tired but I wasn’t. On BART, the same mismatch: Everyone looked tired but I was wide awake.

It is taking longer and longer to get enough one-legged standing to generate  great sleep. Here’s a graph of how long I’ve been standing: Each point is a different bout of one-legged standing. Most of the points are from bouts where the standing leg was straight or bent (usually straight) but a few of them (“bent leg”) are from bouts where the standing leg was bent the whole time. Most days have two bouts: 1. On the left leg until I get tired. 2. On the right leg until i get tired. I’m pretty sure there’s no effect until it becomes difficult — until the muscles are so stressed that they send out a grow signal. The whole thing is pleasant because I watch TV or a movie at the same time but, as the graph shows, it has become seriously time-consuming.

So I have tested keeping the standing leg always bent. I get tired much sooner (2 minutes versus 20 minutes) but the effect is not quite as strong. Probably because fewer muscles are involved — you use more muscles when you stand on one leg in any possible way than if you stand on one leg in only one way.

I assume there’s a steady-state solution. The more muscle you have the more you lose each day. (Just as the theory behind the Shangri-La Diet assumes that the higher your set point, the fast it falls.) Eventually I should have enough muscle and will lose enough in one day so the exercise needed to merely replenish it will be enough to produce great sleep.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 14)

Two more people have gotten results similar to mine. From a comment on an earlier post:

I’ve been doing these exercises – standing on one leg – and it’s helped my sleep immensely. About a year ago, I went through a pretty traumatic experience that disrupted my sleep patterns. The end result was that I couldn’t sleep for longer than 3 or 4 hours at night without waking up. For several months, the lack of sleep was like living in a nightmare, and prescription drugs just made the problem worse. I finally decided to go off medication all together and change my attitude, which worked wonders – I could get back to sleep after I woke up – but I’d still only sleep in 4 hour chunks.

About a month ago, I began doing these exercises, and now I’m sleeping 6 to 7 hours at a time. It’s amazing; and on the days I don’t do them, I don’t sleep well at all.

It’s amazing how easy they are to do – if I find myself standing in line, meeting friends for a happy hour, or even watching tv, I’ll do them.

Last night I told a friend to do them while he was at a happy hour, and this morning, he said he slept “like a log.”

As Pale Fire says:

If on some nameless island Captain Schmidt
Sees a new animal and captures it,
And if, a little later, Captain Smith
Brings back a skin, that island is no myth.

I have started to measure my sleep with a SleepTracker so I will have another way to measure the effects, in addition to (a) how rested I feel when I awake and (b) how long I sleep.

More The SleepTracker — my second, the first didn’t work — worked correctly for the first three nights but failed on the fourth.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 13)

When I talk about how standing on one leg has helped me sleep better, the inevitable question is how much standing? After I became sure the standing was making a difference, I started to record the durations. I always stood on one leg until it became a little hard to continue. As my legs have become stronger, this has taken more time, as this graph shows:

During the early days on this graph, I didn’t include time-of-day information. I usually stood on one leg three or four times per day. More recently, I have included time-of-day info and now stand on one leg only twice most days. In all of the cases shown on the graph, I was pulling my other leg back behind me at the same time, stretching the muscles. (If I don’t stretch the other leg, I can stand one-legged much longer.) In the very beginning, I only stood one-legged 2-3 minutes.

I’m sleeping better than any other period in my adult life. My sleep was pretty good before this period but the difference is still huge. Not only am I sleeping better, I suspect I’m also sleeping less (as happened when I improved my sleep by standing a lot).

I suppose one-legged standing counts as “exercise” — that source of so many claimed benefits (longevity, weight loss, less heart disease, etc.). I read today that exercise is supposed to improve your brain. But the differences between what I am doing and what is usually recommended are as large as the difference between the Shangri-La Diet and other diets:

1. Conventional exercise: Requires expanse (for walking) or, usually, special equipment (e.g., gym). Takes one hour or more, when you count changing clothes and showering, not to mention the drive to and from the gym. One-legged standing: Can do almost anywhere. Takes less than 30 minutes, so far.

2. Conventional exercise: Requires discipline if you want a decent workout in a reasonable amount of time. One-legged standing: Almost no pain involved. I can watch TV or read something at the same time.

3. Conventional exercise: Supposed to be aerobic if you want the main benefits. One-legged standing: The opposite of aerobic.

3. Conventional exercise: Some benefits accrue slowly, such as weight loss. Others are hard or impossible to detect, such as longer life. Runners’ high goes away, in my experience. One-legged standing: Benefit clear the next morning. Because I am strengthening muscles I use all the time (when I walk or stand) I notice my vastly increased leg strength all the time.

4. Conventional exercise: You want to get stronger. One-legged standing: You don’t want to get too strong or else it may take too long to get the effect.

5. Conventional exercise: Often difficult to measure increased strength. Hard to measure improvement in swimming, racquetball, or aerobics classes, for example. One-legged standing: Easy to measure increased strength.

6. Conventional exercise: Helped me fall asleep faster, but didn’t solve the problem of too-light sleep. One-legged standing: Utterly solves the problem of too-light sleep.

Could the benefits of conventional exercise have anything to do with the fact that it vaguely resembles one-legged standing?


Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 12)

Over the last week I’ve found that standing on one foot till it becomes difficult just twice during the day is enough to produce much better sleep that night. Maybe the effect is larger with three times but not enough to make much difference.

It now takes 8-10 minutes of one-leg standing (with the other leg stretched back behind me) before it gets difficult. When I started, it took 2-3 minutes.


Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 11)

I’m now sure it’s the one-legged standing that’s improving my sleep. The new way of seeing faces in the morning doesn’t seem to matter. In case you want to try this, I’ve found that if I just raise one foot slightly I can stand one-legged much longer (about twice as long) than if I stand one-legged and pull the other foot behind me (stretching my leg muscles). I think this means the stretching pose is twice as effective per minute as the non-stretching pose; it produces the same effect in half the time.

It’s only been a few weeks, but my legs are already much stronger. Walking long distances (such as 4 miles) is easier and so is standing for long periods of time. My notions about exercise are changing, too. Before this, I thought of exercise having three types:

1. Strength. Exercise a muscle, it gets stronger. Benefits: stronger muscles can do more, look better.

2. Flexibility. Improved by stretching, e.g., yoga. Benefit: less chance of injury.

3. Aerobic. The Cooper idea. Improved by running, swimming, etc. Benefit: apparently reduces risk of heart attacks, perhaps reduces risk of other diseases. (Some people do it to lose weight, of course.) To measure aerobic fitness, The Cooper Institute stress-tested executives and found that those with better stress-test scores had lower mortality in the following years. Stress-test fitness was a better predictor of mortality than obesity — some people were “fit but fat”.

The one-legged standing seems to be a whole new category:

4. Soporific. When you stress a leg muscle a lot, presumably one or more chemicals are released that both (a) cause the muscle to grow (the well-known effect of exercise) and (b) cause you to sleep more deeply at night (the effect that interests me). In contrast to Types 1-3, there’s no need for the concept of fitness here because you don’t slowly go up and down in a measure of effectiveness (i.e., become more or less fit). Rather each day you are high or low on this measure, and the next day you start fresh. In contrast to Types 1-3, where the benefits accrue slowly (over weeks and months), the benefits are obvious the next morning (you feel better-rested) and the next day (you’re less tired). In contrast to Types 1-3, there is no connection with athletics (such as Olympic events). Conventional exercise is integral-like: It’s the sum over days that matters. Whereas this exercise is derivative-like: The benefits derive from doing a little more today than you did on previous days. The psychology is different, too. The benefits are so large relative to the cost that there’s no motivation problem. Deciding to do it is about as hard as deciding to pick up a $!0 bill. Deciding to do conventional exercise is a lot harder.


Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 9)

From Nassim Taleb’s web notebook:

I was going to have dinner with Seth Roberts in San Francisco. So, out of curiosity, I tried his diet [ clipping my nose and consuming two large tablespoons of flaxseed oil ] . . . When someone who observed me with a noseclip asked: “what are you doing?” , I gave my answer “trying to be healthier”.  It elicited a smile: “Why don’t you dance outside on one leg for ten minutes? That too may work very well”.

Strange strange coincidence.

Why Did I Sleep So Well? directory.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 8)

My recent experience suggests that if I stand on one foot until it becomes slightly difficult about four times/day I will sleep much better. Two days ago I measured how long those four bouts of one-foot standing actually were: 6.2 (left foot), 4.3 (right), 4.8 (left), and 5.2 (right) minutes. The median is 5.0 minutes. When I started doing this, about two weeks ago, each bout was about 2 minutes.

It doesn’t seem to matter when I do them. Now I do two in the morning and two in the evening. Fits perfectly with a subway commute. You’ll want to be forced to stand.

In the evening I have a pleasant sense of anticipation: I will fall asleep and wake up feeling really good. I have never before felt this way. I have slept this well before, when I stood 9 or 10 hours/day. The sheer difficulty and all-consumingness of doing that, I now realize, got in the way of anticipating the benefits.

Something else curious is that one-foot standing leaves no mark — I can’t tell at 3 pm how many bouts I’ve done so far just by noticing how I feel. Unlike water or calorie consumption: If I don’t drink anything I’ll get thirsty. If I don’t eat anything I’ll get hungry. But if I don’t get enough of this particular byproduct of exercise I’ll never notice.

Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 7)

I’ve continued to sleep extremely well. I’m sure there’s something to this. I’m almost sure it’s because of the one-legged standing.

Here are some technical details. I usually do four bouts of one-legged standing, two in the morning and two later. During each bout I stand on one leg, pulling my other leg up behind me. Sometimes I touch something to balance myself. Usually I watch or read something at the same time. Each bout lasts until it’s hard to continue — until it becomes slightly painful. At first the bouts lasted about two minutes, now they last about four minutes. I enjoy it more when I time it with a stopwatch.

I haven’t yet systematically varied the number of bouts but I suspect one is too few to get the full effect and four is plenty. I’m still trying different ways of arranging them throughout the day. Doing all four at once is too tiring — it takes too long to recover. Maybe it’s best to do two whenever’s convenient during the day and then do two more in the evening when it’s okay to be tired.


Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 6)

On the SLD forums Heidi 555 posted this:

I’ve been standing on one foot on an inexpensive balance board or inflatable balance disc.  . . . I’ve been using the balance board while doing dishes and brushing my teeth. . . .

I feel good immediately afterwards.  I feel slightly better physically and emotionally. . . . I’m use to feeling better after I exercise, but typically it takes more intensive sustained exercise to get this effect.

I sleep well 60-70% of the time. . . . For the past 3 days that I’ve done the one-footed standing I’ve had excellent sleep.  Last night it was especially surprising because I went to bed emotionally distraught and stayed up slightly later than I intended.