Episode 3 | Dr. Alan Christianson | Having Trouble Sleeping?


First and foremost, I pray that you and your family are healthy and safe. Throughout the past few weeks of reflection, it’s clear that though we are alone, we are alone together.
Lately, I’ve been sharing strategies to break through anxiety-fueled sleeplessness, but here’s one technique that might not seem obvious. I talked with Dr. Alan Christianson on the Art of Living, and he shared a method to naturally sleep soundly through the night.
Dr. Christianson stressed the importance of timing your carbs throughout the day for getting a good night’s sleep. Avoiding meals higher in carbs in the morning, and then incorporating more carbs in the evening can help appropriate the shutdown of cortisol, which allows you good, restorative sleep.

He said, “You can use a strategy of changing the ratio of your carbs and your fats and proteins throughout the day just to help reset the glands and make them work better again. Here’s the basic idea just briefly how the adrenals govern blood sugar. Cortisol’s the only one that does that. When cortisol’s good, you’re making it to wake you up and shutting it off to let you go to sleep. Cortisol is also used to raise your blood sugar, when it’s too low.

Apart of having some genetic defects, if we don’t eat for a few hours, we’re not going to die. We’re going to use cortisol to pull some sugar out of our liver, out of our muscles or if we’ve not eaten many carbs recently, we’ll actually break down our muscles themselves. Anyway, we’re going to make sure. We’re going to make glucose, and cortisol helps us do that.

So, I thought this through and I realized if you want high cortisol in the morning and low blood sugar and generous cortisol output, then you still need to eat in the morning, but that would be a good time to have less total carbs. You can support your body having lower insulin and, then, having your healthy cortisol daily spike. Then, the exact opposite is true at night time. That’s when you really want cortisol to shut down and some appropriate good healthy carbs that can help cortisol turn off at night and let you sleep better and let your body go into more of a fat-burning mode as you’re sleeping.”


Follow Along With The Transcript

Kathy Smith: Alan, welcome. I’m so glad to have you on the show.

Alan Christianson: Kathy, it’s a joy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Kathy Smith: First of all, before we get started, what’s this about unicyclist? A mountain unicyclist. What is that?

Alan Christianson: Well, it’s pretty much just that. I know a lot of people who ride mountain bikes, so wherever they go, you can see me there on one wheel.

Kathy Smith: I can’t even believe that. I’ve got to see a picture of that.

Alan Christianson: I do both sports, and actually the downhill stuff, I can do a little more technical training on the unicycle than I can on a mountain bike, because I can hop and I can jump over terrain and I can pivot on a dime. It’s a great challenge. I rode mountain bikes forever, and I saw some riding these giant road unicycles with three foot wheels in a road bike race, and I was pretty intrigued. I saw videos of them. I stumbled across videos of people riding unicycles on really hard off road terrain. I was, like, “Wow! That would be really neat. I’ve got to do that.” It took years of work and training but, yeah, that’s one of my sports now.

Kathy Smith: I would say work and maybe a few falls there along the way? A few bumps maybe? I know even with snowboarding or any of these sports when you first try them, I know the pads are so important – those helmets and pads.

Let’s switch gears here. You’re the master at helping people understand how to balance their hormones. A couple of concepts I want to talk about today is something that you talk about in your book, which is about carbohydrate and protein cycling to balance your hormones and, then, this other concept of how to repair your circadian rhythms. We’ll get to that later on, but just starting out, you’ve been in this field for so long, so can you lay the groundwork about these powerful organs that we’re talking about – the thyroid and the adrenals. Maybe starting with the thyroid, what is it and why is it so important especially as it relates to weight gain?

Alan Christianson: Yeah, it’s a real big deal. Imagine a bow tie. Imagine the shape of it, the size of it and, also, where you would wear it at. The thyroid is something like that. It’s just below the skin and it’s pretty much the body’s thermostat. Whether you’re generating a lot of heat and movement, how many calories and whether you’re storing them, that’s dependent highly on the thyroid. If it’s off even a little bit, you may be burning three to five hundred fewer calories per day than you would otherwise. So, it’s huge for your weight.

Kathy Smith: What are some of the factors that come into play when we talk about the thyroid, and how can it get out of balance?

Alan Christianson: You know, you talked about your story with Graves’ Disease. It’s an odd thing, but the main thing that occurs with a gland that’s underactive–it can also be overactive like in your case. There’s also a risk for thyroid cancer. It’s actually the fastest increasing type of cancer amongst women in North America right now. All three of those things come from the same set of circumstances.

The first part is that there’s some genetic susceptibility. Do you have a family history, Kathy? Were there others in your family with thyroid disease?

Kathy Smith: No, mine was unique. Honestly, it’s interesting because my thyroid, my numbers, it was normal, maybe high normal. I was on this TV show, I was going into a new stage of my career, I was working really hard, not sleeping a lot and under a lot of stress. So, I think those factors, looking back on it, probably impacted my thyroid.

Alan Christianson: For sure, and there are a lot of other things that can happen especially with Graves’ Disease. There’s some varying level of genetic susceptibility. For some, it’s really big and it shows up all the time. For others, it’s latent. Then, there’s something foreign from the environment, and there’s just stuff that we’re around a lot in the world that’s inevitable. We’ve got plastic derivatives, we’ve got mercury. Actually, iodine can also work as a nutrient or a toxin. It’s kind of an odd double edged sword.

Something makes the thyroid act as if it’s got foreign material inside of it, and the immune system starts to go after it. Yeah, things like major stressors or infections or for some women moving into pregnancy, these are the kinds of things that can flip a switch in the immune system and make it start going after the thyroid. That can play out with a gland, get exposed down, it gets overactive or grows foreign cells inside of it. 

Kathy Smith: Let’s maybe jump over or hopscotch over to the adrenals and maybe talk about how these two glands relate to one another but maybe just see what you can start with. What do the adrenals do, and what’s an overview of that gland?

Alan Christianson: Most people have a vague idea about the kidneys being in their lower back. Sitting on top of each kidney, there’s something about the size of sugar cubes. You and I are not filled with sugar, but it’s an easy analogy. These things are about that size, and it makes each one–there’s two. Each one makes all these different regulated hormones. There’s actually more than 57 hormones that come out of the adrenal glands. They can be big categories for health. They help regulate our blood sugar, our electrolyte levels, our fluid balance. They regulate whether we’re awake or asleep. They also control inflammation in the immune system, and they control other hormones that are not from the adrenals. They’re a pretty big deal.

You talked about how this thyroid disease came on during a time of real high stress. So, the circadian tie-in is that we make a stress hormone called cortisol, and if we’re in a healthy, lucky group, we make a lot of it to wake us up. I think of it like a built-in coffee machine inside the body. Then, we shut it off and that lets us sleep when we really turn down well. That wave to where it’s there and, then, it’s gone, that’s part of the immune system working right.

If your stress levels are through the roof, sometimes that cycle of day and night gets goofed up. It can always be there and not shut off all the way. That can be a big stressor on the immune system. That can make it start to be more prone to attack itself. Like in your case, your cortisol levels might have changed at a real busy time and that could have been what allowed your immune system to start going after your thyroid.

Kathy Smith: So, when you talk about the circadian rhythms and the natural rhythm is higher cortisol in the morning and, then, it starts to drop down at night. But if we are stressed out or if we’re drinking a lot of coffee or tea or sugar or stimulants, then we throw that rhythm off. So, now, it’s night time and we’re not perhaps feeling tired but at the same time, our cortisol levels are still high?

Alan Christianson: Yeah.

Kathy Smith: Does that start to impact our weight and not only our sleep but how we perhaps burn fat through the night or the next day? How does messing with your circadian rhythms impact weight gain?

Alan Christianson: Yeah, it certainly does, and the jest of it is, our body has two operating modes. I call them driving or surviving. The survival mode is something we think about that’s like fight or flight. It’s useful to help prevent us from dying during times of a great emergency. We change how we use our resources so we can just fight or run away.

There’s a few f’s like fighting and fleeing. We talk about the f’s, but the other one is famine. The same way we respond to ongoing stress is how our body responds to famine. It’s getting ready for food shortage. We do it by causing the belly fat, the visceral fat, to actually make even more stress hormones. It’s a crazy situation where we take weaker stress hormones and, then, we amplify them inside the visceral fat, and we grow more visceral fat. It’s a vicious cycle. That’s how stress hormones getting out balance causes – specifically the visceral fat growth – makes it really tough to shake it.

Kathy Smith: Just for the audience out there, we have this subcutaneous fat, which is the fat that you can pinch an inch right underneath your skin. Then, you have the visceral fat, which is not only marbled through your muscles but marbled through around your organs, and this is the fat that’s more hormonally active but, also, it presents a bit of a health risk, the more visceral fat we have. Is that correct?

Alan Christianson: It sure does. It’s actually making chemical inflammation, but it’s also making higher amounts of stress hormones. This is something I talk about in the book with that. We make stress hormones in the adrenal, but then, we repurpose them back and forth in organs like the liver, the brain and the visceral fat. So, you’re right. The visceral fat is hormonally very active.

It’s kind of like your body’s cash under the mattress. If you’re in danger economically, you’re going to lose your job, you’re not going to go sink money into a new house. You might just hold onto it in savings or the ultimate analogy is like cash under the mattress, like gold coins in the backyard. So, that’s what visceral fat is to your body. It’s when there’s worry about shortage of famine, you build more of that because that’s fuel that you can access quickly during an emergency. Too much of it is just dangerous to your body in all the significant ways. It hurts the brain.

Kathy Smith: The thing about hormones, I think everybody after the age of about 38/40 starts to hear about hormones, think about hormones, and we start to have this shift in hormones where as we age, the sex hormones start to lessen and decrease. But the shifting hormones in our body, I love the fact that you specialize in this area because for so many people, it’s so overlooked when it comes to health and well-being and weight loss and weight gain.

Now, for my entire career, we always talked about calories in/calories out. You burn calorie, you exercise to burn calories, you eat too much, you have too many calories, you gain weight and vice versa. As you age, you realize that that sort of equation doesn’t hold up any more.

It’s like, “Well, see, I’m eating less, but I’m still gaining weight. How the heck can that be?” Then, this whole umbrella of the hormones pop up. I think about hormones kind of–and I’ve read so much about what you talk about hormones. The idea that the hormones are the command center, they help get the jobs done throughout your body, and they are delivering messages all around to do certain things and to get things done. When your hormones start shifting, what happens is some of the rules just don’t apply anymore.

So, why don’t you just give us an idea, like, ok, “I’m a 40-year-old female,” let’s say. “I’m starting to notice changes happening in my body. I’m gaining weight around my mid-section. I don’t feel quite as alert anymore. I’m kind of anxious and I’m not sleeping very well.” Talk about what might be going on but, more so, how can we start correcting these hormone imbalances without necessarily having to spend a whole boatload of money to get all kinds of tests and everything. I know there’s stages to all of this, but maybe just first step, what should we think about? We’re turning 40 and we’re thinking hormones.

Alan Christianson: Sure. For women, there’s this big life transition. They call it menopause, and it’s no menstrual cycles for a year. Assuming there’s no surgeries or the big factors, that happens around age 50, give or take a few months on average and a lot of range in terms of just possible, normal, healthy variation.

Around 40, many women start what we call perimenopause, and that’s some change preceding menopause. To get really tactical, the ovaries make estrogenic hormones or primarily, estradiol and, then, androgenic hormones, primarily testosterone and DHEA. Those are the more feminizing and the more masculizing hormones. Both genders make both. Women have masculizing hormones as well – not as much, but they’re very important for them.

Around perimenopause, what’s happening is the ovaries are making less of all those hormones, and in a perfect scenario, the adrenals are going to compensate. Even before perimenopause, the adrenals make 40% or more of the total amount of estrogens and androgens. So, the ovaries are going to slow down and that’s inevitable. When a woman’s really healthy, the adrenals can really compensate further and make that transition go pretty smoothly.

We all see this where some women, perimenopause and menopause are really a big catastrophe. You mention about the weight gaining. I can also see sleep disturbances, mood changes, memory changes, headaches, skin thinning, vaginal dryness, libido changes, also more tendencies towards muscle injury and core recovery. Those are all things that women experience badly and some really don’t notice much at all. The key to going one way or the other is just how well the adrenals can pick up at the time. It’s like a relay race to whereas the ovaries are slowing, the adrenals have got to grab that baton and run with it. If they’re already struggling to maintain their own cortisol cycles, they can’t do that as well.

Kathy Smith: So, I think the message is be nice to your adrenals. How would you define that? What does being nice to your adrenals mean and how can we optimize their function?

Alan Christianson: You asked about the carb cycling. I’ll go into that. Modern life is a perfect storm to wreck our adrenals. We have food that’s way too high in fructose, way too low in fiber, too sparse in many micronutrients, too high in a lot of weird chemicals and, then, we live inside environments that are seething with synthetic chemicals that disrupt the adrenals. We have artificial lights. We have things that are too loud and we’ve got too many distractions. These are all factors I realize that of all the things that affect the adrenals, we can’t change all of it. If there’s any way that we can lower our chemical burden and age cleaner and take care of our daily cycles, those are good steps.

The cool thing I realize is that you can do a food hack almost. You can use a strategy of changing the ratio of your carbs and your fats and proteins throughout the day just to help reset the glands and make them work better again. Here’s the basic idea just briefly how the adrenals govern blood sugar. Cortisol’s the only one that does that. When cortisol’s good, you’re making it to wake you up and shutting it off to let you go to sleep. Cortisol is also used to raise your blood sugar, when it’s too low.

Apart of having some genetic defects, if we don’t eat for a few hours, we’re not going to die. We’re going to use cortisol to pull some sugar out of our liver, out of our muscles or if we’ve not eaten many carbs recently, we’ll actually break down our muscles themselves. Anyway, we’re going to make sure. We’re going to make glucose, and cortisol helps us do that.

So, I thought this through and I realized if you want high cortisol in the morning and low blood sugar and generous cortisol output, then you still need to eat in the morning, but that would be a good time to have less total carbs. You can support your body having lower insulin and, then, having your healthy cortisol daily spike. Then, the exact opposite is true at night time. That’s when you really want cortisol to shut down and some appropriate good healthy carbs that can help cortisol turn off at night and let you sleep better and let your body go into more of a fat-burning mode as you’re sleeping.

Kathy Smith: So, eating more protein in the morning, emphasizing a few more carbohydrates at night. With that kind of diet, give me a typical eating day in the life of Dr. Alan Christianson. What is your breakfast? Give me a snapshot of breakfast, lunch, dinner type things to maximize your adrenal function and energy, obviously.

Alan Christianson: Breakfast, one of two tracks. I do shakes probably five out of seven days. That’s a really easy thing. There’s good ones that are clean and well-absorbed. You get a good shake as well. You want ones that have some fiber that avoids sugar, and they’re such an easy option. Because you want to get a substantial amount of protein, there’s a shortlist of foods.

Most of the things you get on a common breakfast menus really don’t cut it. Even protein foods like some think about like dairy and eggs, they are not very easy to get to a target of 24 or more grams of protein for breakfast unless you have four eggs, which can be a fair amount of fat otherwise.

I’ll do shakes or I’ll do, typically, sardines. That’s one of my favorite breakfasts. I’ll do a can of sardines and a small buckwheat cracker, some fermented vegetables, some greens. That’s one favorite.

Kathy Smith: Let me interrupt. I’m coming to your house if we have the protein shake. I think I’ll skip the day you have sardines. It’s so funny. I know it’s such a healthy food, but it’s one that I just cannot get over the look of the sardines; although, one of the things I do is salmon. I’ll just have some left-over salmon from the night before or something like that, but I have to say I’m going to skip your sardine breakfast. I’m sorry.

Alan Christianson: Smoked salmon works great too. Sardines, you love them or hate them. But, honestly, the data about the benefits of seafood is overwhelming. There’s two drawbacks about seafood and that’s you’ve got to think about contaminants and you’ve also got to think about sustainability. Both of those concerns are relevant to how large the fish’s mouth is. It’s a really simple, tactical thing. The bigger the fish’s mouth is, the higher up the food chain it’s eating. So, the tiny things are cleaner and they’re more sustainable for the oceans. They also happen to be the densest in nutrients. I know there are many that wouldn’t be an option for them, but if it is, they’re the best foods for a lot of reasons.

Kathy Smith: My take away is I’m going to try it. No, I haven’t tried it for a while but given that new information, I think I’ll give it a try. I’ll let you know if I can. I’ll try the crackers. I think part of it is the texture, and I think with the crackers or something, it can make the texture a little crunchier for me.

Alan Christianson: There’s some newer crackers that are made 100% from buckwheat, which is not wheat as you would know, but it’s crazy healthy non-grain food that’s rich in bioflavonoids and rich in fibers. That’s my favorite combination.

Lunch, the real basis of my lunch is a salad. I’ll include, strategically, along with its routine salad vegetables and greens, I’ll include roughly half a cup of legumes. I’m a big fan of adzuki beans. Black beans are also really good. Chickpeas work great. I love pintos. So, about half a cup of those and, also, some lean protein along with that. Poultry works well. Even some salmon, that’s a great one too. That’s a typical lunch.

Then, dinner, I’ll do similar things to the lunch but often more like a stir fry. I personally just like my cooked things in the evenings, so, I’ll sauté up some vegetables and tons of garlic and ginger and turmeric and just seasonings. Actually, I can do a lot of spicy. I also do a lot of cayenne and different chili peppers – serrano, habaneros. Then, also, some protein. I try to mix it up with different versions from what I had earlier in the day and some good carbs. Quinoa is a favorite. I love wild rice. I’m a Minnesota boy. I grew up on wild rice. I’ll do a larger volume at night.

If I’m more in a weight maintenance mode and I’m not doing a lot of intense training, probably three-quarters of a cup or so. If I’m training heavier, I might do as much as a cup or a bit more, but that will be my highest amount of carbohydrates at the evening meal.

Kathy Smith: Ok, I didn’t notice any desserts in there. Where do we go for our desserts?

Alan Christianson: Some figs here and there. I don’t do a ton. Honestly, if I were someone that had an easy time maintaining my weight or fitness, I’d probably give myself some more leeway, but I’m not. You hear about the Biggest Loser show. I promise, Kathy, if there was a Biggest Gainer show, I could win that. I guarantee I could. 

Kathy Smith: It’s so funny to hear you say that because, obviously, anybody that picks up your book and sees the picture of you on the cover is your lean. When I see you in person, you’re the picture of athletic health, so it’s interesting that that’s just your genetics.

One of the things that I noticed in your book, you talk about you have your super foods list. It seems like everybody seems to have their certain number of foods on the super foods list, and there’s some commonalities there. I notice you had dandelion greens, ginger, which is kind of obvious. You have carob on there, which I’m hoping means a little bit of chocolate, and then, cardamom. I’m wondering why these specific foods are on your super foods list.

Alan Christianson: It’s a pretty neat one. Dandelion greens, also I’ve harvested those in the wild and eaten those quite a bit. They’re a source of potassium. They’re very specific as gentle regulator of electrolytes. We get a lot of processed salt in the diet and a lot of synthetic salts and for many other reasons we can get fluid retention inflammation. Dandelion greens are really nice on the kidneys. It’s a great powerful green overall.

Carob, very good food. Very rich in polyphenols. There are many who are caffeine sensitive. It’s funny, our own biases affect things. Like, you wouldn’t recommend sardines as often because you don’t like sardines. So, my goofy genetics, I’m crazy caffeine sensitive. I have used carob and enjoyed that. There’s some separate data about it having a lot of similar benefits like cacao, but it’s simply a good option for those who are a little more caffeine sensitive.

Then, also, the last one that was on that list was which again? Oh, cardamom. That’s an underutilized spice. I did my training in ayurvedic medicine and some in the Vedanta field. There’s some news quite a bit there in Indian cuisine. It’s a real new thing. It’s close to ginger or cinnamon, but it’s very distinct. There’s a fair amount of data about it really decreasing gut inflammation and decreasing gut permeability and more antihistamine reactions from food intolerance type interactions. It’s a great spice that’s underutilized. You can use the powder or the whole pod, and it’s a great addition to a lot of seafood dishes, poultry, also a lot of things that are made up like hot cereals it works well with. Yeah, cardamom’s wonderful.

Also shakes. It’s really nice in shakes like [unclear 00:27:36] and vanilla, and cardamom can be a real nice distinct flavor.

Kathy Smith: Oh, I’m going to try that tomorrow. I’ve never done that before. You’re absolutely right. I, as you, have a shake every day, and I always try to get some new recipes going. That’s a great idea.

Now, I also have to tell you that I took a workshop last year on ayervetic medicine and, so, I really appreciate it. I can tell in your book the principles and this idea, which we haven’t even gotten into today. I wish we had much more time.

Your belief in getting that light first thing in the morning and getting some natural sunlight and getting outdoors and whether it’s with deep breathing or walking in nature, but this idea of connecting your body to nature and how important that is for getting the balance and the homeostasis in the balance in the body. So, I really am glad that you’re getting that message out, because it’s obviously something I’ve preached forever.

We know the exercise part of it, but a lot of times in this day and age, we’re thinking harder’s better, more is better. Go, go, go! At the end of the day when you think about your body and your adrenals and inflammation, that idea of just nurturing the body with morning sunlight, energetically moving the body, getting the circulation going, being in nature. It’s just so yummy and revitalizing, and I appreciate you sending that message out there.

I do want to say that, as I said it already, I could talk forever about this. It’s such an important topic, so everybody listening, if you pick up the Adrenal Reset Diet book, you are going to get strategies, you’re going to get a diet plan, you’re going to get amazing recipes that I use all the time. It really comes into play when we’re changing seasons and it’s time to just jump start your system again. So, please pick up the book.

Dr. Christianson, it’s been a delight having you. As I said, I follow everything you do. So, keep up the good work, and thanks again.

Alan Christianson: Thank you, again, for having me, Kathy. We can [unclear 00:30:11] really soon. Thanks for all the great work you do for everyone.

Kathy Smith: It was great having Alan Christianson on the show today. Now, sometimes it’s easy to label feelings like tiredness or crankiness and even chocolate cravings as part of just being a female or that’s just my personality or that’s just the way I am. The truth is, it could be your thyroid or your adrenals acting up.

That’s why it’s so important to get in touch with those little parts of your body that we so often neglect. They may be little, but they’re a big deal when it comes to your health and your energy levels. If you want your brain to work well, if you want to have your weight in a place that feels right for you, and if you want to have enough energy to work throughout the day, you’re going to find it tough to succeed without the optimally functioning thyroids and adrenals.

What I have found that helps balance my energy levels, my adrenals and even my thyroid is yoga. It’s one of the most scientifically proven ways to relax and settle your mind, and it helps to give your adrenals a rest. After practicing for me a few times a week, I see an amazing difference in how I handle stress and my energy levels. If I’ve been traveling and I get back from the trip, the first thing I do is jump on the mat, do my practice and I find that I rebalance. I re-align myself.

So, try the yoga. If you haven’t tried it before, give it a try. It does wonders for so many parts of your anatomy, but in particular, it really helps to relax and to give those adrenals a bit of a boost and a bit of time to re-invigorate.

I would love to hear from you if you start yoga practice – your thoughts or if you’re already doing a practice – your thoughts on yoga, the type of yoga you enjoy doing. If you have a particular instructor or a particular technique that you like, I’d love to hear about it. Ok, see you next week.