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Paleo Damage Control: Sleep, Stress, and Exercise

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We’ve already covered dietary “damage control” – if you can’t afford to eat completely Paleo, how do you make the best of the options you do have? But for some people the big challenge isn’t food; it’s that pesky lifestyle trio: sleep, stress, and exercise. We all know what we’re supposed to do (8 hours, stress management, regular workouts), and we all know how critically important it is (bad sleep and chronic stress can wreck your health and stall weight loss even if your diet is very good).

All these things are Paleo issues, because they’re all about the mismatch between our genetics and our environment. We weren’t built for chronic sleep deprivation, low-level chronic stress, and sedentary lifestyles any more than we were built to eat Oreos and drink Coke. And even if you’re taking a very limited view of Paleo as just a diet, lifestyle issues also affect your diet indirectly, by affecting metabolism, cravings, and other issues.

But what if you just can’t swing the lifestyle thing? What if you can’t avoid being stressed? What if you simply can’t get 8 hours of sleep? What if the stars have aligned to make it impossible to exercise?

Just like with food, there’s a difference between “I can’t do this” and “I could do this but choose to prioritize other things.” If you could be sleeping (or working out) but instead you choose to stay up late watching TV, forget about trying to “hack” the resulting health problems and re-evaluate your priorities.

But there are also legitimate situations where it just isn’t going to happen – or at least where it isn’t all going to happen. Life is full of emergencies. Nobody can have a perfect lifestyle all the time. Here’s how to minimize the damage and keep yourself headed in roughly the right direction even if you stray a little bit off the path.

Focus on Sleep Quality if you Can’t Get Quantity

If you can’t get enough sleep, make sure the sleep you can get is good. You don’t have time to waste on lousy sleep, and you certainly don’t have time to waste lying in bed tossing and turning. Unfortunately, if there’s some emergency cutting your sleep short, chances are it’s also stressing you out, and sleeping well under stress can be a challenge. Here are some tips:


Your sleep environment can make a big difference in your sleep quality. Even if you can’t get enough hours, make sure the hours you do get are as restful as possible.

Sacrifice Exercise Before Sleep

If you crawled into bed at 2am, dragging yourself back out at 6am because you were scheduled for leg day is wasting your time. If you aren’t sleeping, you aren’t recovering from your workout anyway, which means you aren’t actually getting much benefit from it.

If you have to choose between sleep and the gym, choose sleep. That’s true even if you want to lose weight. Diet is much more important than exercise for weight loss – exercise is great, but you can lose weight without it.

That doesn’t mean you should accept being totally sedentary. Even if it doesn’t count as “exercise,” do what you can to be non-sedentary. If your problem is time, can you stand up while you work? Pile up some books on your desk and stick your laptop or monitor on top of them: it’s an instant standing desk. Alternate hours of standing and sitting – it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t take up any extra time, you can work while you’re doing it, and it’s better than sitting all day.

If you don’t have time for an hour-long workout, take 20 minutes of HIIT and make it really count. If you can’t make it to the gym but you have 15 minutes, do some air squats or go for a walk. If you’re stuck in a hospital or an airport, walk around the building, or try some gentle stretching. Use your imagination and don’t worry about getting “exercise;” just focus on not-sitting at least some of the time.

Napping Helps

If you can’t get enough sleep at night, can you take a nap? After several depressing pages listing all the inflammatory, immune, cardiovascular, and other consequences of sleep restriction, this study examines the benefits of napping for minimizing the damage. Napping helps reduce the inflammatory damage of sleep restriction, restore normal immune system, and generally re-regulate stress hormones.

For maximum efficiency with minimum sleepiness when you wake up, the authors suggest a short (around 20-minute) nap, combined with caffeine (drink coffee, then lie down for a nap immediately, so that by the time you wake up the coffee will be kicking in). The early afternoon is typically the best time for people who go to bed at night and wake up in the morning, although if you’re doing something like shift work and 1-3pm is the middle of your “night,” this will obviously vary.

(Bear in mind that napping as damage control for sleep deprivation isn’t the same thing as polyphasic sleep. With polyphasic sleep, you’re choosing to sleep in two or more shorter segments because that works best for your body. With the catch-up nap, you’d rather get 8 hours, but since you can’t do that, you’re picking the next-best thing)

Reframe your Stress

Stress isn’t only caused by events like final exams, important projects. A lot of the actual stress is in the way we perceive those events. If we didn’t perceive traffic as stressful, it wouldn’t stress us out. Obviously there are limits to this: infection is a physical stressor regardless of how you think about it. But psychologically speaking, perception accounts for a lot.

If you’re feeling victimized or crushed by stress, can you reframe your internal narrative so that you’re a hero instead of a victim? Put on your favorite superhero movie soundtrack and make up a story for yourself – it really helps! If you’re nervous about an exam or a big presentation, can you reframe the physical symptoms as excitement? Reframing stress can go a surprisingly long way towards changing its effects on your mind and body.

What to Eat

You can’t out-eat a bad lifestyle. But you can eat in a way that minimizes the damage. When you’re stressed and sleep-deprived, you’re facing two big diet problems:

Here’s how to handle it:

Resist the urge to eat sugar, even Paleo sugar like dried fruit and honey, to manage stress or fatigue. It only makes the problem worse in the long run.

Summing it Up

Just like compromising on your diet, compromising on lifestyle factors is a choice between bad, less-bad, and least-bad options. Sometimes you have to live with those choices – that’s life, and all you can do is adjust your expectations accordingly and do the best you reasonably can.

If you’re stuck for time to sleep, work out, or manage your stress, here’s what to do:

It’s not perfect, but just do what you can, and never feel bad for making the best choices you can make in your particular situation.

Photo of Ashley Noël

Hi I’m Ashley, I’m an ADAPT Certified Functional Health Coach

Get coaching around:

  • transitioning to a Paleo diet
  • reaching your fitness goals
  • getting through those hurdles
    • limiting sugar, gluten, carbs
    • eating out
  • overall life satisfaction

I can’t wait to help you make lasting lifestyle changes