The impact of lifestyle choices and hormonal balance on coping with stress
Stress is no stranger to any of us. We live in a world where hard work begets hard work and time has become a luxury we cannot afford. Success is about finding ways to do things better, faster, and cheaper. In this world, we are forced to react to adversity at every corner, and it takes forms we may or may not recognize. This is commonly known as the “rat race.” It is interesting to think of a rat running on a wheel that spins due to their own momentum and will only stop when they realize they control it. Ironically, this is not unlike the situation we find ourselves in. We are caught up in our own vicious cycle of stress, and have not yet learned to control it. If we are to find lasting production, health, and wellness we need to become aware of the mechanisms causing our wheel to turn.
So how do we control the seemingly uncontrollable? The first step is realizing we can create our stress, and that stress is more than what you may perceive. I know what you are thinking. You have heard this before, right? If I meditate, do yoga, or express myself, I can reduce my stress and get out of the race. While these practices are important, stress is much more than popular culture leads us to believe. When we think of stress we think of some poor guy who is worried about paying his bills, upset at the fight he had with his wife, anxious about being in traffic, and jittery about his upcoming presentation at work. This is certainly a form of stress, but it is only a small piece of the pie.
Stress is a protective mechanism initiated by the body to regain homeostasis or balance. When in balance, we are able to effectively manage stress without letting it affect us in a negative way. Life is a dynamic process and it is how, not what, we deal with that comes our way that is important. There are many things that can throw us out of balance. Poor diet, lack of exercise, decreased sleep, caffeine, alcohol, negative thoughts, and dehydration are all things that will cause negative reactions in our body. Some stresses that are short-lived and controlled (like exercise) may actually help us regain balance, while stress reactions that are extreme or persistent usually lead to further imbalance. It is important to realize we can choose which type of stress we will experience, negative or positive. We have control through our choices and perception.
In our effort to seek balance and therefore avoid a negative stress response, we need to understand stress is not merely something that happens to us. Believe it or not, stress is something we may choose and can exert influence over. Our bodies know what balance feels like. Every time we eat healthy, perceive the positive, exercise regularly, and sleep adequately, our body releases biochemical messengers that reset our system towards balance and away from imbalance or stress. We have all heard of these messengers: they are hormones. Some make us fat, some make us thin, some make us stressed, and some make us relaxed. Hormones are the keys that tell our bodies to react in a stressed out, unhealthy, overweight way, or to take a thinner, more laid back approach to life. For many of us, our daily choices induce negative stress responses setting our vicious cycle in motion. We control these choices.
Think about what it feels like to have a good night’s sleep, one where you went to bed at a reasonable hour and woke up ready to go even before the alarm clock. For many this is a distant memory or even a dream. Think about how you felt, what you thought and your productivity that day. In this scenario you were likely to eat well, exercise, and be more productive. This is not because sleep has some magical power; it is because proper sleep leads to the balanced hormonal state associated with health, weight loss, and productivity. Sleep is one of the most important tools to regain balance. It is analogous to the reset button on your computer. When your body “crashes,” sleep is the fastest way to reboot. What we fail to realize is that a choice to go to bed later or to do things that interfere with sleep quality or quantity impact us the next day. This is a concept that we have forgotten in our world of immediate cause and effect. Your choices today directly impact your state of balance tomorrow.
So what exactly does sleep reset? Again, it is hormones. To understand how this works we need to go back to the time of prehistoric humans. Think of your average prehistoric hunter-gather. When the sun went down he slept, when the sun rose he woke. His hormones were what allowed his body to know when to sleep and when to wake. In medicine they call this a circadian rhythm. It is the hormonal dance that occurs with the dark-light cycle. Ever since the invention of the light bulb our days have been lengthened, our nights have been shortened, and our bellies have gotten bigger! Add to this artificial heat and abundant food, and our hormones constantly tell us we are in a perpetual summer. Summer time to a caveman and to us means eat energy rich food and get fat for the coming winter. The only problem is, winter never comes, and balance is never restored. Our hormones think we are experiencing summer and they treat us that way, making us overweight. A good night’s sleep is one of the keys to stimulate hormonal balance, lowering fat storing hormones, like cortisol and insulin, and elevating fat burning hormones, like growth hormone and glucagon. (1-3) Other lesser-known hormones such as leptin and ghrelin, which are closely related to appetite, are also balanced with adequate sleep. (13,14) Like the caveman, when our circadian rhythm is in sync with the cycle of the sun and the moon, our hormones come into balance which enables us to cope with and perceive stress in a healthy manner.
Just as sleep is a reset button for hormonal balance, our food choices also impact us hormonally. Every time we eat, we are sending messages to our body to burn fat or store it, maintain high energy or low energy, and be in a state of wellness or dis-ease. Imagine what happens when you compound dietary “stress” with the psychological stress you encounter during your day. Your choice of breakfast can put you in a state of imbalance before you walk out the door to go to work. This is analogous to the rat climbing on the wheel and starting to run. By the time the rat realizes it is on the wheel again, it has forgotten how it got there in the first place. We all know that eating a hormonally balanced meal will not take the stresses of life away, but it will allow you to be in a more balanced place when these stresses occur. This makes it far less likely for you to experience the negative effects of stress. Think of it as a threshold effect. Once you pass a certain limit of imbalance, your body will react strongly in an attempt to get you back to balance. The closer you are to balance, the less likely you will perceive or have a negative reaction to other stresses in your life.
Believe it or not, hormones even impact your mood and your thought processes. Hormones like serotonin and dopamine, also known as neurotransmitters, help you feel more relaxed and motivated, respectively. (15,16) These are the hormones that doctors manipulate with mood altering drugs. Sleep, diet, and exercise also strongly influence serotonin and dopamine. (17-19) Your daily choices are extremely powerful in determining your feelings and thoughts. Surprisingly, thoughts and feelings work in a reciprocal fashion to impact these very same messengers. Every time you generate a thought or feeling, you have the opportunity to affect these messengers. This gives new meaning to the saying “be careful of what you wish for.” Even a negative self-defeating thought moves you one step closer to the rat race. Have you ever met people who are in the same sorry predicament as everyone else, yet seemed to manage much easier? These were probably individuals who learned that they have equal say in the way they feel and think. These people are usually practiced at making healthy choices, and generating thoughts that promote balance. They perceive stress in a positive light as opposed to a negative. Your thoughts and feelings are influenced by lifestyle choices like diet, sleep and exercise; and these lifestyle choices are similarly impacted by your thoughts and feelings. You can exert a strong degree of influence over both with your choices.
When it comes to exercise, things get trickier. After all, exercise is a stress to the body, right? While this is true, remember some stressors can be positive and some can be negative. The way you choose to do exercise will determine which scenario predominates. Proper exercise acts like a tune-up to your hormonal stress network. This is another form of reset for the body. Only this time, you get the benefit of having new, more effective software added after reboot. This new software includes hormones that repair and make the body stronger and leaner so that the next time we encounter stress it will be less likely to knock us out of balance. Exercise done properly allows us to stay in a balanced state for much longer periods of time which is why research shows those who exercise regularly are happier, healthier, leaner, and stronger. (4-7) One mistake made by most people is spending too much time exercising. Long, drawn out exercise sessions are not necessary, and may actually increase certain messengers that lead to further imbalance. (20,21) Choosing short duration, high intensity exercise provides the right balance of hormonal software to help our bodies run more efficiently. (20,22) Not only does this type of exercise burn a tremendous amount of calories immediately, but the hormonal situation created allows for increased energy usage for long periods after the exercise has stopped. (8-12)
Balance in life has become clichE. People talk about eating a balanced diet, and doing everything in moderation. The important thing to remember is balance is a feeling. You know when you are there. It is like the “zone” people talk about in athletics. The key to balance is that it is different for everyone and everyone’s journey back to balance is unique. The first step is to become aware of where we are out of balance. The next step is to choose and practice activities that put us in balance. Realizing that we exert control over our state of balance is powerful. However, it is just the beginning. The cards are stacked against us. After all, we live in an extremely unbalanced world. In order to achieve lasting weight loss, health, energy, and productivity, stressful influences must be managed. Realizing our role in things that add stress or create balance allows us to remove some of the cards in the deck. We need to learn the proper way to sleep to positively affect our stressors. Cultivating positive thoughts is also an essential tool. The hormonal effect of our food choices is another powerful influence on how to cope with and perceive stress. If we are to attain and maintain balance, health and wellness, we must take time to practice our influence and make healthy choices in areas of our life we control.
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by Jade Teta, ND, CSCS and Keoni Teta, ND, LAc, CSCS
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