In my last article I covered five forms of stress that can make or break your ability to live with vitality. This time, I’ll cover five more and hopefully give you some great food for introspection. Like so many facets of our existence, “living the good life” really comes back to choices. Each of these five steps below can involve some tough choices or evaluation of priorities.
6. Negative thoughts
If you saw my last article, you know emotional stress was one of the five forms I mentioned. While negative thoughts are similar to emotional stress, I choose to list this as a different type of stress because the latter is usually a representation of the reality that life will have its seemingly random glitches. Those “glitches”, however, are somewhat different than negative thoughts – which, if unchecked, can become a lifelong pattern and an increasingly destructive cycle. This topic is actually so important that I’m dedicating an entire chapter in the book I’m writing to the fascinating connection our mind has to our health. As a little teaser, know that every thought you think is in some way tied to how well your immune system functions, and that your mind may be the single most important factor in reaching or not reaching your health goals, body composition goals or any other goals, for that matter. If you’ve ever tried to change your body while holding on to a negative attitude, you’ve probably only met with more frustration. Change your mind and your body can change.
Whether negative thoughts are about ourselves, other people or the world in general, they have been scientifically shown to lower immune function and facilitate the very thing we are feeling negative about. You may already know this, but you can’t break a bad thought pattern. Don’t even try. Instead, you have to replace the negative with positive. A simple exercise is to replace discontent with gratitude. It’s darn near impossible to feel those two emotions at the same time. What are you grateful for?
7. Lack of Sleep
There is no measure you can take for your health that replaces what sleep does for your body. Sleep is when our bodies do most of their repair work, and surprisingly (to me, anyway), a lot of our learning takes place while we rest. Sleep is also one of only two times your body will make its gold standard fat burning, muscle building, youth promoting hormone: Human Growth Hormone. As a side note, the other time it makes the hormone is as a result of hitting your absolute max of physical exertion – think really heavy weights, breathlessness and fire in your muscles that results in muscle failure. Ah, doesn’t sleep sound so much better now?
Lack of sufficient sleep is an epidemic in this country. Compared to other nations, we are highly productive, but sleep deprivation is also one side effect of that productivity. A National Sleep Foundation survey found that 43% of adults say that they are so sleepy during the day that it interferes with daily activity, and 60% of children under age 18 complained of feeling tired during the day. If our bodies do not run on a good night’s sleep, the only thing they can run on is stress hormones. Prolonged use of stress hormones, among many other unpleasant symptoms, can cause our bodies to store an unhealthy amount of visceral fat (fat around our organs) – the fat that gives us the “apple” and “pear” shapes so common today. Sleep is one of those facets of health that often comes back to priorities. Doing it well often means saying no to other (sometimes good) things. If you’re having trouble sleeping, know that your body is not uninterested in sleeping or incapable of it… you are just doing something that is standing in it’s way. Be a detective and figure out what!
8. Structural Stress
Structural Stress doesn’t get as much publicity these days and thus is often a source of stress that many do not even know exists, let alone how to deal with it. In short, structural stress comes about when our joints are put into awkward positions and never quite resets to the proper alignment. Some argue that this type of stress can start as early as birth (birth canal or C-section), but can also result from a fall, carrying heavy loads, improper sleeping or sitting positions, sitting too long and even from other forms of stress like smoking, malnutrition and emotional strain. Joints left just slightly misaligned (called subluxations) can put pressure on nerves and reduce their ability to direct blood flow and commands from the brain.
Additionally, areas of the body that have been scarred (particularly muscles, joints and skin) actually hold the “memory” of traumatic events in their tissue. This memory can be uncovered using simple muscle tests and help a holistically-minded practitioner understand how to start addressing this type of stress. One fabulous discipline that can help you manage structural stress is a chiropractor. Just like every other wellness service you could use, not all chiropractors are created equally. Look for ones who have been in practice a while and have a strong following. They just might blow you away with all they know about health, and you’ll be better for it.
9. Refined Sugar
When sugar was first discovered in the 16th century, it was actually kept under lock and key because of its potency as a drug-like substance. Now we serve it up super sized as a legal addictive substance that acts like kryptonite on our immune system, promotes blood sugar disorders, depletes our bodies of multiple nutrients (especially minerals), creates an acidic residue in our blood and promotes obesity. That is just the short list of problems. If you’re looking to improve your health, you will likely find eliminating all traces of refined sugar from your diet immediately gives you a boost. That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting switching to artificial sweeteners, but that topic is for another article.
The sinister thing about sugar is that it comes to us in concentrations so far out of balance with what nature presents. When we consume this sweet but nutrient void substance, our bodies are not nourished. When we consume empty foods, our bodies cry out for more and we keep eating. In reality, our bodies are looking for more nourishment, not more calories. This helps explain why it is estimated that people who eat whole, nutrient dense foods reach satiety about 30% faster than people who eat processed food. Have you ever tried to eat 1,000 calories of broccoli? Good luck. Make it a point to see how much real food you can eat in one sitting and I’ll bet you won’t eat as much.
What? How did this make the list? I thought exercise was good for me! It is… if you use some common sense. Having been a Personal Trainer for many years now, it’s interesting to me to read the literature on the best exercises to burn body fat. The scientific consensus on exercises that burn body fat almost always come back to the highest intensity exercises, done in short bursts and followed by a rest. While I make no argument that that form of exercise has a hormonally significant fat burning component, the reality is that most of our desk jockey population is nowhere near capable of working out like that without hurting themselves. We sit way more than we stand, and to go from sedentary to acting like an athlete is a recipe for injury.
Weekend warriors, endurance athletes (especially marathoners) and those new to resistance (weight) training, beware. If your body is as fit (and nourished) as, let’s say, a golf cart, and you drive it like it’s a Ferrari, what do you think might happen to it? Most people who start a new exercise program on their own end up with an injury within about six weeks. This is mostly due to either a lack of understanding regarding a logical progression of intensity, improper understanding of form – or both. Furthermore, research also suggests that anyone who does a marathon suffers some degree of cardiac damage (yikes), not to mention puts a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on their joints. While an injury can be a great learning experience and simply a temporary setback, many injuries can set people up with an unnecessary long-term aversion to exercise – an aversion to one of the most fundamental aspects of staying healthy.
When starting a new exercise program, you should take into account your injury history, your medical history, the nutritional profile of your diet and how long you have been sedentary. All of those are important, but I’ll just highlight the last one. It takes your connective tissue about 10-12 weeks to adapt to new amounts of load. A 3 or 6 session exercise basics class at our local Crossfit may be a great start, but don’t start maxing out as soon as you “graduate”. Be smart. There is a lot to learn in this fabulous world of exercise. Done right, it’s the time us grown ups get to play and feel better about ourselves. Who couldn’t use a little more of that?
Here’s to your health and being smarter about ways to manage stress. I hope this was helpful.