By recognizing our patterns ahead of time, we have the ability to prevent falling into those cycles that cause us to feel exhausted.
Heading into the new school year is a good time to set our intentions for how we want to live in the months ahead. Especially here in Alaska , summertime leads us to focus on the outside world. Our energy goes towards producing and gathering food, enjoying the sunshine, and keeping the body active. As the seasons shift towards fall, however, that energy moves inward. As the light fades, our focus shifts towards school, work, and interpersonal relationships. Stresses may increase as work hours augment, schoolwork piles up, and we suddenly have to juggle more activities into a busy schedule.
Each of us has a pattern of how we act and react to stress, and these patterns can cause the body to get out of balance. Stress is of critical importance to our survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, exposure to stressors enforces that we are perpetuating the strongest and most fit members of our community. On a less philosophical level, moderate levels of stress keep us motivated and engaged, and the body is built to perform optimally when there is a balance of stressors and relaxation. However, our cultural standard is focused on rewarding productivity, and often relaxation is viewed as laziness. In this context, that balance can be easily discarded or lost.
We all know what it means to feel out of balance, but what is actually happening physiologically? Depending on your pattern, there are a number of ways that imbalance can manifest itself in the body:
The body’s first reaction in a stressful situation is to produce the hormones that have historically allowed us to survive. This means that when our ancestors ran into the bear, their bodies released hormones (epinephrine and cortisol) that allowed them to run fast, jump high, and see well. Epinephrine, or adrenalin, increases the heart rate, brings blood to our muscles, dilates our pupils, and opens our airways to bring in plenty of oxygen. Cortisol quickly mobilizes our fat stores and turns them into glucose to feed the brain and muscles. These hormones are very important for surviving the run from the bear; however, these are released with any stressor. This means that if we become angry with a coworker, feel pressed for a deadline, are running late for a meeting, or are too tired from lack of sleep, our adrenals will produce epinephrine and cortisol.
If this becomes a pattern that happens frequently throughout the day over a period of time, the body can become imbalanced in three primary ways. First, chronic overproduction of cortisol suppresses the immune system, making a person susceptible to infection and decreasing the ability to heal properly. In the longer term, the elevated blood sugar that results from cortisol release can lead to insulin resistance and, eventually, Type 2 diabetes. Cortisol is also in part responsible for how awake we feel, and is normally high in the morning and low in the evening. Chronic overproduction disturbs this natural circadian rhythm and can be related to problems with insomnia.
Another aspect of this cycle is what is commonly referred to as “adrenal fatigue.” For many of us, the adrenal glands are continually relied upon as the primary source of energy via epinephrine and cortisol rather than adequate sleep, good food, and relaxation. If this pattern continues over the course of several years, the adrenals can start to become fatigued and, in extreme cases, can lose function. Thus, symptoms of chronic fatigue, low libido and insomnia can all be related to adrenal fatigue.
Some of the behaviors related to stress can also be detrimental to our body. Eating patterns can be disrupted, for example. People will often skip meals during times of stress. Although it seems counterintuitive, over time this can cause weight gain. If, for example, a person is not eating breakfast, during the 18 or so hours that pass between dinner and the next lunch, the body thinks it is starving. When food is available again, the body will store it as fat. On the flip side, there can be the tendency to overeat or choose convenience foods. This can contribute to chronically high blood sugars, Type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and all the factors mentioned in last month’s article about cardiovascular disease.
It is also important to mention the effects of stress on the musculoskeletal system. Stress is often “stored” in the neck, shoulders, and low back, leading to muscle tension and chronic pain. Although the tendency can be to put exercise on the back burner during hectic times, this does not help. Exercise improves circulation to the muscles, stimulates the production of white blood cells, boosts metabolism, relieves stress, and moves the lymph. Aerobic exercise (also known as activity that makes us sweat) is critical for the health of heart and blood vessels. Weight-bearing exercise builds muscle and maintains bone density, preventing osteoporosis. Though often forgotten, stretching is of critical importance—particularly during stressful times, as it allows the body to release tension and aids in muscle recovery.
As we head into the autumnal focus on jobs, school, and productivity, it can be of great use to set our intentions for how we will maintain balance during times of stress. If that balance is lost, our ability to be productive and present at our jobs and in our professional relationships is compromised. Additionally, over the longer term, our health will be compromised as well. By recognizing our patterns ahead of time, we have the ability to prevent falling into those cycles that cause us to feel exhausted. Instead, we can eat wholesome, healthy foods and choose activities that help us to stay energized and engaged.