Is Stress Enabling You or Will it Disable You?
As I have mentioned the key to good health is following a low-inflammatory lifestyle but not a no-inflammatory lifestyle. Now here is the tricky part, inflammation can be caused by many different things so how do we best manage it?
Let’s isolate the different aspects of your life into silos which include, but aren’t limited to:
Each silo can up-regulate or down-regulate inflammation. Each silo is inter-related yet independent in the sense that if one is up-regulating inflammation then it can do so irrespective of what the other silos are doing. Now, keeping all these aspects of your life below an inflammation-inducing threshold is like spinning plates. Some days it’ll be a breeze, others a typhoon. There are some in that list that is out of your control, take work, for example, you cannot control if your boss sends you a shitty email or a colleague lets you down. In both examples, it produces stress and consequently inflammation as a result of the sympathetic nervous system getting fired up. In these instances, it is possible to manage how you respond to the stress at work even if you cannot control it.
Another example is relationships, some days are a breeze, others monsoonal, and just like work, you can not control what someone says, does or doesn’t do BUT you can manage how you react to it, this secondary action of controlling how you react to stress/emotion is a skill that must be mastered over time, so a great many of us allow the stimulus or trigger to affect our mood, thoughts and physiology.
Thankfully some silos are totally within your wheelhouse of control, those being sleep, nutrition and exercise. And, as luck should have it those silos occupy the greatest bandwidth for optimal health. You have 100% ownership of what goes into your mouth, every bite, nibble, sip and slurp and each thing you put in your mouth will up-regulate or down-regulate inflammation.
Unless you’re incarcerated, in which case you have little choice what you eat, and when for that matter. You have the power and freedom to choose the foods you eat and when to eat them. However, several factors interfere with the choices we make around food which can lead to eating pro-inflammatory foods or poor habits.
But know this… if and when we can wrestle with those factors (cravings, habits, urges and impulses) and come out the other side, we all have the power and freedom to choose foods that up-regulate our health. We decide!
The other silo which we have utter control over is sleep. Unless you’re a shift work or again, incarcerated, you are in control of when and how you sleep. This my friend, is a beautiful thing. Right there in the palm of your hand is a big powerful lever to influence your health….and requires very little effort. So even during times when it’s tricky to keep the other plates spinning if you can maintain a hardline approach to your sleep you’ll be in the best possible position to manage health.
Back-peddling slightly here, but one small caveat is that some stress is good for you, your immunity and good for the human race. It becomes problematic when it becomes chronic or acutely too much – and tolerance to stress is individualised. What brings me to my knees, could be water off a duck back to you.
I believe that we need to feel some level of stress to help drive us forward, and leading into the ‘uncomfortable’ is often where the reward is. It’s that reward that will ignite the areas of your brain that bring us back for more and make us winners! Similarly, our immunity needs us to be stressed somewhat to fire up and protect us from virus, disease, infection or trauma, and the immunity down-regulates when we take the foot off the pedal. This is seen so often, as in the case of getting sick when you go away on holidays – this phenomenon is often put down to rotten luck but luck has bugger all to do with it. The holiday allows us to destress and unwind which consequently down-regulates the sympathetic nervous system and in turn our immunity. It’s hardly a surprise then that by the time you’re slinking onto your hammock with a margarita in hand that you begin to get the sniffles.
I think largely this explained the death of my dad in 2005. Since the age of 15 my dad had worked – and for the last 37 years had run pubs in and around London. He and mum had been talking about retirement for many years and planned to take early retirement – it became their primary focus. Dad, and mum for that matter (actually mum probably takes the crown for working hardest – she was the engine room of the business whereas my dad was the face and the poor sod that had to put up with the regular customers day in day out – and trust me I did my fair share of hours behind the bar and it was tough). Anyway, the day came when they moved out of the pub and into their new home to begin their final chapter in life. Within 5 months of retirement, dad was dead. All those grand plans of exploring the British Isles and beyond out the window. Gone!
We will never know for sure but I suspect that being at work and dealing with the day to day stress was creating an immune barrier, holding back his symptoms. Only when he took the foot off the pedal during retirement did the symptoms of his illness slapped in him royally in the face.
I digress but hopefully, you get my point – stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s dose-dependent. In the right quantities, it came to push us to be creative, have ingenuity, problem-solve and of course have good immunity. Stress has been present in our ancestral past since the dawn of time – up until the last 100 years the risk of early death, famine, invaders, disease or poor living conditions meant stress was very real but it evokes drive, perseverance and betterment within our species.
Our physiological design is to survive long enough to procreate and this feeds back our ability to push forward even in times of adversity.
Leaving humans for a moment a study done on mice, in which mice were placed into a tube facing each other head-on…(The Tube Test). Inevitably one mouse will dominate the other and become the winner by forcing the loser backwards out the tube. The chemical reward for the winner meant that if it is put back into that situation again with the same or different mouse, the winner will statistically triumph again and conversely the loser will statistically lose again.
Winning ignites an area of our brain (frontal cortex) becoming more active in the winner. The study has shown that the area of the brain is responsible for converting arousal and stress to forwarding movement. There is a lot to say for us as human when exposed to arousal and stress and frustration, that it encourages us to move forward adaptively.
The title for this blog should be ‘spinning plates’, which is so exactly how it feels at the time, keeping the levels of stress optimal for immunity and forward movement but not overly high acutely or chronically which could induce a detrimental health outcome. Trust me I know this very well with the onset of Shingles in early 2020. The level of stress I was contending with was too high (for me) to cope with and it manifests in an unfavourable and disgusting ailment, putting me in hospital for 6 days. My advice would be to lean into stress rather than run the other way, be familiar and comfortable with the uncomfortable but know the limits. Recognising when stress can evolve into a three-headed beast with long sticky tendrils which infiltrate your health and mental health.
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