False Wellness and the Pursuit of Health
Let me preface this article by saying I’m a big fan of Crossfit, Olympic weight lifting, weight or resistance training, interval training, running, cycling and any other form of working the body. I love all the things. But sometimes, doing “All the Things” is too much.
This is a follow up article to last week's review of a study that dissected female athletes who wrecked their metabolism under the best conditons.
So that said… don’t hate on what I’m about to say.
Through clinical observation, functional medicine testing and functional movement assessments of now hundreds of athletes I can honestly say that many people go through health and end up on the opposite end of the spectrum; which has its own set of devastating consequences.
False Health or False Wellness is when we assume we're healthy because we're doing what we BELIEVE is right, but all the while it's creating dysfunction.
In our attempts for achieving “wellness” or optimal health and just the right body composition, we may be doing one of the worst things we can do – especially for those of us who fumble between a full-time career, education, family, finances, etc.
Let me explain.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I spend A LOT of time STUDYING human physiology. I love reading scientific papers on human biomechanics and movement, stress hormones, muscle protein synthesis and nutrition.
I personally love to hang on things, swing my body around, push myself hard (even when I know I shouldn’t), and listen to some loud MotherF’n music while other peeps shout and cheer each other on!
I LOVE ALL THE THINGS and will always continue to train that way, but hear me out…
I care for people who eat PLENTY (2400+ calories) for all the training they’re doing (upwards of 3hrs /day) and even though they acknowledge all the stress in their lives… many more do not or refuse to think it’s there. It's dumb.
For some of them, there’s no day job. They peruse at home after a hectic morning of driving kids to school, preparing food, cleaning, paying bills, etc.
Then there’s others, who for most of the day, work at an office (usually at a desk) with complete disregard on the mental toll any of it takes.
Still, others go to school…
Going to school provides a unique stress response, but it’s not entirely different from those of us who are stay at home parents, self employed or part of the workforce in general – there’s the pressure to be perfect, to meet deadlines, to impress those in higher positions, etc.
Regardless of what you do… regardless of how much you try to minimize your stress – believe me it’s there.
We all have an immense amount of pressure coming from every angle – don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my job – but that’s why it’s so stressful sometimes – answering to literally +1000 people per week via email, Facebook messenger, Instagram DM’s, text messages, face to face conversation. Everyday.
And I have it easy. If you’re a mom, you have to be the positive source of energy.
If you’re a full time working mom, you have to be a positive source of energy with little to no energy for everyone else.
WE HEAR YOU MOMMA'S OF THE WORLD! You can ROAR! But it won't change your physiology.
You have to give and give and be willing to rarely receive.
And you can love it. You can love it ALL. You can love your work or personal life and all the while assume to have little to no stress; or at least so you think.
On top of all this, for every physical stressor we have, there is easily 3X’s more emotional stress coming from relationships with both friends and parents…
And you may think – “Hey, I got this.”
My life is great. I get 7-9 hours of sleep, I’m eating good food, I’m exercising. I’m good.
Or so you think.
Let me take a quick pause here and say that if you’re reading this and instinctively start telling yourself that this article does not apply to you… that’s EXACTLY my point.
We all need to do some self-inventory and self-assessing to bring our awareness to the fact that you can NOT do it ALL. Everyone has a stress threshold, and it’s up to you on how you reach it.
Some people are not going to give up their fast-paced job and 3 kids so that they can spend more time training and recovering. Some people will try to think that they can handle all of it and then some.
With respect to health, we all need to realize what our non-negotiables are (career, education, family, finances) and understand that anything in addition to that is either going to ADD to the stress bucket, or take AWAY from it.
It is what it is. Deal?
Treating The Symptom
How the hell have we made it this far?
The vast majority of us live on adrenaline. Coffee consumption is at an all time high. Caffeine is a drug that further spikes cortisol. The reason why Starbucks is so successful is because they fuel our ridiculous pursuits of pushing through everything despite the overwhelming fatigue we are experiencing.
Take a look at the graph below. Pay attention to the increase of “occasional” coffee drinkers vs “daily” drinkers. I believe this is a symptom of something greater at work.
We are basically climbing a ladder and it’s burning from the bottom up.
And when the fire catches you… so does the weight gain – the joint pains, the headaches, the heart palpitations and hormone imbalances. Your blood pressure becomes abnormal. Your hair falls out and you start noticing that you cannot handle things you used to.
It gets to the point where we even start to chalk it up to aging and we think, “Fuck it. I’ll just work harder.”
What the hell kind of nonsense is that??
You’re burning an incredible amount of energy every day – and still gaining weight. How is that possible?
Regardless of what food you eat or how much you exercise, your clothes fit a little tighter, you start retaining more and more water and you notice the scale fluctuating on the regular.
Do you get striations in your skin after you take your socks off at the end of the day? You should know that EDEMA is not a sign of optimal health.
Is it harder and harder to get up in the morning? One coffee is now 3 or 5. You start looking into pre-workout formulas and then you’re wondering why the hell you can’t you fall asleep?
HPA-Axis Dysfunction & Adrenal Fatigue
These are all signs of HPA-Axis Dysfunction commonly known as adrenal fatigue or cortisol dysregulation.
For some of you, you’ll notice that digestion has literally gone to shit – you’re bloated, gassy and leaking from your butt (diarrhea). Maybe you’ve even developed food sensitivities.
Now you can’t eat Wheat (gluten), eggs (albumin) or dairy (casein A1). These are all signs of a leaky gut that almost always co exist with adrenal problems.
Because what does science say about a gut that becomes impermeable to large proteins? You guessed it – chronically high cortisol and inflammation in the gut.
Now let’s talk about sex. What about it Dr. D? There isn’t any.
Sex drive starts to go away too! Cortisol is a stress hormone that has a direct impact on the entire hormonal system. It affects thyroid hormones, blood sugar hormones (insulin) and sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen etc.). What this means for you is low sex drive, irregular periods (if you’re a girl), acne, and possible infertility.
No sex drive also likely coincides with no personal motivation. This also leads to depression. This is when we force ourselves to go to the gym, it takes longer to warm up and despite our amazing workout… we drag ourselves through the rest of the day.
Finally… and this might seem a bit crazy and certainly doesn’t happen to all of you… but you find that your hair is falling out? I mean there’s tons of it. It’s clogging the drain. And if you’re also finding that your cold all the time, well congrats… you might have caused yourself to develop hypothyroidism!
A simple blood test can spell all this out for you, but there’s really no need – your symptoms are telling you that you’re f*cked so let’s skip the middleman and just cut to the chase – you need to fix your hormones!
If any of you have resonated with this story thus far…stick with me…I want to explain what the heck happened, why it happened, and how to keep it from happening over and over.
Why Adrenal Fatigue Happens
When we feel stress, the human body undergoes an amazing change.
The stressor – for example, a 20 min high intensity workout — stimulates the hypothalamus.
This region of the brain is responsible for maintaining the balance between stress and relaxation in your body.
When it’s alerted to perceived ‘danger’, it sends out a chemical signal to your adrenal glands, activating the sympathetic system (Fight-Flight), which sends the body into an excited state. Ever feel that shaky, hyper-focused, strung out feeling after a tough workout?
Or remember being so angry that your hands were trembling, your lips hardly able to sit still? That’s your adrenal glands.
That’s Adrenaline, baby!
These glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline, hormones that create the state of readiness that helps a human confront danger.
All of these changes in our normal physical state prepare us to face danger head-on. The issue is when cortisol is chronically elevated for months and months with complete disregard for recovery…
Stress directly affects the synchronicity of your hormones.
When cortisol levels are constantly high, they affect the production of sex hormones, slow down thyroid function and imbalance blood sugar levels. They also make it hard for your body to create those ‘feel good’ hormones like serotonin.
It’s equally important to understand that high cortisol levels combined with a nutrient deficiency or worse… calorie deficit (diet) is like an atom bomb for your hormones.
You’re literally asking for self implosion.
So, it’s no wonder so many athletes who assume they’re healthy also develop hypothyroidism, cortisol dysregulation, adrenal fatigue, stupid sex hormone imbalances, a lack of recovery/motivation/intensity and even depression.
Some people may be reading this and think “Good God, does all that really happen to people! It’s never happened to me?”
If you’re thinking that, then let me share with you the fact that the number of patients complaining of fatigue make up more than 20 percent of all patient contacts in primary care, which amounts to 18 million physician visits annually in the United States (1,2). A whopping Seventy-five to 90 percent of primary care visits have been reported to be stress related (3). Despite these statistics, conventional medicine is often at a loss as to how to care for these patients.
And on top of that we have people… hundreds of people who will read this article to minimize their stress and say, “Nah, that’s not me.”
Well, this ‘scenario’ is far more common than you think.
See, these symptoms don’t just happen in full force one day…they gradually build up over time. Your body is an incredibly adaptable machine.
You give it some stress, it adapts. Add a little more stress, and it adapts again. But we need to realize that just like we need to sleep every night to process the day’s stressors, we need to deload our lives every so often to process life’s stressors.
My patients clearly do not allow their body a chance to recover…and I see far too many who even agree that they have high levels of stress and yet continue to ignore the elephant in the room.
What to Do When Adrenal Fatigue Happens
So what are we supposed to do?
The first step to re-balancing your hormones is to minimize stress…ugh, damnit.
Is that it? Reduce stress?
Even if you are doing all the right things…eating well, exercising daily, no processed food, you’re 100% gluten free – you could still be struggling with all the aforementioned symptoms!
Why? Because – Stress!
Here’s a few things that can help to balance stress hormones and potentially help you to recover from rock bottom.
- Take a break from excessive and intense exercise – before you start whining and pulling out your already falling out hair… try swapping one or two of your high-intensity-met-con-gonna look like Brooke-Ence-type workouts for gentle forms of exercise (e.g. hypertrophy, accessory work, yoga, Pilates or walking). Do this for a trial period of two to four weeks to see if it lowers your stress.
Please make note, I did NOT tell you to give up CrossFit or HIIT or Interval training 😉
- Eat more! 9 out 10 people that come to me for nutrition coachingare under-eating for the load of stress and training in their life. Living in a calorie deficitwith minimal carbohydrate intake drives cortisol up throughout the day.
Body re-composition or fat loss should only ever occur in the off season. If your goal is to train hard and increase performance… you need fuel, you need a lot of it.
Not only will calorie deficits cause you to struggle getting through tough workouts, but it may take you 2-3 days to recover. Do you ever feel like Monday – Wednesday you are on fire in the gym, but then by Thursday and Friday you are dragging yourself through the doors?
This is NOT the way to improve your fitness, strength, and skill.
You should be feeling energized and recovered every single day, Mmmmkay?
- Practice saying “probably not” or “no” – You can do it – trust me!
Look, we are programmed to overcommit, overprovide and people please, often at the expense of our own health and our stress response and adrenal function. This week when someone asks you to do something that you know will stress you and your adrenals, practice saying “Probably not…(pause), but let me think about it.” No guilt allowed! Take it further by creating a list of your absolute yes’s and no’s for this week.
- Give Yourself a smart device curfew – Reduce blue light at night. Too much light at night actually stimulates your adrenals to produce more cortisol to keep you awake and energized. This prevents you from being able to wind down properly and actually get proper sleep. Here’s what to do: After 9pm turn off as many lights in your house as possible. Give yourself a smart phone or smart device curfew, this means no laptops or phones past 9pm or in bed.
- Include complex carbs and good-quality organic protein sources in EVERY meal– complex carb (think sweet potatoes, white potatoes, green vegetables and beans) and good quality proteins (pasture raised chicken, wild-caught fish, grass-finished red meats, and legumes) can work wonders in balancing your hormones by keeping your blood sugar regulated. NO more quick hits of sugar throughout the day – your hormones will thank you!
- Breathe – This is ridiculous, but so many people don’t breathe properly. Make a conscious effort to relax and breathe deeply for 10 minutes every evening. Pop your legs up against the wall while you do this (think I’m crazy? Top level athletes uses this technique after her training sessions to decompress and enter into para-sympathetic mode).
These lifestyle changes are boring as hell – but that’s why they work. And please, don’t for a minute think that you can simply supplement your way to health. Yes, taking adrenal support supplements (if you know what you’re doing) and popping B-complex can help, but are you really treating the root of the problem?
That is all.