“Your fight or flight hormones make no distinction, no matter whether you consider the stimulation enjoyable (a workout) or unpleasant (your commute).” – an excerpt from Primal Endurance, by Mark Sisson
So, you’ve got your primal lifestyle all figured out, right? You’re eating Paleo, cooking all your meals, working out like mad, and sharing your new found happiness with anyone who will listen. You’re practicing mindfulness, taking all the right supplements, and crushing your career goals! You know, in your heart of hearts, that you are healthier and happier than you’ve ever been.
But then, without warning, some strange things start to happen. Yesterday’s CrossFit WOD may have sucked just a little more than usual. You’ve noticed a bit of extra fat around your lower abs. You’re hitting the snooze button over and over. You need an extra cup of coffee just to get yourself going. Your friends invite you to dinner, and you’re thinking, “my couch and sweatpants sound way better…”. Worst of all, you find yourself using the old, “I’m not in the mood” excuse with your significant other.
What the hell is going on?! How can this be possible?! You’ve listened to all the right podcasts, read all the right books and adopted all the right practices. You do everything right, day in and day out. You love life and all the things you’re doing!
Well… therein lies your problem. All the things you’re doing.
Let’s take another look at the incredibly insightful quote I shared at the beginning of this article, in its entirety. “The term ‘stress’ might more accurately be described as ‘stimulation.’ Your fight or flight hormones make no distinction, no matter whether you consider the stimulation enjoyable (a workout) or unpleasant (your commute).” I want you to examine those words and let them sink in. Your fight or flight hormones make no distinction, whether the stimulation is enjoyable or unpleasant. That means that your body has the same chemical response to all stress. Positive or negative. Keep that in mind while reading this article…
I want to share a personal experience with you and touch on two extremely powerful things that are unquestionably related. Stress and the endocrine system. The endocrine system in your body regulates your hormones and is one of the most powerful systems controlling your health and well-being. Even a mild imbalance in your hormones can lead to a plethora of nasty side effects. A sure-fire way to ensure your hormones get thrown out of whack is to increase the level of stress in your day to day life. I cannot even begin to express how powerful stress is. That pull-your-hair-out feeling that creeps up on you once or twice a week could be enough to erase all the healthy lifestyle choices you’ve been making. I’m writing this article for those of you who have suffered from any of the symptoms I mentioned earlier. Why? Because I’ve been there!
At the risk of boring you, at just 29 years old, I do an awful lot of things in this life. Or, as my friends say, I’m “living the dream.” I’m a Certified Nutritional Therapist and Specialist in Sports Nutrition. I’m a professional musician performing three times per week at one of the most popular venues in Nashville. I own Clovis and invented The Perfect Paleo Powder. I own Rock & Roll Pianos, an entertainment company. My original music is sold on every major music platform. I’m a former Reality TV and YouTube personality. I’m a landlord. I write articles for multiple blogs and magazines. I travel extensively each month. I follow a strict low-carb Paleo diet. I cook all my own meals and regularly partake in CrossFit, powerlifting and even bit of boxing and jiu-jitsu. For the vast majority of my life, I’ve pretty much been living on cloud 9!
Then, it happened… My symptoms could only be described as complete and utter exhaustion. I just couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t find that old effortless motivation I had carried with me my entire adult life. Things weren’t so easy anymore. My workouts sucked, my sleep was anything but restful, I lost any and all desire to have a healthy social life. I could hardly focus my attention long enough to write a blog post. Hell, I didn’t even like being on stage anymore! I tried everything I could think of. More sleep, more exercise, more protein, more paleo-friendly carbs, more antioxidants, more healthy fats, more meditation, more reading, more yoga blah blah blah… Nothing worked! I regularly had nights where I would refuse to set an alarm, in hopes of catching up on sleep, only to wake up 13 hours later and still find it hard to crawl out of bed! Something was very wrong.
I finally decided to pull the trigger and get some tests done.
Thyroid levels, a male hormone panel, genetic testing etc. etc. Anything that I thought would identify the cause of my symptoms so I could work diligently to fix it! That’s just what I do. I see problems, find solutions, and execute. 365 days a year… Turns out, that was the very cause of my unfortunate situation. “More, more, more…”
For the most part, my tests came back looking pretty favorable. I was a healthy young man by all standard biomarkers. Body fat, Triglycerides, cholesterol, resting glucose level etc. etc. However, my male hormone panel told an entirely different story. I was an absolute MESS. My cortisol levels were through the roof, my luteinizing hormone was spiked and I had about as much free testosterone as a man in his late 60’s. I was in rough shape. But how the hell could this be possible?! I mean, I’m a Nutritional Therapist for God’s sake! I pleaded my case with my Functional Medicine Doctor and insisted there was some kind of mistake. I do everything right!
That’s when the Doc let me have it. “Justin, that’s the whole reason you’re even in this situation is that you insist on doing everything!” I don’t know if I’ve ever had someone drive a point home so simply. It was clear to the Doc that my problem was stress-related and the problem was, unfortunately, very serious. By his estimation, I was walking around suffering from debilitating levels of stress 24/7.
You see, human beings are quite good at categorizing. It’s just what we do. Religion, politics, family, friends, nutrition, fitness, work, play. You name it, we’ll find a category to put it in. The problem is, we keep forgetting that the body must be treated as a whole, not as individual parts. The brain, stomach, knees, feet, and elbows are entirely different things, yet they are unquestionably reliant on one another. If just one of them is broken, the others will feel the effects. Again, I pushed back. “Doc, you don’t understand, I absolutely love my life! I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. I don’t do anything that doesn’t make me happy!” He just smiled and said, “Stress caused by things you love and stress caused by things you hate are identical. There is no difference. Your plate is overflowing, you simply have to remove some things. It’s really your only option.” I tried my best to let his words sink in and I started to explore how I had ended up here.
The same goes for day to day life. We think of the activities we love and the obligations we dread as two separate things and we do our best to keep them that way. We’ve convinced ourselves that the long morning commute is different from a long jog. Hitting a back squat PR is different from taking a final exam in college. Cooking dinner for your family is different from ordering room service on your business trip. Clearly, none of these activities have anything in common… or do they? “Your fight or flight hormones make no distinction…”
To get a deeper understanding, let’s take a look at the nervous systems. The way your body responds to its environment is dictated by the following systems:
When the body is exposed to a stressor, regardless of the source, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action! Cortisol levels elevate and testosterone levels drop as a result of some perceived threat. The problem is, while our minds can categorize stressors, the nervous system cannot. Your body pumps out the same hormones whether you’re getting yelled at by your boss or crushing a power snatch EMOM. If you’re going to stress your body, in any way, recovering from that stress is mandatory, not optional.
That’s where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in. “Rest and Digest.” Doesn’t that sound glorious?! In a perfect world, we would lay our heads on our pillows at night and the parasympathetic nervous system would take full control! The sympathetic nervous system would shut off and we would effortlessly drift off to sleep. We would wake up 8 hours later feeling fully rested and refreshed.
News flash, this would of ours ain’t perfect!
We live in an age of constant stimulation! Our contribution to society is measured in units that are anything but healthy. How many hours did you work this week?! How much money did you make?! How much weight did you lift?! How many likes that picture of your overpriced latte gets on IG?! These examples don’t even touch on the absurd 24-hour stream of information being laser beamed into our retinas every time we unlock our smartphone screen. Our poor exhausted minds just never get a moment’s rest! This rushing stream of stimulation keeps the sympathetic nervous system is in a constant state of high alert. Our bodies suffer the consequences.
The fact of the matter is, Americans (including myself!) are more stressed than ever! It’s interesting to think about since our lives are filled with more comforts than ever before in history. The poorest American living today has a far better quality of life than a King or Queen would have had hundreds of years ago. The problem is, we have so many options to choose from! We can hop on a website a book a flight across the globe to snorkel with sea turtles. We can Skype with long-lost friends thousands of miles away. We can get instant notifications every single time our boss e-mails us with some absurd request. We can try CrossFit on Mondays, Yoga on Tuesdays, cardio kickboxing on Wednesdays and paddleboarding on Thursdays! Oh, and I can only imagine stacking your personal activities on top of being a parent… Soccer practice 3 times per week, daycare drop-offs and school buses every morning, packing lunches, bandaging scraped knees, the list goes on and on. The plethora of possibilities is almost paralyzing!
Now, you may notice, I haven’t mentioned anything in the above paragraph that would be considered “unpleasant,” by most standards. That is the entire point of this article. I burned myself out, to a dangerous extent, by doing too many things that I love!
We have to remember, any activity that requires effort, whether enjoyable or not, still requires effort. My goal is to help you understand this one point. Just because we have more options than ever before at our fingertips, doesn’t mean we should let them enslave us. We need to prioritize actual down time, rest, and recovery.
What does this mean for you?! Well, each individual has their own specific needs. The first thing we should all do, in my opinion, is ditch this ridiculous idea that doing more will make you happier and healthier. It’s unproductive and flat-out dangerous. If you are a single parent with 2 kids working 50 hours per week and operating on 4-5 hours of sleep per night, you absolutely should not be “sucking it up” and crushing CrossFit WODs 5 times per week! That sort of training might be acceptable for an athlete with multiple endorsement deals who gets paid to qualify for the CrossFit Games, but other than that, I just don’t see the benefit. You are not “weak” for taking an appropriate amount of time (more than you think you need) to rest, relax and recover. Doing more does not necessarily make you better. In fact, it can almost assuredly have the opposite effect. We must be vigilant when choosing where to focus our efforts!
I’ve actually spoken about this exact topic with, Derek Sivers, a massively successful entrepreneur. He has a great rule for picking and choosing what he does in this life. The rule is simple, it’s either a “Hell Yeah!” or a “No.” There is no in between. When an opportunity presents itself, does it make you want to scream, “Hell Yeah!”?! If not, just say no. Period. It would benefit us all to really examine our lives and remove the things (and quite honestly, people) that are draining our energy and resources without enhancing our health and happiness.
We must develop an understanding that everything we do drains our tank, even if it’s just a little bit. Just take the time to really think about the cost of adding more to your plate before you actually commit. Do you really need to join a 3rd Fantasy Football League? Do you really need to run 3 miles after your CrossFit WOD? Do you really need to work 50+ hours per week? Is the world going to end if you shut off your electronics an hour or two before bed? Can’t it wait until morning?! Of course, it can and it should!
Please, I beg you, learn from my mistakes. My Type-A brain refused to ration my biological resources and I paid the price. If you insist on taking the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” approach… You may end up getting some sleep a whole lot sooner than you think.