Modern lifestyles are full of stressors and balancing daily responsibilities with our competing desires for health, adventure and playfulness is a fine balance. Whilst juggling the balls, it is easy to find oneself continuously running away from the tiger, to the detriment of our health, femininity and energy.
Stress: The flight-or-fight response
Stress is the body's reaction to a physical, mental or emotional change in our normal, balanced state. In the ideal world, our body deals one at a time with all stressors via the flight-or-fight response. That is, when the tiger pounds towards us, the nervous and hormonal systems ensure that the heart and breathing rates accelerate, blood is relocated to the heart, lungs and muscles for movement, functioning of the gastrointestinal tract is inhibited, and mobilisation of energy sources occurs. Then, once the ‘danger’ is dealt with, we return to our steady state.
However, there are two interesting things about the human stress response:
1. It is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mechanism. That is, the body cannot distinguish between different stressors, whether they derive from your workplace, family life, pain, other discomforts, environmental inputs, diet or even exercise.
2. Stressors compound. It is the accumulation of these individual stressors that can lead to a chronic stress response in which the body remains in a heightened state of stress-induced arousal.
Hormones and Stress: A tight link
The body derives most of our hormones from one master hormone called Pregnalone. In women, Pregnalone is critical for the production of:
• Sex hormones - especially oestrogen and progesterone, but also testosterone
• Stress response hormones - especially cortisol, but also adrenalin and noradrenalin
When we are in balance, there should be ample Pregnalone for the body to make adequate amounts of both our sex hormones and the key stress hormone, cortisol. However, if stressors compound, such as through poor diet, inadequate exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation and internalisation of emotional stress, we can fatigue our adrenal glands and enter a chronic state of stress. The need to produce vast quantities of Cortisol overrides the production of our sex hormones, an occurrence that has become known as Pregnalone Steal.
Healthy Hormones for Health & Activity
For optimal health we need our sex hormones. They help to keep us in balance, feeling recovered, empathetic, rested at night, alert during the day, emotionally balanced, healthy in our musculoskeletal system, and most importantly embracing our femininity.
Oestrogen has more than 400 functions in the body and is the main female hormone. It shapes the uniqueness of our female bodies and emotions, makes us feel sensual, brings a glow to our skin, moisture to our eyes, fullness to the breasts and clarity to the mind. Importantly, it gives us the feeling of female energy and sensuality.
Progesterone reduces anxiety and has a calming effect on mood. It helps us to feel happy, increases sleepiness, helps to build and maintain bones, slows the digestive process and prepares a female for pregnancy.
Testosterone and Growth Hormone
Interestingly, Testosterone and Growth Hormone are produced by both males and females, although to a much lesser extent in females. Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered.
Living with Chronic Stress
If you are finding yourself coping with too much stress then you may be at risk of long-term changes to your mind, body and playful spirit. Sometimes it is hard to recognise stressors because they might be a positive stress rather than a negative one.
Examples of positive stressors are:
• Physical activity
• Uplifting family occasions such as being a mother, birthdays, school sport or Christmas
• Travel & holidays
• Empowering work such as presentations, conferences and work travel
Examples of negative stressors are:
• Physical activity that becomes forced and routine, without taking into account your need to recover, for instance, continually harder days of training or heavy effort
• Poor diet
• Poor sleep routines
• Extreme climatic events such as heatwaves
• Difficult emotional situations such as family illness or workplace stress
Accumulating stressors with inadequate physical and mental rest can lead to a chronically activated flight-or-fight response and with it a disrupted hormonal balance. Degradative changes will begin to occur to our body, increasing our risk of injury and poor wellbeing. These changes include alterations to sleep-awakening patterns, gut irritability, suppressed appetite, weight changes, agitation with poor concentration, restlessness, muscle loss, decreasing bone density leading to stress fractures or joint issues, immune suppression, and overall fatigue.
Taking time out is not a selfish act
It becomes easy to ‘should’ ourselves into tasks because they are our routines. But taking time out is not a selfish act and nor will it affect your productivity. Quite the contrary! Creating space for you should be seen as an investment that can reboot your energy, hormonal health and return playfulness to your lifestyle. After all, would your body really want to enter recovery mode while you’re running away from the tiger?
If you don’t like the idea of sitting on the couch and doing nothing then take heart. Rest comes in many forms. Although the ultimate state of repair is when you are asleep, taking a wander outdoors, reading an uplifting book, sipping coffee with a friend, lying in the grass with your son and staring at the stars . . . these can all confront the tiger. But it is also about playing and training smart. Don’t turn exercise into a continual stress. Make sure your energy is expended in waves with easier efforts following the hard. This is especially important if you are training for events or races. Because if you do play and rest smart then you will be in a much better place to enjoy helping others, live with greater adventure, and maximise your potential.
Be brave and confront the tiger. Take some time out for you! Power down the computer. Turn off the alarm. Head out for a wander. Find a view. And earth in wilder surrounds.