Too much of a good… stress?
Cold plunges, Wim Hof breathing, HIIT training, PEMF, fasting; many of us are opting to regularly put our body through healthy stress states thanks to exciting research and our longing to manage our stress levels, optimise our health and live longer, and better.
And yet, many clinicians from nutritionists to functional medicine doctors report clients coming to them overloaded and overwhelmed, resulting in everything from hormone dysfunction to HPA dysregulation.
Anxiety specialist nutritionist, Charlotte Faure Green, finds that “clients have often read about these things in isolation, they sound like the holy grail, and then go on to implement all of them at once. So they’re running fasted, popping into a beach sauna and then cold water swimming, breaking their fast at midday and surviving on black coffee. That on top of a stressful lifestyle - trying to survive in the current climate - can actually do the opposite of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s too many stressors on top of a nervous system that is already overworked. It can feel great initially, because cortisol does, and we get a dopamine hit from achieving and taking action. Over time, though, we might see the burden of the constant adrenal output on our mental health, hormones going haywire and digestion becoming less optimal.”
So, what’s going on? How do we know what is a ‘healthy stressor’ and what is the right dose?
Meet the stress that makes you stronger: Hormesis
Our physiology is adapted to stress. In fact often it thrives from it. Stress hormones create physical changes in our body and lots of these can be used to positive affect - better focus, alertness and increased strength to name but a few. There can also be some collateral damage when our body is exposed to stress, our immune system is suppressed, sex hormones take a back seat and our gut health can take a hit (with some of us running for the loo and others not going for days). It is therefore important for our body to feel a resolution to stressors and that it is not chronic. Chronic stress and overwhelm has detrimental effects across the body and this is now well established.
Short bursts of some stressors which challenge the body and our mindset, called hormetic stressors, can actually enhance our overall health when practised intermittently. They create a cellular cascade of events with incredible benefits which may help to slow ageing and make you more resilient to stress overall. The poison here is in the dose. Too much of these, on top of an already stressed human, has a more toxic effect on the body.
Researchers have found hormesis is most likely the string that binds current health habits such as fasting, heat exposure, cold exposure, breathwork practises, high intensity training and even some phytonutrients found in certain foods, herbs and spices.
Find the limit
The limit will look different for everyone. We all have a different capacity for stress which changes on any given day. We first need to understand the limit for each of the good stressors, more doesn’t always mean better in these cases. Having a quick cold plunge can be amazing for our mitochondrial health, but over 20 minutes is unlikely to have any more beneficial effects and is usually unnecessary. At worst it can cause hypothermia or ‘after drop’.
Additionally, whilst quick bursts of high intensity training has shown to improve metabolic rate, oxygen consumption and aerobic performance, studies also show that too much HIIT training is detrimental to our hormone and mitochondrial health. Some data recommends doing no more than 150 minutes a week of high intensity exercise to protect your cellular and hormone health and no more than 30 mins at a time.
Fasting can be an incredible tool for those with a nervous system in a generally balanced state. When this is the case types of fasting can help improve our liver insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance. But add in fasting to an already stressed individual and it may overload the body with cortisol, which then essentially can break down muscle tissue used for glucose.
Begin to think intuitively - Know Thyself
Here’s where the true skill comes into play. Whilst the tools are there for us to tinker and play with, ultimately it is our own understanding of what our body needs that will determine how effective they are. This takes time to learn but is worth the investment. There will be times when it feels like our body can handle a challenge and times where we need to give it a break - both of these times are ok.
Here’s some top tips on how to start listening to your body;
- Start to take on practices which promote ‘feeling’ over ‘doing’. Yoga is a great example of this where it’s not just about performing the perfect yoga poses, but instead feeling what your body is doing, making small adjustments, and feeling into when to challenge it and when it needs to rest.
- Stop living by the clock and calendar. Yes, you promised Tuesday was your fasting day, but then you get hit with a ton of extra work and your cat needs taking to the vet. Adjust and course-correct.
- Slow down and notice. Are you in overwhelm or do you just need to let off some steam? Do you need something that challenges you or something that nourishes you? Are you just lacking motivation or are you hearing a clear sign to rest?
- Practise small microdoses of calm across the day - stop and create a ritual over your cup of coffee or cacao. Take a moment to stretch. Unclench your jaw. Notice how you are feeling in that given moment, without judgement.
- Look at your energy levels. You may feel fantastic after your sauna or cold plunge but then feel drained an hour or so after. This may be a sign you are pushing it too hard or need to adjust something about your practice.
- For those with a menstrual cycle, consider taking it easy the week before your period, as your oestrogen levels drop. This can create cortisol sensitivity and your body is much more vulnerable to the effects of additional stressors.
Ultimately remember that you’re in for the long game and the point in hormetic stressors is to support your long term health. Your body is the only home you’ll have your whole life, so treat it well.