I was recently asked to be the after-dinner speaker for the Cambridge Business Leaders Lunch, talking about stress management and specifically how we can actually see signs of stress impacting our body, our performance, and our lives before it leads to full blown burnout. I wanted to share the notes I made here in a blog post as I have worked with many professionals on stress management alongside chatting with many more on the topic.
First off, stress is something we do require in the body. It is something that helps us move forward and regenerate cells and tissue within the body. It is when we go through chronic stress for extended periods of time that we suffer.
The body loves to push towards a state of ‘homeostasis’; a place of balance essentially between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, basically a happy medium between being switched on and off. The trouble is that many things can throw us out of this homeostatic state, so much so that the body struggles to recalibrate and it’s this stress we call ‘allostatic load’; a kind of wear and tear the body goes through with constant rounds of chronic stress.
But there are things we can see when we look closer, that show us we are stressed and at that point we actually get the chance to intervene before it becomes a bigger issue (if we do decide we want to do so). The trouble comes when we push these ‘cues’ to the side thinking “it won’t happen to us” then the inevitable eventually does happen – we approach burnout and the recovery takes a lot longer than if we had listened in the first place.
These are some of the main things I see with clients and what I work with them on to help improve their health and get them back to peak performance:
This could be showing up as a few different things but the three main ones I see are not being able to get to sleep, like your head hits the pillow but you are wired, maybe getting that ‘second wind’. The second is waking through the night, even just once to go to the bathroom. This is something which is very VERY common but just because something is common, doesn’t mean it is normal and it is more than likely down to stress, not the age of your bladder. The third thing is waking early, feeling wired and not able to sleep in. Maybe you wake between 3-5am and just have to get up. Many people will say this is their most productive time but then have energy slumps later in the day where they need coffee to pick them up or clear the brain fog.
Low drive and moods
I could write a whole article on moods and dopamine production, given the work I have done on both myself as a person with ADHD and with clients who have suffered with ADHD, but a big sign your body is under chronic stress is that you just don’t have the drive you used to have. You don’t have the determination or maybe you just find you’re not getting the enjoyment out of the things you used to.
Migraines, Headaches, Brain Fog & Memory
This is another one I have first hand experience of, having been a migraine sufferer and actually having my dad die at 47 years old after suffering from migraines and as a result, having a stroke. Brain function is an area I dive deep into as well as how we can stop suffering from headaches and migraines if we get them regularly.
Problems with migraines and headaches can stem from lack of hydration, tension, and intolerances amongst other things but I find the body has a certain resilience and this gets lowered with extreme bouts of stress, meaning we suffer much more than normal. The same with brain fog; the brain’s ability to clear waste gets hindered when under stress, meaning its ability to function is much lower than normal and even leading to times when you struggle to remember things. Ever gone upstairs to get something only to forget what it was? Stress impacts this and it’s a sure-fire sign you’re under more stress than your body can handle.
Definitely not a good thing if you’ve got presentations to remember and a business to run.
Struggling To Lose Weight
Yes, weight loss is about being in a calorie deficit. But the ability to stay in that deficit without falling off the wagon is linked with stress levels. Also, the amount of water the body retains is linked with stress. Just the body’s ability to burn fat rather than being in a state of catabolism and losing weight from lean muscle tissue is linked with the stress we put on our body. If you struggle to drop weight I would look at the stress you’re putting your body under, being in too high a calorie deficit can add stress just like your daily routine and environment.
Acid Reflux & Heartburn
I see many people nowadays that have been prescribed something like lansoprazole by doctors because of reflux symptoms. However, having spoken to many professionals in the industry, plus working with people around the world for 16 years and studying functional medicine for the last 6 years, I have only seen on a few very rare occasions that reflux has been caused by high stomach acid. Most of the time (and consult a professional if you do suffer, don’t just self-diagnose) it is because of low stomach acid and as a result proteins peutrifying in the stomach rather than being broken down quickly and travelling along the digestive tract. This causes excess gas and an inflamed esophageal sphincter (the doorway to our stomach down our throat). Taking lansoprazole actually adds to the problem, causing even less stomach acid to be produced.
The end result is even worse digestion as we rely on betaine HCL (stomach acid) to break down proteins and signal both the pancreas to produce pancreatic enzymes for carbohydrate digestion and the gallbladder to produce bile for fat digestion. Further down the line we can see even more problems with blood glucose mismanagement, bloating, and hormonal imbalances from not being able to absorb and use fats effectively.
What is the root cause of this usually? Not being able to send signals from the brain to the gut via the vagus nerve, due to stress and reduced hypothalamus function within the brain.
Not only will the reflux cause hormonal problems over a period of time due to the fat absorption, but we can also see extreme stress on the body impair hormone production and signalling due to adrenals not firing, and mixed messages being sent from the control centre in your brain to other areas such as your sexual organs and thyroid gland. This can lead to lowered testosterone amongst other hormone problems in guys, and even cause early menopausal symptoms in women. It is more on an individual basis as to the root cause and how to improve these issues but it is highly linked to stress and will show up in multiple areas. Maybe you’re more reactive to a partner than normal or your just don’t have the sex drive that you used to; it can be very frustrating when you don’t know the true causes.
Now there are other potential signs that show the body is under stress. Maybe it’s cravings for food or relying on alcohol to chill out and ‘switch off’, maybe you’re losing strength in the gym or just not performing on your runs like you used to. The key thing I think is recognising you’re under stress and seeing what you’re able to do about it. Many people will over complicate things and do too much to try and improve their health causing them to fall off, procrastinate, get overwhelmed and do nothing. Start simple.
First things first – it is about the perception of stress. In his book ‘Behave’ Robert Sarpolsky talks about how being poor isn’t the direct reason for someone being stressed, it is what the perception of being poor means to that individual. So that is a good place to start, our perception of the stressors. Are we putting pressure on ourselves that is not necessary? Is the social group around us impacting our stress levels? Could it be the environment we’re in with air pollutants or exposure to mould? There are many different factors to consider.
Moving Mountains To Manage Stress & Burnout
One thing I look to work on with clients is doing the basics first and building the foundations before we add complexity. In my book ‘The One Day Body Upgrade’ I have a chapter called ‘Moving Mountains: My Everest Obsession’ where I talk about how people climb the biggest mountain in the world and the theory that we can transfer those same methods to improving our health.
We first have to reach base camp when climbing a mountain like Everest, where a person will spend a large portion of time acclimatising to the current altitude. For some it’s about 2 weeks, some will be longer but then, and only then, will they start the next phase; a rotation up to camp 1 before coming back down to recover. Then another rotation through camp 1 and 2 where they acclimatise once again and return to base camp, then to camp 1, 2 and 3 all the time getting the body used to the different oxygen levels and altitude they’re at. Some will go straight to camp 4, the death zone, and make a summit attempt from here, some will go back down for another recovery period and rotation before their summit attempt.
But the key thing to take from this is many people are trying to do the ‘summit attempt’ with their health before they have spent any time at ‘base camp’, putting the foundations in place.
The foundations with health are the things that get you the majority of the consistent, predictable results from. These are things such as:
- Consuming good whole foods
- Making sure you hydrate with good quality water
- Getting a good sleep and wake routine
- Proactively eating at similar times through the day
- Moving throughout the day but not too much exercise
- Breathing and switching off regularly
- Having down time, socialising
- Limited alcohol or drugs
- Basic supplement routine – multi-vitamin, vitamin D, magnesium (based on the individual but not too many).
The thing most people do is go straight into their summit attempt because that is the ‘sexy’ thing to shout about on social media but it’s these things which get limited results and are only sustainable in potentially periodised timeframes or when the foundations are in place.
These are things such as:
- Specific diets with more intricate protocols (keto, vegan, paleo, FODMAP, fasting)
- Specific harder training (full on bodybuilding routines, crossfit, Ironman, marathons, Toughest mudder challenges and ultra running)
- Some supplements that aim to work on a specific area, ADHD, brain fog, thyroid, adrenals, adaptogenic herbs etc
- Advanced biohacking techniques and using things such as a chilipad, red light therapy, cryotherapy, IV treatments, wim hof techniques, cold exposure etc.
It’s not to say that the advanced things won’t work at all when you haven’t done the foundations, it is more you can get so much further with very sustainable methods first without the overwhelm that a lot of the in-depth techniques lead to. I have found much better results for stopping and reversing burnout are achieved by focusing on the foundations.
These foundations may not be sexy to shout about on social media but your new energy, better health and peak performance will start to speak for itself.
If you need help personalising these foundations and keeping yourself accountable let me know, hit ‘Let’s Talk’ and we can sort a time to talk through what I would recommend with your health journey.