Have you ever seen a flower grow through a crack in the asphalt? It’s amazing, if you think about it. How does a flower — pressed flat and robbed of light — persevere and break through hard ground? Yet, it happens. Somehow those tiny flower buds rise to the challenge. The right amount of “good” stress creates a crucible — a test of strength — in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.
Our bodies are the same way. There is only one way a muscle grows — through stress. A muscle that is rarely exercised atrophies; it shrinks into uselessness. A muscle rarely stretched beyond its usual limits can only maintain itself. It cannot grow. To grow, a muscle must be taxed. Demands — good stress — must be placed upon it.
When the body responds to good stress, it not only gets stronger, but also prepares itself for the possibility of injury or infection by producing extra interleukins — chemicals that help regulate the immune system.
However, prolonged or intense “bad” stress can begin to damage and break down your body. We have stress organs called the adrenal glands. They are two tiny pyramids that sit on top of the kidneys and release hormones such as adrenaline (fight/flight response) and cortisol (our stress hormone).
All throughout the day, these glands fine-tune our stress-coping skills. When our lives are balanced by mindful behaviors, optimal nutrition, sleep, and exercise, the adrenals perform in sync. When our lives are out of balance, the constant cascade of chemicals triggers other cycles which increases our appetite, retains fats and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle.
Positive and negative stress mark the difference between adrenal balance or imbalance. Adrenals in balance produce enough of the stress hormone, cortisol, to build and maintain our mental and physical energy, immunities and stress-coping skills. Adrenals under pressure become overworked and out of balance, causing low energy, poor sleep, weight gain, allergies and susceptibility to illness.
Prolonged stress causes a disparity in cortisol levels, triggering blood sugar and insulin imbalances, food and sugar cravings, sleep disturbances and weight gain. Both high and low cortisol levels create imbalance of other weight-related hormones, impacting testosterone, creating a loss of lean muscle mass, and slowing thyroid function and metabolism — a double whammy when it comes to weight gain. If stress becomes chronic, the adrenals remain in survival mode, steadily increasing fat reserves while immunities gradually weaken.
Signs of adrenal imbalance can include:
• Belly fat
• Chemical sensitivities
• Fatigue (morning or afternoon)
• High stresses
• Lack of energy/burnout
• Low/no libido
• Sleep disturbances
• Sugar cravings
• Susceptible to illness and infection
In this the crucible of stress, we must become aware of the difference between positive and negative pressures and proactively draw on our resources. Regular exercise, improved nutrition, mindful behaviors, relaxation, and taking time to engage your senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, touch or movement — may give you the strength to crack through the asphalt of life and rise above to produce something new and beautiful. Here’s to keeping ourselves — mind, body and spirit — healthy this busy holiday season!
Dr. Gloria Winters is a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in orthopedics and exercise physiology. She is the Chief Medical Officer for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region with a focus on health care integration in the community. Contact Dr. Winters with questions or topic ideas at email@example.com.