So you probably think you’re pretty smart. Maybe you are. But your body is dumb as shit, and I’m about to tell you why. Our mind speaks many different languages, english, french, spanish, etc. however our body only speaks one: survival. Your body does not give a shit that you need to get up and go to work, deal with a difficult job, pick up the kids, then go to the gym, fight with your spouse, oh yeah and eat somewhere in there too. It only cares about keeping you alive. It tells you when you need to eat, sleep, breathe, and move. In a different scenario, if you are an athlete and you are overtraining, then you’ll start feeling tired more often, sleeping longer hours, and everything will start to hurt. That’s a survival mechanism to stop you from pushing yourself to the breaking point.
Your body learns to deal with stress. Eustress (think ‘happy stress’), distress, mental, physical, it doesn't matter. They all stress the body in some way, and the body adapts to this stress. If you’re not sure what adaptation is, here is one article that talks about it in relation to recovery. And here is another one too.
Each occurrence of stress is met with a physiological response by the body. It doesn't matter what the stimulus is, the body only reacts one way. We need to stop thinking that just because our minds are able to discern the difference between a legitimate life threatening scenario and our asshole roommate hiding around the corner with the lights off ready to jump out, doesn't mean our bodies do the same. Our minds can think. Our brains cannot.
There’s a section in our brain called the amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh) that controls our “fight or flight” response as you may have heard it before. When this section of the brain is stimulated, hormones are released into the body to create a change of different processes. Two big hormones that are related to stress are epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol. On their own, they are very complex and affect many different areas of the body, but for the sake of this piece, you just need to know that they are produced in a state of stress. Also just an FYI, the amygdala doesn't produce these hormones, it sends the signal to the areas that produce them.
So back in the caveman days (because there’s a good chance you eat paleo and you love talking about the caveman days) this was greatly beneficial. Man sees bear, bear chases man, man runs away faster than he’s ever ran in his life and is able to climb a tree even though he’s afraid of heights. This is possible because of the fight or flight response. This caveman happened to choose flight, and he was able to live another day.
Fast forward to 2016. You’re sitting in traffic on the way to work and some SOB has the audacity to cut you off. You start screaming and yelling profanities as you realize now you’re going to be an extra 2.4 seconds late to work. You have chosen the fight response, even though you’re not fighting, thanks to your amygdala you’re actually certain you could crush Megatron from the safety of your driver’s seat. These two scenarios are the same physiologically. Epinephrine and cortisol have been released into your system and you are now reacting accordingly.
This heightened state is driven by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The antagonist of this, is the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) which is responsible for calming you down and bringing your back to a relaxed state. The problem today is that we tend to be more driven by the SNS and we never get the chance to activate the PSNS. Society today pushes for instant gratification, and most people want things done yesterday, which creates short fuses for most people. The short fuse leads to constant outbursts of anger and anxiety which is driven by the SNS. This can lead to some serious issues.
Enter: adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is when you overwork the little adrenal glands that sit right on top of the kidneys. These glands release many different hormones into the body, but the most important one right now is epinephrine. The body is not meant to be in a constant heightened state. When you stimulate it with things like caffeine and high stress levels you are forcing the adrenals to work overtime. And unfortunately, when you consume high levels of caffeine and are highly stressed you probably don’t sleep very well. Which sucks because sleep is one of the best ways to combat adrenal fatigue. So because you can’t sleep, you take more caffeine, which stresses you out more, and the cycle continues. And as my endocrinology professor used to say “almost all positive feedback loops end in a catastrophic shitshow.” This is an “easy” fix though. Just stop drinking coffee and sleep better for about a week or two and your body will re-regulate.
So enough about emotional instabilities, what about physical stress? After all, most of us are just trying to get swole anyway, right? So when we train we cause microtrauma in the muscle tissue. I’m not going to get too deep into how prostaglandins are involved in the inflammation and repair process (actually this article does a much better job than I could), but just know that when you lift weights, your muscles get inflamed after. As a part of the repairing process, your immune system detects the inflammation and the body sends the necessary tools to build the muscles stronger for next time. All good stuff, but what happens when it becomes a chronic issue?
The saying ‘everything in moderation’ is probably the best life advice to ever give or follow. When you constantly push your body past its limits and don’t allow it to recover, things start to get hairy. And not the kind that grows on your chest.
By constantly pushing your body past its physical limitations without time to recover, you can enter a state of overtraining. And let’s not forget about overtraining’s nasty cousin: rhabdomyolysis. CrossFit Cancer or Rhadbo, as it is more commonly known, can actually kill you if it is left untreated and is widespread enough in your body. Rhabdo occurs when the muscle tissue is broken down at a rate faster than it can be repaired, so the tissue dies and enters the bloodstream. Then the blood needs to be filtered by the kidneys, and the dead muscle tissue shreds the kidneys, so most of the time you die from kidney failure.
These are two great ways to lose all your gainz, so stop pretending like lifting heavy day after day is the only way to get better. Just take a rest, or I don't know, maybe a deload week? People are astonished to find out that after a prolonged period of max effort lifting, literally doing nothing and skipping the gym for week has them feeling better and crushing PR’s on their return.
So please, if there is only one thing you take away, let it be that your body really isn’t that smart. You need to be able to separate your mind from your body for a second and realize no matter how smart your brain is, your body is just built to react to stimuli. All kinds of stress have an effect on the body, and you need to allow time for your body to adapt to the stimulus before pushing it further. Also, for every minute you spend in a state of high stress/anxiety you should spend another minute in a totally relaxed state to keep that balance and avoid any negative side effects.
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Hardy, Chris. The mechanics of stress response. StrongMedicine.com. 21 July 2016. http://strongmedicine.dragondoor.com/the-mechanics-of-stress-response/
Layock J, Meeran K. Integrated Endocrinology, 1st Ed. 2012.
Peake J, Nosaka K, Suzuki K. Characterization of inflammatory responses to eccentric exercise in humans. Exerc Immunol Rev 2005; 11: 65-85.
Roitt I, Brostoff J, Male D. Immunology, 5th Ed. 1998; CV Mosby, St. Louis MO.