Inspired by Matthew Bowen, I wanted to briefly discuss the concept of acute stress’s POSITIVE role in good human functionality. What is acute stress? Acute stresses are things that are so damn cute it actually elicits a stress response in your body. I mean, look at those freakin’ puppies. So acute.
Acute stress can also be stress that’s comes in at an angle less than 90 degrees. Or if you go around a curve that’s tighter than 90 degrees really fast in a car while riding in the passenger side. That’s an acute stress.
Okay, I’m not funny. Well, some people say I am, but I just assume they are the dorks that watch AFV and actually own post-Gilmore Adam Sandler movies. People who don’t find me funny typically put the letter “u” in favorite and color. But I’m not hurt by that, as people who use such spellings are the same people who can’t seem to get enough Mr. Bean (alright alright, I like him too).
Anyway, acute stress, the most common that comes to people’s mind being a hard bout of exercise, plays a very powerful contribution to our health. We speak a lot here about the detrimental effects of stress, but stress is not completely avoidable, and if it was, we would all pay a severe penalty for it.
Strength training is perhaps the most classic example, as placing a ton of weight upon muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments triggers improvements with these systems. Of course, it only improves those systems if you do not exceed your threshold to the point of doing more harm than good – either with the intensity of it, or the amount of time and frequency that you do it. Many in the health nerdiverse liken this to getting sun exposure – getting some sun causes the skin to adapt to become darker and more sun-resistant, and getting too much does serious, lasting damage to the skin. There is a fine line between acute stress that does harm and acute stress that makes us stronger.
I have experienced some of this recently while lifting extremely heavy loads, for example. When I first started the bones in my hand and my wrists hurt like hell. But after a couple of months the muscle-padding on the bottom of the palm has increased and I feel no more pain in any of those places despite using 80 more pounds.
So yes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Or, the saying should be – what doesn’t harm you beyond the point of being able to achieve swift recovery and compensatory improvements will make you stronger. But that’s not as catchy.
As an example, here are two other systems in the body that I also find respond very well to acute stress – glucose metabolism and digestion, concepts I’ve written about in 180 Diabetes and 180 Digestion, respectively.
With glucose metabolism (and by glucose metabolism I mean the system in the body that keeps blood sugar from going higher than is considered normal and ideal), one of the hallmarks of the problem is that glucose is cleared VERY slowly out of the blood after eating. So, let’s say you eat a 1,000-calorie meal. A person with great glucose metabolism might see blood glucose levels spike up to 95mg/dl an hour after the meal, and then quickly return to 65-85 mg/dl by the 2-hour postmeal mark. A person who looks to be developing prediabetes might eat the same 1,000-calorie meal and see blood glucose levels go up to 200 mg/dl after 1-hour, but it’s still at 170 mg/dl at 2 hours, 130 mg/dl at the 3 hours, and then a return to baseline at say, 100 mg/dl, doesn’t occur until a full 4-hours after eating. This is impaired glucose metabolism and sluggish glucose clearance.
Now everyone in the health field besides me tries to keep blood sugar from rising by eating lightly of foods, or combinations of food, that spike blood glucose levels – forever avoiding pizza and potatoes. But there’s a huge problem with that – this glucose clearance system, already out-of-shape, gets even weaker. If (not if but when) our prediabetic goes back to that 1,000-calorie meal after a few months eating “raw” or “low-carb” you’re likely to see blood glucose levels go to 250 mg/dl. And the thing is, everyone is likely to eventually return to eating “normal.” Not just because of social pressure but because you can’t starve yourself of certain things indefinitely. Few people do, and most restrictions lead to binges later.
The solution of course is to CHALLENGE the glucose clearance system by consuming large, complex, gut-busting high-calorie meals with lots of rapidly-absorbed carbohydrates and work on improving your clearance numbers. If a half of a pizza and quart/liter of soda makes your blood glucose spike to 200 mg/dl in an hour when consumed at 1pm today, you should be able to eat that same exact meal at the same time every Saturday and see that glucose clearing faster and faster. 200 the first week, 190 the second, 180 the third, and so forth. That’s usually how it happens, and it is the ONLY yardstick for whether or not the functionality of this system is genuinely improving with whatever health interventions you are pursuing.
Speaking of large, complex, gut-busting high-calorie meals – wow does this do incredible things for your digestive system. The human body, if not challenged, will atrophy. That’s true of the brain, the digestive system, the bones, the muscles…
Without enough digestive “stress” of having to perform a very difficult task of properly handling a huge load of food all at once, the digestive system becomes weak and pathetic. If you do something stupid like “food-combining,” which ironically means to NOT ever combine foods together, eating a normal meal that combines all the components that make a meal complete (starch, meat, fat, salt, vegetables, drink, dessert) will ruin you. If you want to make your digestive system weaker, put fewer demands on it.
What I want everyone to “get” from reading this article is that stress, in the right context, is extremely beneficial. The main thing is that you are not exceeding your capacity to handle that stress and breaking down from it – but rather rebuilding with a greater capacity to perform. If you take on stress with a good attitude – one of seeking to build greater strength and resilience from rising to meet various challenges in life – physical, mental, emotional, and edible, and give yourself enough recovery time to insure constant progress, you may very well find that the stress you’ve been trying so hard to avoid is actually your greatest catalyst to a better life.
How do you know how much is too much? If you are making progress in the system you are stressing, it is probably not too much. If you stop making progress or start to regress while really working hard, it’s probably too much.
Hey, like anything it depends COMPLETELY on the person we are talking about and their unique situation and their unique capacity to handle stress and sufficiently recover from it, but hopefully this message will hit the right pairs of eyes and be a powerful spark to pursue many forms of badassery.
“During both eustress and distress the body undergoes virtually the same negative stimuli acting upon it. However, the fact that eustress causes much less damage than distress graphically demonstrates that it is ‘how you take it’ that determines, ultimately, whether one can adapt successfully to change.”
“A certain amount of stress is needed to tune you up for action and keep you on your toes. This is especially true of eustress, which is enjoyable in itself and actually gives purpose to life. On the other hand, we must learn the limits of our endurance before we exceed them dangerously.”
~Hans Selye; The Stress of Life