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Neuroplasticity—Changing Your Brain and Behavior

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Neuroplasticity—Changing Your Brain and Behavior
At this point, it might make perfect sense to you that the way you think can change the way your brain functions—and perhaps even that your exposure to stress and the subsequent biochemical changes in the body can further influence how your brain works. But what might sound alarming to you is that very recent scientific studies have shown that how you think and experience stress can literally change the shape and structure of your brain. Researchers have known for several decades that chronic stress can lead to accelerated functional impairments and eventually to physical degradation of brain tissue (faster breakdown and slower rebuilding). But it has only been recently that we have fully grasped the concept of “neuroplasticity”—the brain’s capacity to change its function and its shape in response to experiences.

The prevailing thinking in neuroscience for decades has been that the brain develops during childhood and then remains “fixed” in shape throughout adulthood. The new evidence, however, supports the exciting idea that systemic mental activity results in profound changes in the shape and structure of the brain itself. This means that you can literally “rewire” your brain to function better and more efficiently. You can improve the quality of the 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion connections to improve your vigor and how you feel and perform on a daily basis.

Sports psychologists have known for decades that athletes can use “mental imagery” (basically, thinking about their events) to improve physical performance. Elite-level athletes routinely train their bodies for strength, speed, and agility—and the very best of the best also train their minds and their emotions for optimal performance.

The average person has little understanding or appreciation for the fact that it is possible to train and to sculpt mental circuits just as biceps or buttocks can be shaped. The process is a little more complex than the simplistic “think and grow rich” platitudes that you hear from self-help gurus, but the general idea is similar. Like sand on a beach or snow on a ski slope, the brain bears the footprints or ski tracks of the decisions that you make, the experiences that you have, and the thoughts that you think. In response to the experiences and actions that you undergo, your brain strengthens the neural connections involved in these experiences and weakens those that are less frequently used.

This poses important possibilities for those individuals who are troubled by depression or anxiety, making it possible to “rewire” those areas of the brain (those “pathological” connections) and establish new, better, and healthier connections that lead them away from burnout and toward vigor. Think of “problems”—such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, or burnout—as issues that involve biochemical imbalance, “faulty wiring,” or a combination of both. Rebalancing either your neuronal activity or your internal biochemistry (or both) helps restore vigor as well as mood, energy, and mental focus.

Professional sports teams and international sports organizations spend millions of dollars every season to ensure their athletes are at their peak mental and physical performance levels. These teams understand that thinking something produces effects in the brain (and thus in the body) just as surely as doing something. And just as doing the right things in terms of diet and exercise helps the athlete excel, so does thinking the right things (or avoiding thinking the wrong things). Far from being “soft” sciences, the fields of “positive psychology” and sports psychology have shown over and over again in rigorous research studies that, although the brain certainly comes “hardwired” in some respects (with fear of the unknown, for example), people have an almost limitless ability to rewire their brains for change. Brains are “plastic,” meaning they are malleable—changeable—and can be reeducated by specific thoughts and actions.

According to an old saying in neuroplasticity research, “Cells that fire together, wire together”—meaning that the neurons and the entire brain undergo physical changes in response to thoughts and experiences. This “firing/wiring together” is one reason that old habits are so difficult to break, and it explains why it takes time to establish new habits. Another reason for the “slowness” of brain changes is that neurons are slow-growing cells—much slower than liver or skin cells, which are regenerated quite rapidly, or even bone or muscle cells, which have “medium” regeneration rates. Neurons do not divide and do not “regenerate” as other body cells do. However, the human brain does possess the capacity to generate new neurons through a process called “neurogenesis,” which occurs in a population of cells known as “neuronal stem cells” that can generate entirely new neurons when needed. Most importantly, exercise stimulates this process of neurogenesis, which increases vigor. By contrast, stress hormones kill neurons and suppress neurogenesis, which reduces vigor.

An interesting aspect of neuroplasticity is that structural brain changes seem to only occur when the mind is in a state marked by attention and focus. For example, studies of rodents have demonstrated that although voluntary treadmill running increases neurogenesis, forced running does not. Exactly why this difference exists is not entirely clear, but it means those who wish to change their brains or to improve their states of vigor might want to pay particular attention to the discussion of mindfulness later in this chapter. In short, you are able, in some respects, to “think your way” to certain types of change. But you also have to want to change for those thoughts, wishes, and desires to gain traction and result in meaningful neurogenesis. It is only through this neurogenesis of individual cells that you can make wholesale changes in brain structure and function (neuroplasticity) and establish new “tracks” that will last long enough for you to form new habits and behaviors that increase vigor.

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Your Brain on Stress

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Your Brain on Stress
Chronic stress not only emotionally and functionally affects the brain, it can also directly physically affect this most important organ. Research has shown that stress not only can increase the incidence of such simple effects as “moodiness,” “brain fog,” or irritability, but it can also eventually progress to the development of such physical impairments as full-blown memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Each of these conditions involves a degree of mental deterioration characterized by damage to and death of nerve cells in the brain. And it has been estimated that as many as 30 to 50 percent of adults in industrialized countries suffer from these conditions (compared to the 65 to 90 percent of adults in industrialized countries who suffer from enough chronic stress to result in any detrimental health condition—not just “psychological” or “brain-related” conditions).

The changes in mood that accompany periods of heightened stress also lead to reduced energy levels, feelings of fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate, and feelings of depression—all of which are related to the same class of brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters. Most notable (and scary), perhaps, are the findings that chronic stress can lead to actual physical changes in the arrangement of the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. In other words, we’re talking now about stress changing both the function and the structure of your brain. No wonder your brain doesn’t work the way it is supposed to!

People suffering from depression typically have disrupted biochemical balance, with imbalances in hormones, such as cortisol/testosterone, and in brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The people who are under the highest levels of stress also tend to be the ones who succumb to periods of moderate depression. Part of the reason for this may be that during periods of heightened stress, the brain becomes accustomed to the heightened arousal signals of high cortisol levels, and when the stressor is removed (or reduced), the brain is unable to function effectively. Animal studies have shown, for example, that the brains of rats exposed to repeated stresses eventually become resistant to specific pleasure pathways; therefore, higher and higher levels of the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins) were needed to induce a response. It has also been known for more than twenty years that patients given high doses of synthetic cortisol-like drugs (such as corticosteroids to treat autoimmune diseases) also tend to develop memory problems and signs of clinical depression.

The relationship between stress and brain function typically exhibits a two-phase effect, wherein short-term stress appears to actually enhance cognitive function, while chronic stress disrupts many aspects of brain neurochemistry (leaving people feeling frazzled, fatigued, and foggy). Researchers theorize that it works something like this: Acute (temporary) stress causes an increase in blood flow, oxygen, and glucose to the muscles (for activation of the fight-or-flight response) and also to the brain (sharpening mental faculties so you can “solve” the problem of escaping from the stress). Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can impair concentration and ability to think, so the increased supply of glucose should, at least transiently, increase brainpower. And it does; studies of people exposed to short-term stressors show that they have an enhanced memory capacity and ability for problem solving. Unfortunately, the brain-boosting effects of stress are short-lived (lasting less than thirty minutes), because then the body becomes awash in cortisol. Prolonged exposure of brain cells (neurons) to cortisol reduces their ability to take up glucose (their only fuel source) and—here’s the really scary part—actually causes them to shrink in size!

Low Vigor and High Stress? You’re Not Alone

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Low Vigor and High Stress? You’re Not Alone

Do you ever feel that you’re working harder and harder but still getting further and further behind? If so, you have a lot of company.

The average American workweek, research shows, has mushroomed from forty hours to fifty hours in the past twenty-five years. That level is higher than in any European country and equal to that of Japan. Those extra ten hours of work, however, have not gained workers much. In fact, U.S. workers today are behind in their ability to maintain the same overall standard of living enjoyed a generation ago. At the same time, their expectations have not changed. Even during tough economic times, people still feel pressure to be—or have—the best, whether they strive to own the best car or house or to be the best worker or parent. Talk about stress! And all those expectations are driving many to an early burnout. It is even becoming evident in kids, who run from school or day care to the babysitter to soccer to homework at the same frantic pace. Is it any wonder that the use of Ritalin and Prozac among North American children has increased, as has the diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)?

Consider this too: When the American Psychological Association (APA) released its annual 2010 survey Stress in America, it showed that the picture of an “overstressed nation” is as bad as it has ever been. One of the most striking conclusions from the APA survey was that “stress is not only taking a toll on our personal and physical health, but it is also affecting the emotional and physical well-being of children and our families.” The survey highlighted the fact that children today are more stressed than in years past and also found that kids easily recognize and identify their parents’ stress levels as a key source of their own stress.

As you might imagine, the most common sources of stress identified in the APA survey were money (76 percent), work (70 percent), and the economy (65 percent). But “family responsibilities” also emerged as a significant source of stress (73 percent).

Health experts identify a “healthy stress level” at about a 3 to 4 on a 10-point scale, with 1 representing low stress and 10 indicating extreme stress. Healthy intermittent exposure to stress can actually be a good thing. Some stress researchers, including myself, refer to this intermittent or “temporary” stress as “eustress”—that is, the type of stress that helps motivate you to meet a deadline or to achieve a goal. But chronic stress (or “distress”) leads to problems with biochemical balance, tissue breakdown, and a wide range of physical and psychological health problems that result in low vigor.

The average stress level reported in the APA survey was 5.5, with 24 percent reporting stress levels at 8 to 10 (on the 10-point scale). Those with “more stress” (average of 6.2) tended to have “fair/poor” overall health, while those with “lower stress” (average of 4.9) tended to have “very good/excellent” health statuses. Individuals with even higher stress exposure (in the 8 to 10 range) tended to have significant problems with their weight or even obesity—very likely due to problems with biochemical balance and especially to an overexposure to cortisol and its associated increase in appetite for “comfort foods” and consequent storage of belly fat.

Americans across all age groups and geographic areas generally recognized that their stress levels are “too high” (69 percent) and that stress is not good for their health. However, a majority of respondents also reported facing significant challenges in actually practicing healthy behaviors, such as reducing stress, eating better, exercising, getting enough sleep, and losing weight. Primary obstacles to those healthy behaviors included “being too busy” (22 percent) and a “lack of motivation or willpower” (29 percent). In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the APA survey was the clear indication that Americans know what they should be doing—but that they are not doing a good job of achieving their health goals.

How can you close this gap? How can you break out of the negative spiral that pulls you down into burnout and turn it around toward building vigor? To answer these questions, let’s look at the “central computer” that integrates the biochemical signals that, in turn, direct your behavior: your brain (in the next installment of The Secret of Vigor)…

Biochemistry Drives Emotions—and Behaviors

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Biochemistry Drives Emotions—and Behaviors
In seeking to build vigor, it is important to remember that this state of health is characterized not only by physical energy but also by mental acuity and emotional well-being, as you learned in the Introduction. Because the last chapter explains the physical effects of stress, it is now time to look at the emotional and mental aspects of vigor.

When speaking before thousands of people around the country, one of the most important concepts that I try to convey to my audiences is that “biochemistry drives emotions” and vice-versa. The reason that you “feel” a certain way is because of your underlying biochemistry. The degree to which you’re exposed to cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, insulin, or hundreds of other “signals” in the body will influence your feelings of energy, happiness, mental clarity, creativity, appetite, and motivation—in short, your vigor.

Think about how you feel when you’re under stress: You often eat more (and eat more junk) and exercise less. You tend to be constantly tired during the day and yet can’t relax enough to get a good night’s sleep. Stressed-out people also have more heart attacks, more depression, more colds, and less sex. And stress-induced disruptions in their internal biochemistry are at the root of it all. I cannot think of a more dismal picture.

Brains, Biochemistry, and Behavior
As I have continued my research in this area over the past several years, I have discovered that the influence of biochemistry goes far deeper than ever imagined. In fact, biochemistry not only drives emotions but motivates actions as well! Breakthroughs in brain research are providing amazing new insights about these connections between biochemistry, the brain, and behavior. And, frankly, this is a complex issue that may be hard to understand. It can be mind-boggling—literally—to realize that your thinking can change not only your moods but also the actual shape and function of your brain. Those changes affect your biochemistry and, of course, your vigor.

As you read this chapter, these complex concepts will become clearer. For now, let me give you a brief explanation and illustration to show you how these mind-body-biochemistry connections work. First, you have to conceptualize the biochemical processes of your body as a circular loop, not a straight, linear progression. What happens internally is that your biochemistry affects your brain circuitry, which affects your behavior, with each influencing and feeding back on each other. This loop has no “start” and no “end,” and each process constantly modifies the others.

What does this mean in terms of building your vigor? The answer can be as perplexing as a Zen koan. Is low vigor a “biochemical” issue, a “behavioral” issue, or a “brain” issue? Yes, yes, and yes! As you’ve seen above, each of these issues affects the others.

The good news is that if you change one aspect of this picture, you’ll inevitably change the others as well. For example, if you change your behavior—say you begin to take short walks every day or go to sleep fifteen minutes earlier each night—you will, in turn, change your biochemistry and your brain. Those brain alterations will put you into a mental and emotional state where you will want to continue the behaviors that are creating the positive mood and mental clarity—and the changes in your biochemistry will, in turn, reinforce this “virtuous circle.”

Unfortunately, the “circle” can spin in the opposite direction as well. Suppose that instead of walking every day, you act like a “couch potato,” sitting on the sofa watching TV for long stretches and eating greasy, sugary foods? That behavior will lead toward fatigue, mental sluggishness, and negative emotions. As your behavior begins having detrimental effects on your brain function and biochemistry, a downward spiral toward burnout is set into motion.

If you feel caught in that downward spiral, keep in mind that you are not the only one. Keep reading – and tune in to the next installment from The Secret of Vigor…

Balancing Biochemistry and Building Vigor

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Balancing Biochemistry and Building Vigor
When measuring the state of their health through lab tests, people often want to bring their “numbers” down. For instance, they may strive to lower their cholesterol or to lower high blood-pressure readings. But when it comes to the subject of stress, the goal is not simply to lower cortisol levels. In fact, many stress physiologists believe that it is not the absolute level of cortisol people are exposed to but their degrees of cortisol variability that indicate a healthy stress response. In other words, people should aim to have neither high cortisol nor low cortisol but instead a cortisol level that fluctuates normally in response to stress and relaxation. Chronically high cortisol is bad, and chronically low cortisol is also bad—but “flat” levels that show little to no fluctuation seem to be just as bad as either extreme, because they lead to problems with biochemical balance and to adverse changes in other hormones farther “downstream” in the metabolic cascade.

Ideally, cortisol levels should rise and fall in a rhythm that is responsive and variable. That variability means cortisol levels should remain low at night and when you are relaxed, but climb during periods of acute stress, exercise, and work deadlines, recovering to lower baseline levels quickly. We do not want cortisol to stay at any one level “chronically,” whether high, low, or medium. Rather, we want cortisol flux. We want a highly responsive, finely tuned pattern of cortisol activity. In stress research, then, the emphasis on measuring whether cortisol levels are “high” or “low” has shifted. Instead, researchers want to know how those levels fluctuate over time, how they are balanced with other aspects of biochemistry, and what people’s overall twenty-four-hour exposure may be to cortisol and to a growing collection of other hormones, enzymes, cytokines, and neurotransmitters.

The importance of having fluctuating cortisol levels cannot be overstated. In fact, a pattern of “flat” cortisol rhythm is one indicator of stress overload. A “flat” reading means that cortisol levels may be within ranges that might be labeled “normal,” but they do not appear to increase in response to stress or to fall during periods of relaxation. As a result, the body is constantly exposed to “moderate” levels of cortisol on a twenty-four-hour basis. Such exposures can lead to the worst-case scenarios for long-term health. For example, people with chronic-stress diseases, such as vital exhaustion (burnout), chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia, are known to exhibit a “flat” cortisol rhythm, as are sufferers of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and children who have suffered physical abuse. According to German researchers, when cortisol rhythms become flattened, an enzyme inside abdominal fat cells (called “HSD,” for hydroxy-steroid-dehydrogenase) kicks into overdrive to increase cortisol levels—and cortisol is a potent trigger for fat storage in those same belly-fat cells. As you can imagine, when the HSD increases cortisol levels, the cortisol, in turn, increases fat storage in the belly. And all that hormonal activity takes place in the abdominal region, even if the rest of the body contains cortisol in the “normal” range.

When chronic stress disrupts your healthy fluctuation of cortisol levels, it often leaves you feeling fatigued during the day (when you should feel energized) and restless at night (when you want to be relaxed). A “flattened” cortisol rhythm also sets off a cascade of detrimental alterations in other aspects of biochemical balance, including elevations in oxidative free radicals, inflammatory cytokines, and sugars associated with glycation (all covered in more detail in Part II).

How Chronic Stress Sabotages Sleep and Saps Your Vigor

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

How Chronic Stress Sabotages Sleep and Saps Your Vigor
Have you ever had the experience of being exhausted during the day and all you can think about is getting some sleep? And then, when your head finally hits the pillow, you’re wide awake! Logically this “dynamic duo” of fatigue plus insomnia (or nighttime restlessness) would seem to be opposites: If you’re so tired, why can’t you fall asleep? However, these conditions are commonly found together in the two-thirds of the North American population who report experiencing chronic stress and who also get inadequate sleep. The common element? You guessed it: disruptions in the body’s biochemical balance. That imbalance is characterized by too much cortisol, too little testosterone, and the cascade of metabolic disruptions that ensue.

In the previous section, I discussed what happens when stress-induced imbalances in cortisol and cytokines precipitate a downward spiral that leads to obesity. By the same token, the combination of fatigue and insomnia also sets off a vicious cycle in which stress makes it hard to relax and to fall asleep—which then leads to more fatigue. And being more fatigued after a sleepless night makes it harder to deal with stressors, which then causes even more difficulty falling asleep the next night…and the next night and the next after that in a repetitive cycle that ultimately ends in burnout.

Now you can begin to see how all these stress-driven disruptions to the hidden biochemistry within your body can have a real impact on your health, sabotaging your sleep and sapping your vigor. But how does biochemical balance fit into this picture? As you’ve learned in this chapter, stress induces a rise in cortisol-exposure levels. And one of the many effects of cortisol is to increase your level of alertness, which means that encountering stressful events in the late afternoon or early evening will cause your body to go “on alert,” much the way a zebra would jump at the sound of an approaching lion. That spike in your alertness then hampers your ability to relax and fall asleep at night. On top of that, if you don’t get to bed at a reasonable hour—early enough to allow a full eight hours of shut-eye—your cortisol metabolism doesn’t get a chance to completely “step through” its normal rhythm pattern. Within this normal pattern, cortisol levels reach their lowest point around 3:00 am. As a result, you may get only five, six, or seven hours of sleep and wake up feeling groggy after having been exposed to higher-than-normal levels of cortisol throughout the night.

Once cortisol hits bottom around 3:00 am, it tends to rise again and normally peaks in the early morning, from about 6:00 am to 8:00 am. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense, because cortisol increases your alertness. So your body’s cortisol levels rise in the early morning as a way to get you moving and prepared to face the challenges of the day. Then, as the morning wears on, between the hours of 8:00 am and 11:00 am, cortisol levels begin to drop and gradually decline throughout the day. That decline in cortisol typically causes you to feel a decrease in your energy level and ability to concentrate sometime around 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Office workers and others often call this the “afternoon slump.” This dip in energy levels is the body’s way of saying, “The day is almost over; better get ready for sleep.” Instead of getting ready for sleep, however, modern lifestyles cause most people to look for ways to boost their energy levels late in the day so they can get through afternoon meetings, soccer practices, piano recitals, business dinners, and time with their families. The average body clock really wants you to eat your last meal of the day around 5:00 pm and to be asleep by 8:00 pm. Unfortunately, wristwatches, television sets, computers, video games, and other electronics often keep you awake late into the night.

In the long run, when you sleep fewer hours than the recommended standard eight hours per night, you can experience annoying side effects, such as headaches, irritability, frequent infections, depression, anxiety, confusion, and generalized mental and physical fatigue. Not only can the lack of sleep leave you feeling lousy and low on vigor, but research shows that even mild sleep deprivation can actually destroy a person’s long-term health and increase the risk of burnout, diabetes, obesity, and breast cancer. In many ways, sleeping fewer than eight hours each night is as bad for overall wellness as gorging on junk food or becoming a couch potato!

On the biochemical level, one of the major problems with the modern “late to bed, early to rise” lifestyle is that your cortisol levels never have enough time to fully dissipate as they are supposed to do during the overnight resting period. As a result, your body never has a chance to fully recover and repair itself from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. That overexposure to cortisol throws a “monkey wrench” into your ability to maintain biochemical balance. And when your biochemical balance is out of whack, it sends your overall metabolism into a downward spiral, accelerating the “breakdown” of tissues and sending your energy, mood, and mental focus into a tailspin, leaving you with low vigor.

“Stressed Out”—The Downside of Chronic Stress

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

“Stressed Out”—The Downside of Chronic Stress
When people reach a breaking point in the face of too many pressures and worries, it is common to hear them say they are “stressed out.” People usually have a sense of what those words mean, but it is important to understand the difference between being simply “stressed” and being “stressed out.”

When you are “stressed,” your body undergoes an adaptive response. Cortisol goes up and then it comes down, as described in the example of the zebra. Being “stressed out” suggests that your body is unable to mount a normal stress response. If you are “stressed out,” your cortisol rhythm stays flat—which means that your overall cortisol exposure over a twenty-four hour period is actually higher, because you never get a break from it. This unrelenting, “maladaptive” cortisol response is the hallmark of being “stressed out”—a condition that results from chronic stress.

The bad news is that modern society makes chronic stress largely inescapable. In research studies, scientists at Ohio University have shown that overall exposure to cortisol is significantly related to the degree of “daily hassles” (more hassles = more cortisol) as well as to age (higher age = higher cortisol) and to hours slept (less sleep = more cortisol). Worse than that, being “stressed out” (that is, coping with chronic stress) is believed to be the cause of many common diseases, such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and burnout, according to scientists at Rockefeller University in New York. And researchers in Boston have suggested that chronic psychological stress is a primary cause not just of cortisol overexposure but also of inflammatory diseases, including insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

When it comes to managing your weight or combating obesity, you also have to seriously consider the impact of the cortisol overexposure that accompanies chronic stress. To begin with, the level of inflammation in your body and the accumulation of abdominal fat (belly fat) are inextricably linked. That link takes place because cortisol and cytokines promote fat storage in a “chicken-and-egg” scenario in which it is often hard to tell which came first—the stress (which causes an overexposure to cortisol) or the inflammation (altered by the cytokines).
(Cytokines, explained in more detail in Part II, are a class of hormone-like signaling proteins that play a central role in the immune response and in the level of inflammation found throughout the body.)

On the cellular level, inflammation leads to obesity, which leads to more stress and inflammation, which leads to more obesity. On the other side of the coin, reducing obesity has the opposite effect: Weight loss leads to a substantial drop in inflammation and cortisol levels. And controlling stress can lead weight loss. So the “chicken-and-egg” scenario that plays out between stress-related cortisol overexposure and cytokine-regulated levels of inflammation can run two ways, positively as well as negatively. When cortisol and cytokines are locked in a downward spiral, more inflammation and more obesity result; and when that cycle is reversed, people experience weight loss. As you can see here and as you will learn throughout this book, it is the ability to manage chronic stress that determines whether these biochemical cycles turn in the right direction.

The Biochemistry of Stress (Cortisol)

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt?

Here’s another excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment.

If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

The Biochemistry of Stress
In research circles, the response of a zebra facing a possible attack by a lion is used as a standard example to explain stress physiology. In this example, the zebra represents you, and the lion represents your stress. If you were to face a charging lion, your body would quickly pace itself through a series of neurological, biochemical, hormonal, and physiological actions. These actions are labeled with a term you’ve probably heard: the “fight-or-flight” response. Each response mechanism within your body is designed to help you run away from the lion—that is, to take flight—or engage it in battle—to fight (and, you hope, to survive for another day).
For zebras, the stress response runs its complete course, from start to finish, in a relatively short period of time. When the zebra experiences a stressor, such as the lion charging, its brain and hormone system release a series of stress hormones. This stress response enables the zebra to fight off the lion or run away from it. That is the classic “fight-or-flight” response. After getting away from the lion, the zebra’s stress hormones return to normal. The zebra goes on to live happily and healthily ever after—at least until the next lion shows up. Most importantly, the entire process, from the point when the zebra sees the lion until its hormones return to normal, takes perhaps sixty seconds from start to finish. This short episode, and the zebra’s response to it, is a perfect example of what researchers refer to as “acute stress” or “temporary stress.” This is the type of stress that gets you up and going and to which you can adapt very nicely because it is over so quickly. Think about jumping out of the way of a bicyclist while walking in the city or dropping a cooking spoon that has become too hot from sitting next to the stove—these are examples of “temporary-stress” responses, because your body quickly reacts and just as quickly recovers.

Unfortunately for humans, many of the things that cause stress today are hard to fight off and almost impossible to run away from—unlike the zebra who can flee from the lion. Stressors come in the form of monthly mortgage payments, credit-card bills, project deadlines, traffic jams, family commitments, and myriad other pressures. Worse, these stressors seem to keep coming back again and again, making them anything but “acute,” temporary, or short-term in nature. As a result, many people are in the position of being chronically “stuck” midway through the normal, temporary-stress response cycle. Because this response cycle does not have an opportunity to run its course to a natural conclusion (as it does for the zebra), people’s stress hormones remain continuously elevated. The ongoing elevation of these hormones slowly leads people down the path to low vigor and toward poor long-term health.

What happens to the biochemistry of your body when you experience stress? Essentially, stress makes your cortisol levels go up. And just what is cortisol? Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress. It is often called the primary “stress hormone,” but it also shows up under the names “cortisone” or “hydrocortisone.” Cortisol, basically, allows the body to maintain normal physiological processes during times of stress. In other words, without cortisol, the body would be incapable of dealing with stress effectively. Without cortisol, that lion charging at you from the bushes would cause you to do little more than to wet your pants and stand there staring. By contrast, when the body metabolizes cortisol effectively, you’re primed to run away or to do battle, because cortisol secretion releases amino acids (from muscle), glucose (from the liver), and fatty acids (from adipose tissue) into the bloodstream for use as energy. Given these benefits, it might seem safe to assume that cortisol is “good”—right? The answer is yes—and no.

On the plus side, not only does the body produce cortisol to help people respond to stress, but synthetic forms of this hormone (such as prednisone and dexamethasone) are also used to treat a wide variety of conditions because of their anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing properties. In addition, anyone who has dealt with poison ivy or similar conditions knows that cortisol-like drugs can be quite helpful in relieving the itching or excessive inflammation that accompanies certain skin disorders. These drugs are also useful during organ transplantation and in the treatment of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, colitis, or asthma. And for people with Addison’s disease who have lost function of their adrenal glands, cortisol-like drugs play a role in replacement-therapy regimens.

So, again, it would seem that cortisol is a “good thing”—right? Yes, but only at certain levels and for a certain period of time. When your body produces too much cortisol for too long a period of time, this can affect your health in negative ways and leave you in a situation where stress eventually leads to feeling “stressed out,” which then leads to low vigor and burnout.

What is “Stress”?

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt? Here’s an excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment. If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Stress—What Is It, Really?
A simple way to understand the meaning of stress is to define it as “what you feel when life’s demands exceed your ability to meet those demands.” Every individual, of course, has a different capacity to effectively cope with stress and a different level of functioning when faced with stressful situations. Everyone knows people who function better “under pressure” than others. But even the rare person who has a high tolerance for stress ultimately has a breaking point. Add enough total stress to anyone, and both health and performance inevitably suffer.

To deepen your understanding of stress, it is helpful to recognize the distinctions that many of the top stress researchers in the world use when analyzing this condition. First is the type of stress faced by your cousins in the animal kingdom, which are short-term, temporary, or acute stressors. That sort of stress is distinct from the type of stressors that modern humans routinely face, because our stressors are longer-term, repeated, and chronic. In addition, unlike animals, humans undergo not only physical stress but also psychological and social stress. Certainly, some sources of psychological stress are grounded in reality, such as the pressure you feel to make your monthly rent or mortgage payments. Other psychological stressors emanate from your imagination—for instance, the stressful encounters that you can imagine having with your boss, coworkers, kids, spouse, or others. So not only do you have to cope with real-life stressors, but your large, complex, and supposedly “advanced” brain has also developed the capacity to actually create stressful situations where none previously existed.

Science of Vigor

Want to feel better than you’ve ever felt? Here’s an excerpt from my 10th book, The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions every year are:
*Lose Weight
*Get in Shape
*Reduce Stress
*Get Healthier
*Win the Lottery

The Secret of Vigor can help you with 4 out of 5 of the most popular resolution goals, so I’ll be posting excerpts from the book for the next several weeks – so please stay tuned for each installment. If you simply can’t wait, then you can certainly get a copy at http://amzn.to/1eju3wu or at your favorite library or bookstore.

Part I: The Science of Vigor
If the secret of vigor is to balance the biochemistry of your body to beat burnout, then you need to know a little about how that biochemistry works. Don’t worry, you won’t need to memorize complex anatomy charts or chemical formulas. Instead, if you simply understand a few key insights about the vital processes that occur within your body, you will be armed with the knowledge you need to become healthier and happier. These insights provide the foundation for what I call the “science of vigor.”

One of the fundamental biochemical facts you need to know is this: Chronic stress robs you of vigor. The unrelenting, chronic stress that most people put up with every day can wreak havoc with their sleep, weight, and general health—and it can also lead to serious medical problems, ranging from diabetes and osteoporosis to cancer and heart disease. In Chapter 1, you’ll find out some of the ways stress affects the body—and why stress is the nemesis of vigor.

Your biochemistry affects you not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well. In fact, the second key insight in the science of vigor is this: Biochemistry drives emotions—and behavior. Not only that, but your brain chemistry also affects your actions to a much greater degree than has ever been recognized before. Chapter 2 covers all these issues.

After reading about the basics of biochemistry in Part I, you’ll be ready to drill down a little deeper into the hidden chemistry taking place on the cellular level of your body. These biochemical activities—the Four Pillars of Health—are the focus of Part II.
Finally, in Part III, you’ll discover how you can apply these concepts about biochemistry to your own daily life by engaging in Vigor Improvement Practices—and that is where you will find the real value of the science of vigor.

Chapter 1: Chronic Stress—The Enemy of Vigor
Conventional wisdom and countless commercials bombard us with the idea that the way to get healthy is simply to exercise more and eat a better diet. Both these habits are certainly important parts of being healthy, but from my perspective as a biochemist, I’m going to tell you something you’ll hardly hear from anyone else: If you truly want to improve your health, it is just as important to get your stress levels under control as it is to eat a healthy diet and to get physical activity! Quite simply, stress has a bigger impact on your life and well-being than almost anything else you encounter. Most people don’t understand this fact, or else they ignore it. Worse, some people think they’re “tough” enough to handle all the stress in their lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth, because stress sets off major biochemical changes in the body. And that is why I call stress the number-one enemy of vigor.

The stressed-out feeling that many people experience may seem “typical,” simply because everyone else is experiencing it, too. But that does not mean it is “normal” in a physiological sense, nor is it an indicator of good health or well-being. The body, including the nervous system and endocrine (hormonal) system, was simply not meant for the chronic stress that people face as part of their everyday lives in the twenty-first century. Most people simply endure this “twenty-first-century syndrome,” that familiar feeling of always being “on,” of being rushed, harried, and frantic. That is what chronic stress feels like, and it leads to a state of low vigor or “burnout,” with its accompanying fatigue, depression, and mental fog.

As just one indication that chronic stress is taking a toll on the populace, consider this: The incidence of depression and anxiety in modern society is now ten times higher than it was just a generation ago. Some researchers attribute this staggering increase to physicians’ diagnosing psychological “diseases” at a higher rate, because they now have drugs to “cure” them. But it could also be due to the fact that many people are simply living lives that feel constantly out of control. Not only are levels of depression and anxiety on the rise, but close to ninety million cases of diseases with “no known cause” have been diagnosed. These diseases range from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia (FM), vital exhaustion (“burnout”), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to recurrent yeast infections, autoimmune disease, chronic back pain, and other “nonspecific” conditions. The never-ending stress under which people toil on a daily basis plays a role in all these illnesses and conditions, yet Western doctors and researchers are often slow to admit that “mental” conditions, such as stress, can have physical effects upon the rest of the body. They fail to recognize that stress, which leads to biochemical imbalances, is the underlying cause of poor health and low vigor.

Because your ability to improve your vigor is so intricately connected to the way you deal with stress, I want to give you a brief tutorial on this subject. Readers interested in a more detailed overview of the relationship between stress and disease may want to refer to my previous book, The Cortisol Connection, 2nd edition (Hunter House Publishers) = http://amzn.to/1bdFXjL

Tune in to the next installment from The Secret of Vigor for a look at the definition of stress…

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