(The content in this post is intended is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized medical or professional advice, care, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your daily regimen)
Increase Resilience Daily
There are many things outside of our control, now and always. Whether it's losing a job, passing of a loved one, a pandemic (all of the above for many at this moment), basement flood, tornado, whatever it is that life or mother nature has thrown your way there are just going to be things we cannot plan for or prevent.
What we can do is become our most resilient selves in order to weather the storms when they hit and so that when the storms clear, we can pick up the pieces, put ourselves back together, and maybe even come out stronger for it. Resiliency is not built overnight, it is built overtime and is largely determined by our biology and psycho-social variables including; how we physiologically respond to stress, self-awareness, self-regulation, our connections, and our mindset. The good news is that we have a lot of control over many of these factors as adults, so over the next few weeks we will talk about all 5 of these ways that you can start making choices that will help you when you need to bring your strongest self to the ring, both in mind and body.
We will begin with #1: Biological influences.
How we respond to stress can be largely determined by what we put into our bodies, how we move our bodies, and how connected we are to our bodies. What resources we give our body to mount a response to a stressor such as a pathogenic stressor like a virus or a psychological stressor like a work assignment due tomorrow, can larger determine how well we will handle it, or how resilient we are to those stressors. I have broken these down into a few categories for you to help us understand how they influence our resilience and what changes we can make to improve in these areas daily.
What we eat
What we know in the field of nutrition therapy is that our food and water helps to fuel every biochemical pathway and helps build our bodies on a cellular level. So let me ask, are you built on fries or fruits? Well although fries have some components helpful to keep our body running, they do not contain what we need to keep it flourishing. Now even I know that potatoes themselves have extremely beneficial nutrients but once those are chopped, shipped, fried and dipped you've counteracted much of that with high oxidation and free radicals.
Anyways... what I mean is that we can optimize our plates and cups to make sure we are supporting our body by providing adequate resources, building blocks, and sufficient co-factors necessary for the complex functioning that is our body, thereby increasing it's resiliency when we encounter pathogens and stressful situations that require higher amounts of various nutrients to withstand them.
Potentize your plate;
Color; the natural color (not talking food dyes here) of a food actually tells a lot of about what's in it. We evolved to be enticed by vibrant colors in our foods which is partly why food companies use this to their advantage when coming up with their processed products. Naturally colorful foods and spices like sweet potatoes, turmeric, basil, carrots, apples, blueberries, and mangoes, contain a magnitude of phytonutrients, including flavonoids and antioxidants which are vital to reduce damage to our cells that can be caused by everyday wear and tear and increased damage during stressful times like having a cold or fighting with a loved one. A wide variety of these phytonutrients helps to keep our bodies and minds happy and increase their ability to combat the daily stressors, even things like exercise can cause inflammation and tissue damage so it's important to get a daily dose for quicker recovery. Try incorporating the rainbow daily or throughout the week; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and white. Take this into consideration when meal planning, are you eating the same foods every day? Change it up and add some color.
Fiber; this is probably the most important part on the plate in my opinion. Why? Because it's what feeds our beneficial gut microbes which affect our moods, digestion, absorption, immune system, and health of our mental state. Without adequate and varied sources of fiber, pathogenic bacteria can increase causing a wide array of negative outcomes such as brain fog, irritable bowel syndrome, or SIBO. Now most people think of fiber supplements when they read fiber but that's not what I'm talking about here. Simply supplementing fiber will not give you the full scope of benefits that eating foods rich in fiber will. Foods are complex and contain synergistic nutrients so it's important to start there first. Root vegetables are especially great for feeding beneficial microbes as well as for getting the vibrant color mentioned earlier and they include; carrots, beets, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips, ginger, garlic, radishes, fennel, turmeric, and rutabaga. Roast them or add them to your soup!
Protein; proteins are made up of amino acids and get broken down into these when we digest them. Amino acids are building blocks for so much of our body! For example, they make up; enzymes, tissue (skin, muscle, etc), neurotransmitters, immunoglobulins, hormones, and so much more. There are 20 known amino acids and we generally categorize them as; essential- meaning we must eat them because our body does not produce them, nonessential- meaning our body naturally produces them, or as conditional- meaning only created when needed such as during stress or illness. What this means for us is that we must get a variety of well-sourced protein to ensure we have adequate amounts of these vital building blocks. This is again where I will say that whole foods are the best sources (unless you have a specific condition that requires more specific supplementation and avoidance of certain proteins/amino acids), otherwise whole foods such as beef, poultry, eggs, seafood, nuts, seeds, and legumes provide more nutrients than just the protein which again tend to work synergistically (together) within our body to create a more resilient self.
Fats; fats have gotten a lot of press over the years, at first for being terrible for you and then for being the sole makeup of many diets. Though I think the amount of fat most beneficial for a person greatly varies on an individual basis, we do know that fats play an important role in our bodies. Fats make up significant parts of our cells including the cell membrane and the insulation around our nerves, they help us absorb various nutrients like vitamins A, D, E,and K, they can be an important source of energy, they can be anti-inflammatory (such as omega-3 fatty acids), they protect our organs, they can act as messengers in our body and much more. So, bottom line is that we need healthy fats in our diets to provide the right resources for those functions which are necessary for a resilient body. Here are some ideas; well-sourced fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, tuna), sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, walnuts, pine nuts, chia seeds, avocados, olives, coconut oil, well-sourced meats and eggs from grass-fed and responsibly raised farms.
What we drink
Water fuels many biochemical processes in our bodies, it is essential to waste removal, it helps regulate our body temperature and blood pressure, it hydrates our tissues and lubricates joints, it helps to oxygenate our cells, and water helps us absorb nutrients such as water-soluble vitamins.
Increase absorption and flavor by adding cucumber, lemon, or lime to your water.
Fruits and vegetables in general tend to contain high amounts water as well as vital nutrients, 6-8 cups/day (make sure that contains more vegetables than fruits) can improve hydration.
It's important to note that not all liquid is hydrating and that sugary beverages such as soda, juices, alcohol, and coffee drinks can increase inflammation and insulin dysregulation, and lower our body's resilience to acute and chronic illness. Those drinks also have a higher osmolarity ( particles: solution, in this case sugar: water ratio) with lower nutrient value (even most juices do not contain the beneficial fiber) so they tend to not help with hydration status or resiliency and some may even lower it.
How we move
Exercise has been shown to play an important part in regulating our nervous system, immune system, lymphatic, respiratory, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular systems, and more, all of which affect our resilience to stressors.
Flexibility is another vital aspect of movement, it can greatly impact our activities of daily living (ADLs) such as ability to tie our shoes and pick up something off the floor safely. This can be an overlooked factor in health risks and accident prevention. We can improve flexibility through proper stretching and activities such as yoga when guided by someone well trained.
Adequate exercise means the right amount for you, this differs for everyone but it's important to keep in mind that overdoing exercise can negatively impact your resilience as much as not enough exercise. If we do not allow our bodies to recover, this causes increase inflammation and tissue damage which puts us at risk for a wide array of other health concerns such as infection and injury.
Consider finding a trainer or consulting with your PCP to determine what the right amount of exercise is for you, and note that this may change over time as you adapt and increase endurance.
Variety of exercise is best, we need adequate amounts of strength building and cardiovascular exercise to ensure we are helping all systems mentioned earlier. Adequate muscle can also improve insulin sensitivity and metabolism, and can be protective as we age in maintaining balance and ability to perform our ADLs.
How we sleep
Studies have shown that those getting less than 7 hours of sleep had a significant decline in immune function the next day compared to those getting 7 hours or more of sleep.
Sleep gives our body (including the brain) time to decompress, to restore and rebuild from the stressors of the day. Even digestion is taxing to our system so these daily activities need to be countered with rest and sleep.
We also know that not all sleep is created equal, it's important to have quality sleep not just x many hours of sleep. If you have ever woken up groggy and unrested then you know the feeling of not getting quality sleep. Some may even want to consider a sleep study to determine if you are waking throughout the night, getting adequate oxygenation through proper breathing, or to become aware of any other potential sleep disturbances lowering sleep quality.
Another thing to keep in mind is that our genetics can play a role into when we sleep best, some may prefer waking later than others and staying up later than others, so waking at 5 a.m. to follow a "productive morning routine" may end up setting that group of people back vs pushing them forward in productivity. Try allowing your body to wake naturally when you can to see what your body rhythm is, as it's not the same for everyone (and that's okay!).
You may also want to consider implementing a nightly routine such as putting your phone away and not watching TV an hour before bed, depending on your work schedule you may need blackout curtains for adequate dark which helps release of melatonin, consider avoiding stimulants such as caffeine in the afternoon, take a warm bath before bed to help induce sleep, wear blue-light blocking glasses 2 hours before bed and switch lights to a softer yellow hue for evenings- again for melatonin release, and incorporate breathing techniques and body relaxation techniques before bed. Find what works best for you by experimenting and giving them a solid try.
Another aspect to sleep often overlooked is our morning routine which can impact our balance between two major regulatory hormones of our sleep and wakefulness; melatonin and cortisol. Sunlight helps to suppress melatonin release, giving us time to produce it during the day for when we need it at night, so morning sunlight can help to keep this process regulated. Open your blinds and/or get outside for the morning sun as apart of your morning routine for improved sleep.
How we breathe
Our breath generally happens automatically and is predominantly controlled by our autonomic nervous system so many of us do not think about this as an important part of our health until it becomes impeded by conditions like asthma, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, pollution, etc. So we need address this pathway early on because it is how we oxygenate our cells including our brain cells and remove carbon dioxide from the body.
There are two main factors when I think of breath; the first is the quality of our breathing which can be affected by our posture, fit of our clothes, strength of our muscles, where we are breathing into (chest or abdomen), shallow vs deep respiration, nasal vs mouth respiration, etc and the second is the quality of the air we breathe which can be affected by synthetic fragrance like wall plugs and perfumes as well as candles, allergens, dust, dander, mold, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), smoke, particulate matter, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, etc.
How we breath; place one hand on your abdomen and one on your chest, notice how you are currently breathing. Which hand is rising more, the one on your chest or the one on your abdomen? Now, take a nice exhale out of your mouth and on your next inhale through your nose (mouth closed) focus on moving that air into your abdomen, pushing out your lower hand. Now hold that for a few seconds, and then exhale it all the way out. Repeat that 3 times. This is how we should be breathing, deeply and fully into the abdomen rather than shallow breathing into our chest. This allows us to fully oxygenate our blood, to expand the lungs, and to engage our core muscles strengthening our abdomen and lower back (have pain there? try changing your breath) rather than our neck and upper body where we begin to hold tension and hold our breath (have pain there too? try changing your breath).
What we breath; unfortunately we only have so much control over the quality of the air outside of our homes aside from doing our part to ensure our cars are as clean as they can be and we aren't burning things that we shouldn't be, but within our own space we can have a say. First- a HEPA air purifier can be a great help to improve air quality especially if you are a pet owner, live in a busy city, or have new materials like carpet, furniture, or a mattress that may be off-gassing. Second- we can pay attention to what we are filling the air with by avoiding sprays, paints, shampoos, lotions, and cleaning products with synthetic fragrance and high VOCs, avoiding candles with paraffin, and stop smoking of course (yes even cannabis smoke still causes damage to lungs through heat). Third- ventilate as much as possible, open windows and use fans to get good airflow into your home (and sunlight!). Fourth- clean often; vacuum, sweep, mop, dust, scrub, and wash your furniture, carpet, bathroom, bedding, etc. Fifth- start with low VOC and easy to clean flooring instead of carpet, buy furniture with low VOC and easy to clean surfaces like fo-leather, and paint with low VOC paint (it will say on the can).
How we think
Much of this will be covered in the posts to come on self-awareness, self- regulation, connections and relationships, and mindset.
On a physiological level, we can observe changes in our breathing and heart rate triggered simply by a thought. This is the simplified chain of reactions; thought--> emotion --> physiological response. Have you ever noticed this? Your partner leaves dishes in the sink even though they know it bothers you, this triggers a thought, "Do they even care about me?" --> emotion such as Anger, Sadness, Frustration --> physical response such as sweaty palms, heart racing, tears, shaky hands, pacing, face turning red, etc.
This is how we know there is a strong link between our thoughts and our body, it is observable and I encourage you to start by noticing first your body's response next time you are feeling triggered. Then move to notice what emotion(s) you are feeling in that moment. Then eventually you may be able to trace that back to the originating thought. This can take practice and guidance, so I also encourage you to seek a counselor or someone to help you in this area.
By knowing ourselves in this way, we can stop this stressful reactive cycle that lowers our ability to make rational decisions and also taxes our immune system, thereby lowering our overall resilience. So to increase resilience through our thinking, we first need awareness of what we are thinking, and then gradually work towards shifting that into thinking that can help and not hurt us and others. Again, this will be covered more in the posts to come in this series: Increase Resilience Daily. So stay with me!
I hope this was helpful and actionable for you. I may expand on these topics in the future so if there is one in particular that you would like more information on, please email me to let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below is a something I always turn to when life gets tough, it is a way to ground me, give me perspective, and give me strength. I hope it helps you do the same.
Kierstin DeWitt, ND, R.Ac