By Lisa Godhardt
Summer brings with it longer days of vacations and relaxation, but as the days get shorter we adjust our lives to fit the criteria of a new season.
We gear up for the beginning of school and the shuttling of children to practices and rehearsals and seemingly endless events. Evenings become full of the stresses of homework, housework, and busy schedules. A family meal becomes eating fast food in the car between activities and a workout becomes running through the mall because class picture day is tomorrow.
Many of us were brought up on the idea that sacrifice will lead to reward, and this is true to an extent. Unfortunately, this idea is often taken to an extreme that becomes counterproductive. Of course getting quality sleep, appropriate exercise, and enough personal time is easier said than done.
Many of us have been living such hectic lives for so long that prioritizing these things seems unnecessary and often impossible. When even a small reprieve feels like slacking, it’s easy to see why self-care often feels indulgent, or worse yet, selfish.
So maybe a little convincing is in order.
What exactly happens to our bodies when we fail to prioritize personal health, when we run on fumes and manage to just scrape by until we collapse into bed a few hours too late?
Let’s start with sleep, often one of the first things to go when life gets frenzied. How often do we find ourselves thinking, “I’ll be more productive if I just push through another hour of work tonight. I can always catch up on sleep over the weekend.” And maybe that works for a while, but the damage from inadequate sleep occurs slowly over time.
A study done in 2009 for the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that when participants decreased their amount of sleep by just two hours (from 8 to 6), the amount of time they spent in deep sleep was maintained, but the negative effects of sleep deprivation were still seen.
Of course there are the immediate results of poor sleep such as daytime sleepiness and decreased productivity (ironic considering the goal of sleep loss is often increased productivity), but there are more insidious risks of sleep deprivation as well.
IL-6 and TNF alpha are important moderators of inflammation throughout the body. When appropriately regulated, these mediators are involved in regulating the immune system, inhibiting the growth of tumors, and promoting healing in damaged tissues.
However, when the body is sleep deprived, IL-6 and TNF levels are inappropriately and chronically increased. This dysregulation leads to increased inflammation throughout the body, a similar process to that which occurs in obesity and aging. This body-wide inflammation has been implicated in insulin resistance, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and major depression.
Adequate sleep is also necessary for consolidation of memories. Consolidation is the process by which memories become stable. During sleep, memories are also reorganized. Essentially, the “gist” of a new memory is extracted for storage in the long term working memory. Thus, when sleep is chronically disrupted, not only do we lose our ability to recall previously gathered information, but our ability to interpret and accurately assess that information is also compromised.
So if sleep were the only thing being neglected that would be consequential enough, but it rarely occurs in isolation. Exercise and diet are often put on the back burner during high stress times as well. The physical benefits of exercise and good nutritional choices are obvious, but fewer people recognize the connection between nutrition and mental wellbeing.
Nutritional neuroscience is still an emerging field, but the idea has been around for years – think “comfort food”. The psychological symptoms of nutritional deficiency often become apparent before the physical symptoms of a frank deficiency disease. Levels of vitamins such as folate, riboflavin, vitamin C, and vitamin B12 have been correlated with memory capacity and the ability to think abstractly.
Iron deficiency has been correlated with decreased attention span and lethargy. The first signs of thiamine deficiency are often depression, increased irritability, and fatigue, and the list goes on. With this information, it isn’t hard to see that a diet low in vitamins can have a huge negative impact on productivity and mental health.
Regular exercise compounds the positive effects of good nutrition with its own mood enhancing properties. One great example is yoga, which has been shown to result in improved cognition, memory, and mood by altering brain wave activation. Electrical communication between neurons in the brain can be measured as brain waves. There are different types of brain waves originating from various areas of the brain and eliciting different results.
Alpha waves are generated when a person is awake and calm. This brain activity is associated with cognitive performance, specifically the speed at which information can be retrieved from memory. Increased beta wave activity has been shown to decrease emotional exhaustion and anxiety. When stimulated, theta waves are involved in production of short-term memory.
The practice of yoga has been shown to increase activity of alpha, beta, and theta waves, resulting in an overall decrease in anxiety and increase in focus. If adequate sleep, healthy diet, and exercise are overlooked, stress levels tend to build.
Of course, some amount of stress (acute stress) serves as an important physiologic response necessary for survival. Acute stress is time-limited and when exposed to the same acute stressor repeatedly, the brain adapts and the acute stress response is dampened.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is pervasive and generally results in an unhealthy restructuring of life (hint: poor diet, decreased sleep, lack of physical activity, and social isolation) that in turn results in compounded stress. Chronic elevation of stress mediators is physically damaging. Studies have shown chronic stress reduces the ability of brain cells to resist damage from toxins and increases the rate at which they weaken with age and weakens the immune system.
Chronic stress is also psychologically damaging. Managing chronic stress is not as straight forward as the previous aspects of self-care we have discussed. Stress management practices such as mindfulness meditation have seen increased popularity recently as more evidence emerges of its associated health benefits.
Mindfulness meditation is based in a non-evaluative openness and acceptance of moment-to-moment experiences and a self-regulation of awareness toward one’s present mental state. In simpler terms, the goal is to experience life without the harsh judgment we often place on ourselves.
Mindfulness acts to enhance awareness of even low levels of stress and promote efficient coping. In times of increased stress, mindfulness meditation acts as a buffer against the negative psychological and physical health consequences.
Of course there are demands in life that must be met, but the more overwhelmed we become, the less able we are to effectively meet those demands. How often do we tell our frustrated and distressed child to take a break from the task? Do we follow that advice ourselves? Taking care of your emotional and physical needs is the backbone of productivity.
Self-care is too often seen as a reward, instead of an essential part of the process. So the next time you have a cup of coffee, put down the computer, put down the phone, and take a walk. Your body will thank you for it.