Sleep, Stress, and Nutrition
Your gut is the largest organ that determines the strength and quality of your immune system. Gut health determines what micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals are absorbed and what passes through. It is worth mentioning that just because you eat the rainbow, vary your protein sources, and take your vitamins, it doesn’t automatically mean you will absorb all the nutrients and get all that benefit. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t matter what you eat- in fact, what you eat is incredibly important. But it isn’t the only factor.
To promote healthy gut function, nutrition is a piece of the puzzle- albeit, a very large piece. However, there are also some other factors that influence gut health, and it turns out that you may have heard of them (from me) many times before.
In order to ensure your brain functions properly, your memories get converted, your muscles recover and rebuild, and your digestive system has a chance to recover, your body needs 6-9 hours of consistent, high-quality sleep. That doesn’t mean laying in bed for 6 hours, scrolling on your phone for 2 of them each night. It also doesn’t mean that the longer you’re in bed, the better. The amount of sleep you need is completely dependent on you- some people feel great with 6 full hours of sleep, others can’t function without 7-8.
So how do you get high quality sleep?
- No screens in bed- ideally, no screens within 1-2 hours of going to sleep. If you are going to watch TV, scroll on your phone, or work on your laptop, grab a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to help block out the light that causes the body to continue producing cortisol when it should be winding down.
- Black out your room- making your room completely dark allows your body to get into a deeper sleep- and stay there. That means covering the lights on AC units, alarm clocks, and any other electronics that emit a light.
- Keep it cool- take a cold shower before bed, leave the AC on, or make the room cooler however you can. Ideal temperature is 68-70 degrees (fahrenheit) to allow your body to stay cool throughout the night while it does its thing.
Some stress is actually a good thing. It drives adaptation in our bodies- that’s how we get stronger, faster, smarter, fitter. Stress becomes detrimental to our bodies when we no longer have the ability to recover from it. Chronic stress leads to a myriad of health problems, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, depression, and even IBS symptoms (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc). Our bodies cannot differentiate between physical and emotional stress, causing elevated levels of cortisol (ever heard of fight or flight?). Our ability to handle and recover from stress is completely dependent on us as individuals, including our personal history, mental capacity, and outlook on life.
So how do you manage stress to be advantageous rather than chronic and potentially harmful?
- Determine Self Care Practices- these are any activities you can do to allow yourself time to decompress. For some that means going for a run or a walk, for others that means an epsom salt bath. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you feel better than you did before you started it.
- Set boundaries- these are not walls you put up to keep people out, but instead guidelines that you use to protect your energy so that you can be the best version of yourself.
And you thought this was all about food, huh? Well here’s the thing- food quality and quantity both play a big role in the function of your immune system. Maybe not in the way you might think, though. If you are crushing veggies daily, but not eating enough to fuel your activity levels, it will inevitably lead to more stress on your body (and as we know, some stress is okay, but too much is no bueno). If you are meticulously weighing and measuring every single thing that goes into your body, causing you to miss out on social situations, family celebrations, or hindering your quality of life, it will inevitably lead to more stress (aka no bueno).
So how do we ensure we’re eating enough (but not too much), getting our nutrients in (but not obsessing), and staying disciplined (but not too strict)? This is the age old question- and it’s simpler than you think- with a few things you can do (don’t have to do them all!).
- Log your food- to gain awareness of what you’re actually eating, you can start by logging your food. This can be in the form of a journal, or a photo food log. It just starts with building awareness of your choices and eating habits.
- Track your food- to gain awareness of how much you’re eating, take 1-2 weeks to weigh and track every food you eat and every beverage you drink. This helps you determine if what you’re eating and how much you’re eating is aligned with your goals or if you want to make any adjustments. If in that time your bodyweight does not fluctuate more than 3-5lbs, you are at maintenance calories- the calories your body needs to sustain your activity levels, and aid in recovery.
- Get a Protein, Veggie/Fruit, Fat, and Carb with every meal- creating balanced meals (50% of your plate is veggies, ¼ is Protein, ¼ is Carbs and a thumb-size amount of fat) allows you to ensure you’re getting a variety of micronutrients (vitamins & minerals), as well as the macronutrients you need (to ensure quantity and quality).
- Drink enough water- aiming for at least ½ your bodyweight in ounces, potentially more depending on the climate you’re in or if you sweat more than average (you’d know if this is you!)
Believe it or not, I’m not talking about your workout daily. I know, I know, we’re a fitness company, but that 1 hour of your day is just a small fraction of your day, week, month, etc. What I’m really talking about is your NEAT (remember, you’re Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) aka how much energy your body burns throughout the day doing everything else. That means everything from talking with your hands, to tapping your feet when you’re sitting at your desk, to getting 8-10k steps daily. The steps thing is an arbitrary number- it’s not magic, that’s not a secret sauce to health, it just ensures that you are moving throughout the day if you can average at least 8-10k daily. While yes, your hour in the gym is important to get stronger and fitter, the time you spend outside of the gym being active is even more important. If you are living a sedentary lifestyle, your body adapts to use less energy. If you are more active throughout the day, your body adapts to use more energy.
So how do you increase your movement AND balance your busy lifestyle? I’m so glad you asked.
- Park farther from the grocery store- this automatically creates an opportunity to get some more movement in, just because you’re accruing steps.
- Set alarms on your phone for 5-10 min walking breaks- instead of powering through until you feel like a zombie, take a break every 1-1.5 hours and go for a walk outside, or even around the house
- Be less efficient- instead of trying to #onetrip the groceries, take in 1-2 bags at a time from the car to get in some extra movement. This also applies to cleaning and cooking- taking one thing out at a time, or moving one thing at a time to the table for dinner.
- Revamp your desk set-up- macgyver yourself a standing desk, and find something you can allow your feet to fidget with (like a stool or a ball, etc). You’ll automatically move more, because standing up straight isn’t always the most important- shifting side to side, or tapping your feet here helps!
This is a lot of info to get through. Most of it you’ve heard from me right here many times, some of it might be new to you.
"No matter where you’re at on your health journey, just know that keeping it simple is the most effective way to make long-lasting change."
Start with one thing- not one category- one step within it. Develop one habit, and once you feel confident there, you can start to develop a new one on top of it. Too often, we try to do too much at once, and we burn out. That’s because it’s still stressful- it’s different, awkward, and uncomfortable. And that’s okay. It just means we pull back, take it one small step at a time, and keep moving forward. Because small steps are still steps in the right direction.