When Listening to Your Body Doesn’t Work – Part 2

As I wrote last week, we can’t always trust what our bodies are telling us to do. Our bodies send us a lot of other confusing and even misleading signals – but they don’t always pertain to food. Any of our base physiological processes will manifest as messages, cravings, and desires. That’s how the body gets us to perform tasks (like eating because of hunger, drinking because of thirst, and sleeping because of drowsiness), by creating physiologically-driven desires and motivations. In theory, these motivations match up with what’s best for us in that given situation and improve our chances of survival. Our bodies mean well. When they tell us to do or not to do something, they’re doing their best with the available information. If you place yourself in an evolutionary novel environment, your body is going to interpret the situation as best it can. When it perceives a high stress office environment with free coffee on hand, or a world where doing nothing is a viable mode of subsistence, or the aforementioned bright lights in the dead of night, things get complicated and the signals can get a little screwy. Read on to find out how this can all play out.

When you’re tired but wired.

Obviously, if you’re awake-but-sleep-deprived because of excessive stimulant ingestion, you should go to sleep (or find a way to wind yourself down so that sleep is even possible), but that’s not something most health-conscious MDA readers need to worry about. However, if you’re reading this, you’re a consumer of technology, of monitors and message boards and other avenues of electronic stimulation. That’s fine, that’s totally normal and unavoidable nowadays, but overconsumption of technology can put us in a state of “tired but wired.” You’re sleepy, in that your body and mind are experiencing a serious sleep debt, but they don’t know it. As a result, you’re awake even though you should be sleeping. You’re alert even as your adrenals near their breaking point. You’re in the calm before the storm of impaired performance. You think you’re okay – because you’re not yawning left and right – but you desperately need sleep.

This is the body’s way of keeping us alert in a state of sleep debt. Your adrenal glands are called into action to perform a valuable, albeit costly service. Now, if you were to tax your adrenals every once in awhile, like during an all-night tribal dance ceremony, a nighttime hunt, or while sneaking up on an enemy encampment in the dead of night. you’d be okay. Your adrenals are there to be called upon when you really need them. But if you do it every night, or for a flippant reason (are those 2 AM infomercials really worth it?), you’re probably making a mistake. Your body won’t tell you this, of course, because it’s trying to keep you awake and alert since for all it “knows” you’re engaged in some serious stuff necessary for your survival, but you should probably ignore those feelings, turn off the screen, and get to sleep just the same.

When you never feel like exercising.

Everyone reading knows the feeling. You want to exercise, but you can’t seem to muster the strength to get up out of the chair and go to the gym, line up under the squat rack, strap on your FiveFingers, or leash your dog for even a short walk. By all accounts, you’d like to exercise. You know it’s good for you. So why don’t you? You’re not overtrained, because you haven’t been training.

The physiological mechanisms behind exercise motivation are still being teased out, but there’s at least one known “exercise motivation” hormone. A recent study found that when scientists increased the levels of a brain hormone called erythropoietin in one group of mice, those mice chose to exercise more than a group of mice with normal levels of erythropoietin. The most oft-cited role of erythropoietin is to regulate the production of red blood cells, which is why an exogenous form of the hormone is classified as a performance enhancing drug; it increases the number of red blood cells, which allows more oxygen to be delivered to the muscles during a race. As to how your levels might drop, erythropoietin is produced in the kidneys, and renal failure is characterized by severe anemia (lack of red blood cells) caused by an erythropoietin deficiency (plus severe fatigue). Anemia makes exercise pretty hard, from what I understand.

When you finally do force yourself to go for that walk or lift that weight or run that sprint, you feel better, don’t you? The remainder of the day is decidedly more pleasant, your food tastes better, your dealings with others run more smoothly, and when you do kick your feet up and rest, there is no omnipresent sense of guilt weighing heavily on your entire being. You feel better, and exercise ended up being a great choice, even though your body was telling you not to do it. We see this process displayed most prominently in clinical depression, a primary symptom of which is fatigue – a total lack of desire for exercise, fitness, and movement of any kind. But what’s one of the most effective ways to treat depression? Exercise. Depressed patients’ bodies are literally telling them not to exercise, but when they finally muster the will to do it, they’ll usually feel better. And that’s clinical depression. Imagine how just “feeling bad” (which also keeps you from wanting to exercise) can do the same.

When you feel like you need a steady influx of coffee to survive your stressful days.

The first thing many of us do when facing a stressful day at work or coming off a long night is head to the local cafe for a cup of something strong and black. Over and over again. And on some level, chugging coffee does “work.” If you need to drive without falling asleep at the wheel, or stay awake long enough to take a final exam, or go to work and be somewhat functional and receptive to outside stimuli, then yes, having that coffee will help you. But when you make it a habit, or a crutch, you’ll only make the problem worse.

The reason why is cortisol, the stress hormone. Coffee elevates it, so when you’re stressed out, which already increases your cortisol, and you start pounding the coffee, you’re going to compound the problem. Some studies have found that only hypertensive and borderline hypertensive people have increased cortisol responses to coffee at rest, but everyone appears to get the coffee/cortisol effect when under psychosocial stress.

Since coffee actually acts as a mild stressor that’s beneficial in moderate amounts (like a cup or two) at the right time (in the morning after a good night’s sleep), try to get a handle on your intake. Drink it “when you don’t need it.” Drink it when you’re not stressed.

When you’re feeling lazy.

Humans are a naturally leisurely bunch. We like (and need) sleep, play, and relaxation. These things aren’t just pleasurable indulgences; they are vital to our physical and mental health and well-being. Why, I just wrote about the pleasures of slow living last week. From time to time, when it makes sense, it can be a supremely rewarding endeavor to do absolutely nothing at all, especially if you do so consciously.

But unmitigated, uninterrupted laziness? Sloth? The complete and utter lack of desire to hunt, gather, look for a job, learn something new, go for a walk, experience the world, or even use your brain? This is not slow living. This is not “being here now.” This isn’t actually living at all. It’s understandable, of course. We’re hardwired to take it easy when the opportunity presents itself, because throughout our evolution, we needed to conserve energy as much as possible. We couldn’t step into a supermarket and obtain every vegetable imaginable plus the most perfect cuts of meat without expending a lick of energy, as we can today (doubly so if we drive to the market). We had to fight, claw, trap, ensnare, and root around for our food. Even though we were hardwired to relax, those biological drives to obtain food, shelter, and water – to survive in the here and now, really – overrode our inclinations to be lazy. Today, we can be lazy and still secure food, shelter, and water, so it’s all too easy to relax a little too much, too often.

It’s not even that laziness is a sin. It can be an effective tool. I’m all for chilling out, and I’m not moralizing here. It’s just that too much laziness is simply counterproductive to your well-being in a very utilitarian way. I look at it like I look at alcohol: If the urge to do nothing is negatively impacting your life and bringing you net unhappiness, you probably shouldn’t do nothing anymore (English majors, please don’t crucify me for that last sentence). Take an honest look at yourself and ask – should I really be listening to my body when it tells me to do nothing at all today?

Doing right by the innate physiological needs of a hairless, intelligent ape amidst rapid societal and environmental change is a big job. If your body is going to succeed, it’ll need your conscious brain’s help in deciding which messages should be heeded and which should be ignored. Together, I’m confident you can make the right choices and listen to the right ones.

So, any of these messages sound familiar? How have you dealt with them? Let me know in the comment section! Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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71 thoughts on “When Listening to Your Body Doesn’t Work – Part 2”

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    1. very often! Like when I’m putting the kids to bed at 7:30 I feel like I’m going to pass out, but I have to rally to clean up the kitchen and read for a bit.

    2. I used to. Then I decided that if I got tired, I’d get a nap. I turned into a biphasic sleeper before I ever heard the term. I just found out I did better by taking a nap, getting up and doing something productive, then going back to bed a couple hours later.

    3. yeah that happens to me, Sometimes I’ll even take a nap at 6 when it feels great then wake up and 10 and be up till 2. weird. I think it would be alot easier without artificial lighting around

      1. I think artificial lighting can be bad for us and should be studied further. When I enter a store after like 10- I’m really dizzy and on edge. Its so unnatural. I sometimes wonder how our pets feel when we leave the lights on very late. And is florescent or incandescent worse?

        1. My parents got a dog(Gracy)just growing out of the puppy stage a few years ago and at night would keep her locked in a little cage in the middle story of the house, while all the people slept upstairs. The idea was that this would condition Gracy to the times that no one was around to take care of her, and make her independent or something.
          Well, every night she would cry and bark, clearly in distress. Overall she didn’t seem like a very happy dog, except when playing in the forest. Her situation was probably made worse by the way she was disciplined – my mom would get really mad at her.. you know, look and sound threatening, hit it lightly.
          It probably didn’t help Gracy’s mood that she was terribly afraid of me even though I was always nice to her, and often was the only one around to take care of her based on the rest of the family’s schedule. My guess is she was beaten by her previous owners who probably looked like me.
          Before long she ran out in front of a car and got hit. That was the end of Gracy. I didn’t see but I think it might have been a suicide. (There’s documented animal suicides by the way).
          Moral: don’t be mean to your pets or neglect them, if you want to keep them.

    4. @ Paleo Ron – YES. And I agree with Meesha about putting the kids to bed being a trigger. Sometimes I’ll close my eyes once my son goes to sleep, and I’ll startle myself awake a half hour later – fully recharged. The rest of the night is then a lot more pleasant..

      1. It’s also true when you go out into nature, or you go through a power outage. Your bodies natural melatonin cycles kick in and you realize that you do in fact get sleepy when when the sun goes down. Try camping out without a flashlight, or a self inflicted power outage.

        1. Try camping up in Alaska in the middle of summer…you’re all around the campfire, hanging out and having a good time, the sun skimming the horizon. Next thing you know it’s 12.30 am and it’s definitely still light out, and you’re not really that tired! Awesome feeling but makes for a sleepy day when you get up at 6 to go fishing or kayaking 🙂

      2. About to do that in the next ten minutes. Can’t wait.
        : )

    5. I took the opportunity last night and went to bed at 8 pm after reading for 1/2 hour. I don’t think it helped me any as I was awake at 10 pm and quite restless.

      I have been reluctant to take naps in the evening when I need it most as I am afraid I won’t get to sleep until late and then will have problems waking up in the morning. Perhaps I’ll start taking a 15 min nap when I am most exhausted and then stay up until I am tired again.

      I’ll try it as an experiment and see what comes of it.

  1. Is it sad that I needed Mark Sisson to tell me to stop being a lazy overeater who stays up late to watch straight-to-Netflix movie marathons and all 5 seasons of Mad Men?

    In all seriousness, this was a great series for those of us who are new to living a healthier life (consistently). I keep hearing ‘listen to your body’ but that does get tricky. If I ‘listened to my body’, I’d have an IV drip of chai lattes and bread by the loaf {with Kerrygold, of course!} 🙂

    Thanks to Mark and this community for managing to differentiate the learning for people in all stages of implementation. What seems elementary for some is advanced calculus for others.

    1. Your first paragraph sounded like you were retelling most of my first year at university. Mad Men and all!

  2. I came back a week ago to the states from a two week whirlwind tour of two South Asian countries and while my jet lag is gone, I’m still not able to fall asleep at 10-10:30 pm to wake up at 5-5:30 am to work out. I’m falling asleep closer to midnight causing me to wake up with just enough time to get ready for work.

    This is starting to feed into a negative reinforcement cycle and I need to break out of it. Today’s article is a good step in the right direction for me. And if any of the readers have helpful tips, I’m all ears/ eyes.

    1. Take the evening off. Put on some chill music, turn off all electronics devices that emit light or use electrical tape to block the LEDs, bust out some tea light candles. Take a bath. Eat a big ass turkey leg or two, two glasses of red wine, and for dessert 600 mg of magnesium. Then have sex. Good luck trying to stay awake after that.

    2. Two thumbs up to what Bon Rurgundy said above.

      Also, pick up a pair of glasses that block all blue light (you can get a super cheap pair of the Uvex 0360X glasses on Amazon – they are amazing, and actually really do help me sleep better) and put those babies on around 7 or 7:30pm, after doing all that Bon said of course, and you will pretty much be out like a light =)

      After a few nights of wearing those glasses, your circadian rhythm will start reprogramming itself, and you should be good to go.

      1. I think I’d like to use the glasses all DURING PBR’s recommended regimen…

        1. Haha in theory, yes, that would be EPIC – now, if I could only get my fiance to stop laughing at me and my glasses long enough to actually get it DONE…

      2. What’s your take on using those glasses while driving in the evening? Too dark to be safe? Worth it at all?

        1. I wouldn’t do it. I wore my orange glasses outside when it was dark and it really seemed a lot dimmer. I like to be able to see as much as possible when I’m driving.

          Plus, do you really want to miss blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror?

        2. Yea, I would definitely be careful if you do that. They would be better suited for someone working the night shift who needs to drive home when the sun is up in the morning.

  3. Life revolves around the simple things we all stop paying attention to and take for granted. I am often guilty of putting life on autopilot and vegging my way through it. Living in the moment and feeding and watering ones self really is where it’s at. Follow through is a lot harder.

  4. I agree we need relaxation, and ‘lazy’ moments to decompress! but giving in to being completely sedentary and slothful makes me feel awful. thats when i have to drag myself to work out 🙂

  5. Omg I’m very anemic and I hate to exercise… Maybe I should take iron….

    1. Ohhh I am anemic too!! Esp when i don’t eat well enough… like not enough green veggies and steak … I started taking iron but stopped… hmm maybe i should resume.. now that you remind me lol

  6. My body is very tricksy. I have to roll out of bed and start exercising RIGHT AWAY before it figures out what’s going on.
    That’s how I get over the no-motivation hump 🙂

      1. I do this too; I pretend that I might not do anything while I get my kit on and get outside or to the gym. I then sneak up on myself a bit more by telling myself I only have to do one sprint or one set etc. Before I know it I’ve done 8 good sprints or I’m powering through some lifts and I don’t want to quit because the endorphins have kicked in! I always feel great afterwards and it gives me the right attitude for the day.

        1. I don’t even give myself the option of backing out. I tell myself the morning before “I’m going to go to the gym first thing tomorrow morning”. I get all my work-out stuff ready before I go to bed and I tell myself that’s final. Once I start coming up with reasons not to go it’s a slippery slope so I just mentally shut down that part of me before it has a chance to start.

  7. I’m a big fan of Leo’s (Zen Habits) method of “just doing something being a big step forward.” If I can just get myself to stand up, I can shuffle over to put my shoes on. And then I’ll agree with myself to go outside, even if it’s begrudgingly. Eventually I talk-walk myself into starting my workout, and once I start the competitive juices and adrenaline flow and I do great.

    In the end, even if it’s a bad workout, I feel good about myself for conquering the chair and getting something done. But standing up is the gigantic first domino that has to fall..

    1. Yah, true. I feel like once I muster up enough energy to get to the gym, I realize how much energy I really had. I also like to do some yoga or tai chi methods pre-workout (sort of Paul Check Style) just to get a really good energy boost and motivator to workout.

    2. This was me last night! I needed to get a quick run in after work but before meeting some friends…it took me just as long to get my shoes on and get out the door as it did to actually do the run, but by golly I did the damn thing

      1. If you were wearing Vibrams, I can totally understand the extra time to put your shoes on. Its gotta take me a solid 10 mins to those damn things on

  8. i get sleepy around 7 too which sucks because thats when i get out of work and its my only time to exercise

  9. Get f.lux – it turns your computer screen to a red/orange tint to help you get sleepy – instead of the usual blue tint which keeps you awake. stereopsis.com/flux/
    I started using it a few weeks ago and it really works — both consciously (I notice that when dusk hits it changes color – about 8:15pm these days) and unconsciously (it makes my eyes feel more tired).

    1. I also got this a few weeks ago. It’s kind of weird but I do think it works. I also notice the color change around sunset and an hour later I’m ready for bed!

  10. Thank you so much, Mark. Here, here!

    When you started talking about laziness, my mind jumped to the section in the Bhagavad Gita about action and inaction. A coincidence? Great minds DO think alike. Anyway, one thing I appreciate about your blog is how it tackles fundamental concepts in human nature, from a new perspective!!!

  11. Loving this listen to your body series. It is so true though, that we say “listen to your body” so often, but it is hard to really understand what that means. Mark did a great job explaining a few situations here where listening to your body can mean something completely different than we think.

    Anybody experiment with self-induced power outage to try and stop that “tired but wired” feeling?

  12. The more I think about it, the more I think we are a)obsessed with food and b) living lives that are so unfulfilled and uninteresting/counter to the way we evolved to live that we seek to fill the gap with food. Choosing to eat healthy helps but without the other two parts to the equation we’re still in deep doo-doo.

    1. I count that as a form of disordered eating. Even if your diet is identical to someone with no issues in that regard, you can still be obsessive about planning and counting macros and whatnot, which makes the mindset, and thereby the entire practice, unhealthy. Other eating disorders can spring from a feeling of no personal control in life, so people control those things they can, one of the easiest of which is eating.

  13. One time I overrode my “sloth body” was when I was about to get on my knees and plant my garden last spring. As I kneeled, my head said “You don’t wanna do this!” but I did it anyway. I was rewarded with delicious and crisp romaine lettuce for my efforts. Why I only got that message in the lettuce bed, I have no clue—no such messages came forth when I planted peppers, collards, kale, or broccoli in either garden bed. I guess once I got started, my head just shut up about it.

  14. I wonder how many of the body’s “misleading” signals are actually just our own misinterpretation of them. We must admit that what is going on inside us is much more complex for our understanding sometimes.

    1. This is a great question. Sometimes, I’ve felt like I wanted a glass of wine when I got home from work, but if I had water instead, the urge was greatly reduced (at least as to volume). Seems I was mainly thirsty, and wine is tasty!

      1. Agreed! Often when I’m feeling “snacky” and nothing sounds good, a big glass of water does it.

    2. Agreed. My mom and I have both noted that, when we think we’re craving carbs, we’re better off if we stop and think about what we’ve been doing and eating lately. Usually it turns out that we’re just hungry and a salad will satisfy our body just as well (if not better) than a bowl of pasta.

  15. I was curious about the natural production of EPO, as an inordinate amount, usually unnaturally produced (injections) can lead to severe deleterious health issues. I came across this article:


    which suggests intervals and intensity are the keys to increasing EPO in one’s bloodstream. I guess the next time I am feeling “lazy” I will have to somehow motivate myself to do some sprints and reverse my spiral of inactivity.

  16. Since starting this whole Grok experiment 10 months ago at the age of 55, my energy levels are off the charts. How can I NOT work out twice a week and sprint once a week! I think I’d go insane sitting on my keester all day.

  17. Mark – this “when not to listen to your body” series is awesome, thank you so much. sometimes I think you read my mind, you’re so good at hitting the questions I’ve been gnawing on.

    The laziness question brings on another for me – so here’s a challenge: please consider doing a post for those of us with chronic fatigue disorders. I have MS, and I love to exercise but sometimes it just doesn’t feel possible. when I need help just getting to the bathroom…

    the fatigue of MS and other chronic fatigue conditions isn’t the same as the saturday afternoon sloth – it’s closer to an all-over muscle fatigue as if your whole body just did some power lifting. often, pain is also present.

    And what is your take on things like Energy Now pills or those 5 Hour Energy shots to get through? I detest actual energy drinks (and they’re so sugary!) but between my fatigue and shift work, I’m a regular user of the two crutches listed above.

    And while we’re making it All About Me – I’d love to hear your take on the Swank and Jelinek diets – both recommended for MS. I was a Swanker for years; my MS exacerbations went way down but my midsection and fatigue went way up.

    Thanks for all you do!

  18. Hey everyone, I’m new to website and forum.

    Great article, I totally realised that my coffee intake had/has become a very bad association with breaks in my day.

    As a busy personal trainer and someone who practises intermittent fasting in the mornings, coffee fills the gap where food used to exist. It works for me.

    I wonder if it actually doing more harm than good? I live a very clean lifestyle and see coffee as my
    one vice that I actually enjoy.

  19. Whenever I get that sluggish feeling, I know it’s time to hit the gym. It actually gives me an extra boost to whatever I do afterwards. I mean I don’t do anymore physical high-intense activities but if I have some errands to run, I definitely feel like it’s easier to complete after getting some endorphins in the system.

  20. … triply so if you have your meat delivered. (In the Southeast here, we have Swansons, who deliver meat to your home).

  21. Great article. I fall into the “too much coffee” trap sometimes, but it’s not because I’m tired, I just love it. I know I need to lay off a little due to increased chance of adrenal fatigue, but I just like the little pick-me-ups even though I don’t need them.

  22. I’ll be honest here.. it doesn’t work when im hungover!! i just want to eat and eat and eat when im hungover! ive been playing around with just eating a very balanced breakfast in the morning and having a banana again mid-morning and that seems to help a lot.

  23. Mark,

    i’m glad you’re doing this series.

    my problem is if i listen to my body, then i rarely ever crave for leafy greens at all. i eat it for “medicinal purpose” cause it’s supposed to be good for me

    i’ve lost much craving for junk food. but i don’t have craving for vegetable either.

    so should i listen to my body? or not?

    FYI: i am not “metabolically challenged” & in good shape, no major health problems.

  24. Some of my most powerful cravings are chip cravings: salt and vinegar potato chips. They’re relatively cheap and extremely tasty. I eat them sometimes. However, after munching down a whole 200 or 220 gram bag of them I’ll wonder why I didn’t just buy a brick of cheese or something instead, but since I was just eating the chips I crave more of them or other “junk food” (I believe there’s some goodness to them if not eaten in excess, at least from the less processed brands like Kettle or Miss Vickies). So then I’ll be stuffed and feel hungry, which is annoying, because I try to keep the amount of fat on me down and not go around being bloated all the time while still trying to gain muscle, which means I’m often hungry and must eat a lot but try to eat smart. However I know there are likely more chips in my future. I think I just need to time the eating of them right, like for a hike between towns or something, like yesterday, a journey with a shopping cart that took around 6 hours, which was mostly fueled with second-rate stuff like condensed tomato soup, canned corn, and Life cereal (free food – my cart was stocked with salmon too, but I wanted to save it and use up the carbs). Got some minor acid reflux from that garbage.

  25. I recently found out I had a slew (dairy/wheat/corn/soy/egg/nuts) of food intolerances, and would feel amazing after not eating them for a few days. But then, especially if I was tired, stressed, after an intense workout, or hormonal I would get a ‘crack-like’ craving and eat all this non-primal junk food (and hate myself for doing so!). The next day I would feel awful. The cycle would repeat every few days. Knowing I have an addictive personality, I’m experimenting with not quitting ‘cold turkey’, and instead phasing out the worst trigger foods (dairy has been the hardest) using cleaner sources (grass-fed whey protein vs. ice cream, non-gluten free oats vs. cookies, coconut butter vs. nut butter). So far this has been much more successful, and I’m definitely feeling much more balanced. Worth a shot!

  26. Free coffee, the double-edged sword. Some days lately I’ve drank only coffee and milk.. no plain water. And I’ve been lacking quality rest, having trouble sleeping, and feeling kind of sick as a result.

  27. I feel even more depleted even after I get a bit of exercise, which I have to do every day because we have a farm and there are animals that need to be fed. So I get up earlyish and it’s a brutal struggle to do it, I walk the dog and feed the animals which requires me to walk at least 20 minutes in total (twice a day) Then I get back to the house and collapse. Sometimes I have to pull over at mid day and nap in the car. My body is saying do not move, but I have to and I feel worse after I do 🙁