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.
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.
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.
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.
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!