Contributing Monkie Brendan Brazier
Published on July 23, 2009
Photographer: G Monkie (CC)
There are several reasons people struggle with change. In fact, those who make positive changes are more likely to discontinue them than those who make negative ones because those who see themselves as making a sacrifice in exchange for a certain improvement want their investment to pay off quickly. If results aren’t instantaneous, interest quickly dwindles. In addition, negative initial results are almost certain to be a deterrent.
For example, many athletes I know have, at some point, tried a vegan diet, although usually not for more than two weeks at a time. Here’s the problem they encounter: when a new way of eating is adopted, the body must adapt. And with adaptation comes stress. Most commonly referred to as detoxification in this case, this is the body’s way of eliminating toxins accumulated over years of consuming sub-optimal food.
Our bodies are equipped with coping mechanisms that allow us to function optimally relative to the nourishment supplied. Seemingly counterintuitive, the first few days of an optimal diet will not be a pleasant experience. Often, years of less-than-ideal eating practices have rendered the body nutritionally stressed. The poorer the quality of the previous diet, the longer the detoxification process will last. Those converting from a Standard American Diet (SAD), for example, to an exclusively whole food plant-based diet will likely take in excess of four weeks to ‘cleanse’ the body of toxins. Usually detox symptoms include headache, blotting, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.
As you can imagine, an athlete who has made the transition to a vegan diet for the sake of improved performance is not going to be tolerant of these symptoms. Also, to make matters worse, most athletes are hyper sensitive to change. In effect, the detox symptoms are magnified in an athlete’s body due to the high level of “body consciousness” that most athletes have innately developed.
At the age of 15, when I made the transition to a near-vegan diet, my performance declined. Within a week, my track coach asked me what was wrong. When I told him I was trying to improve my performance by switching to a vegan diet, his response was a discouraging “Well it’s obviously not working. Go back to eating what you ate before and you’ll go back to performing like you did.” I, instead, decided to try and make it work. Of course, it eventually did — but not without a painfully slow learning curve due in large part to the augmented stress that initially came with it. Similar to most constructive changes, it was difficult initially, but then the results that followed made it worthwhile.
Using this scenario as an example, be aware that a “detoxification” period will transpire shortly following most positive changes. Know that it will be part of the transitional phase and allow for it in your schedule.
Again, using an athlete’s dietary improvements as an example, I found it was best to only attempt small changes during the heightened stress of the competitive season. To reduce the negative impact detox is likely to have on an athlete’s season, he / she is well advised to make any major dietary changes in the off-season. An effort to adopt a vegan diet during times of increased stress is less likely to be successful. Interesting to note: this is the very time that most attempt the conversion, yet another reason for the poor success rate. It is common for athletes to try and “kick start” sub par performances with radical changes, many of them dietary. When the athlete is performing below expectation, the reason can almost certainly be traced to a symptom of stress which, ironically, would be reduced if a properly implemented whole food plant-based diet was adhered to. However at this point, all the athlete can do is “hang on” until the off-season to make “wholesale” alterations.
Physiologically speaking, anything new or different is perceived as stress. Even if the change is a positive one, the body must first adapt. This is certainly not limited to nutrition. An example of this would be a person who has smoked for many years and then decides to quit. Using a “New Year’s resolution” approach is usually not effective and can quite possibly be counter productive. Although many of us are aware of this, we are still drawn by the allure of instant change. Unfortunately it is biologically impossible.
To realise that it is actually easier and therefore less stressful (and, in effect, healthier) to continue to smoke, can seem contradictory to logic. More stress will actually be incurred for a smoker who instantly quits than the one who does so gradually and continues to smoke at a reduced rate. Of course, over time the body will adapt to the stress of withdrawal, overcome it and be healthier as a result.
The point is, it does take time. The most effective way to stop smoking is to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine in the system. That’s why the nicotine patch was invented. It slowly weans the person off smoking’s addictive properties. By applying this methodology, the chances of success are greatly improved, simply because withdrawal stress is reduced.
Without realizing it, individuals frequently set themselves up for less than ideal results. In addition to making radical changes in a short period of time, another common mistake is trying to make several changes all at once. This is known as the “wholesale” change. As described earlier, this is the usual approach for many athletes who are having a disappointing season. Whether the changes are dietary, training related or equipment based, they all create physical stress initially.
Poor performance, usually recognized as a symptom of stress, can actually be yet another cause. Regardless of the reason for sub par performance, its result delivers anxiety. Simply another form of stress, psychological in this case, performance anxiety is as real as any other stressor and will therefore produce the same physiological effect. As a result, to make drastic changes in an effort to correct the situation will only create more stress.
Hormonal imbalance is also a major symptom of stress. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone” or sometimes more descriptively as the “death hormone”, is particularly destructive. Elevated cortisol levels will render the body physically weaker by breaking down muscle tissue and causing fat to be stored. In addition, higher cortisol levels will inhibit the body from sleeping “efficiently”. Efficient sleep is a term given to what is also known as the Delta phase. This is the deepest phase of sleep, the one where regeneration and repair transpires. The result is rejuvenation upon waking; no stimulants (caffeine, sugar) are needed to generate energy. In fact, the ability to routinely achieve efficient sleep is as close to the fountain of youth as we can get. Biological aging does not transpire when we are in the Delta phase – regeneration does.
The first indication of signs of stress, such as elevated sugar cravings, poor sleep quality and low energy, is the time to address them. Many people, not recognizing the root cause, will treat these symptoms, yet fail to address the source, further precipitating the problem by elevating stress levels. Sugar cravings are commonly quenched by consuming sugar, poor sleep by sleeping pills and low energy by caffeine – seems simple. However, all three “solutions” are technically drugs which effect the body’s central nervous system and induce stress, thereby exacerbating the problem.
Sugar cravings are the body’s attempt to raise serotonin levels during times of augmented stress. Serotonin is a hormone that when released helps people feel better. However, when the body is stressed, the hormonal system will be compromised, resulting in, among other problems, impaired serotonin release and re-uptake by the brain. Low levels of available serotonin commonly lead to a decline in mood and in more severe cases, clinical depression. Interesting to note: those who experience any kind of traumatic event will be affected physiologically — not merely psychologically as previously thought — adversely affecting the hormonal system.
Furthermore, lack of motivation and concentration can almost always be attributed to elevated stress — more than the body can healthily tolerate due to the havoc it wreaks on hormonal balance. Again, both of these traits can be linked to a reduction in available serotonin. Once general mood declines, it is considerably more difficult to get out of the rut the stress has dug.
Chronic stress is the root of many illnesses. Nutritional stress is number one, accounting for about 40% of the average North American’s total stress. Nutritional stress is frequently the result of the over consumption of nutrient-absent foods. Another is the consumption of herbicide and pesticide residue left on food. The lack of natural vitamins and minerals, balanced protein, enzymes and both soluble and insoluble fiber are also key factors.
Reducing the amount of energy expended on digestion, assimilation, and absorption of food is another major factor; it provides for a greater net gain from food. Since whole, natural, raw foods contain digestive enzymes and are alkaline forming, energy is conserved in their utilization. Less energy spent, less stress created. Energy conservation is an exceptionally good, yet quite often overlooked, way to reduce stress simply by consuming healthier foods. By eating nutrient rich foods, not as many will need to be eaten, therefore digested. Energy saved is as good as energy gained.
Whole natural foods also provide more energy and reduce stress by nourishing the adrenal glands and the hormonal system as a whole. By requiring fewer resources to utilize its nutrients, the consumption of healthy foods allows the body to spend its energy elsewhere. As a result the body can put those resources into improving immune system function, recovery from exercise and rebuilding what cortisol has torn down.
Traits and Examples of stress reducing foods:
Alkaline forming – leafy green vegetables, chlorella
Enzyme rich – raw fruits and vegetables
Hormone balancing – maca (Peruvian root vegetable)
High quality, complementary protein – hemp, yellow pea, brown rice
Rich in essential fatty acids – flax seeds
Feeling rested and restored will be the result of eating a nutrient rich diet. As such, the desire to stimulate by consuming sugary, starchy and caffeine-containing foods will be reduced. As this process transpires, it will set off a complementary circle. Some describe the effect this way: “When I sleep I’m more asleep, consequently when I’m awake I’m more awake.” The line between being asleep and being awake becomes more starkly defined, certainly a deviation from our current cultural norm.
Being able to recognize symptoms of stress and knowing how to curtail them before their destructiveness peaks is an invaluable, learned skill. Not innate in any of us, since brain chemistry is altered in its wake, rational thinking must develop a plan before the onset of high-level stress. Consistently eating a healthy diet will ensure stress is greatly reduced, enabling us to make lifestyle changes at will.