Gut Health & Stress
“What the mind dwells upon, the body acts upon.”– Denis Waitley
Right around the turning point of summer, I started to feel out of it. Tired, grumpy, and more importantly, gripped with intestinal pain. I have had an ulcer in the past and immediately went to the conclusion it was the same now. The byproduct of the 2020 news cycle, along with home & social confinement we have all endured. Fast forward to later in the year, after a series of doctor visits and tests, I did confirm that stress had wrecked my gut health but not how I assumed.
Indeed, 2020 has been emotionally, physically, and mentally taxing. Many of us would qualify as Crisis Managers in how we have learned to expertly dodge mask-less conspiracy theorist, make the same four walls feel different from day-to-day, and find entertainment and stimulus in the simplest of settled work. Even where we have been successful, crippling frustrations can still get through our defenses; requiring perpetual resets of expectations and approach.
Such was the case for me and my gut health this year. Through a combination of bad diet, physical stressors, and natural aging, I managed to stress my inner motor and make the mental and emotional toll of 2020 worse. The good thing is that most of these factors are within my control and I worked to demonstrate that agency by making key changes.
My parents learned early on when I was an infant that I did not tolerate dairy or lactose. I don’t go into shock or break out in hives but they do make me nauseous, bloated, and sometimes sick. I generally leave it out of anything I eat, but the search for variety in our take out and home cooking probably had me taking a lax approach. So, I cut it out very strictly, along with gluten.
The gluten was purely choice, and a smart one. Though tests confirmed I have no gluten intolerance or allergy, the generally empty carbs were not a good source of energy. I have found better sources of complex carbs in upped vegetable intake and a side benefit is the natural weight loss of mostly not eating so much bread.
I also started tracking my food and liquid intake using apps like MyFitnessPal. The goal being to watch what did and did not work for me, along with buffering more time between meals, and getting enough water. Additionally, I did a supplement audit to really identify what served me and what was just fluff. These changes had the most immediate benefit. Not just in reversing the immediate pains but improving overall health and energy levels.
This area of personal care was probably the hardest to swallow (pun intended). I have been an athlete for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours exerting myself to exhaustion from soccer, to triathlons, and football. Movement and physical activity is important to life, but it also puts miles on the body. Too much can have you feeling like a high mileage car, in need of maintenance and tire rotations. For me, that means cutting back on intensity, focusing on consistency, and upping the yoga practice.
Nearly every distance race and endurance event was cancelled in 2020. With nothing to train for but personal well being, it became a little easier to take my foot off of the gas. But technology has a way of triggering FOMO. The same apps I love to use to log miles and train also serve as reminders of how much more everyone is getting in than you are. Feeling veritably lazy, you have to resist the urge to spring off the coach and put unnecessary stress on your body. This decision is all about will power and perspective. Living to fight another day essentially.
I already practice and read about stoicism daily. It has helped me to observe feelings and manage emotions more mindfully over the year. This tool was mostly a control for outward control. What I was unaware of was the unconscious internal bottling up of stress. Handling this type of stress indicator is a lot more difficult.
To that end I have integrated in a daily meditation practice. The breathing exercises at the root of most meditation releases stress in the core of the body and sets a strong & positive start to any day. For meditation practice I use the Calm app. American Express graciously covers the fee for all card holders. Additionally, I cut out most social media and news. Although, there was a small set back with observing age election week news cycle; but I quickly worked to reset.
There is something to be said about the power of simple diet changes alone. A reward of measurable and visible results awaits those able to adhere to steady and slow process. It takes at least two weeks to see any benefits from dietary changes and months for them to stick. Especially if you are older. The body just does not heal the same.
Which is probably the main take away from this period. That a constant vigilance is required to keep a vehicle with mileage on it running optimally. It does not hurt to prune unnecessary and unhealthy choices out of your lifestyle as well. For me, the meditative and stress reducing practices came easy. The dietary and physical exercise adjustments, not as much. I don’t default to making the best food choices. Most of my healthy eating is owed to my wife.
I can positively say that three months after starting the collective changes I feel 10-fold better. I am working on making these lasting and part of my hard wired thinking. Along with more proactive monitoring of my gut bacteria at every doctor visit. Ultimately, I hope more people used this year to take care of themselves and take a moment to breath. Life is a wild ride and we have to roll with the ebbs and flows without destroying our bodies.