Michael Smith is an internationally respected Clinician, Author, and Speaker. Michael practices Functional Medicine, Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and encourages his patients to follow an Ancestral approach to lifestyle and diet. Dr. Smith has dedicated 25 years to the research and treatment of Chronic Illness and Autoimmune Disease. As an Autoimmune patient, Michael is intimately aware of the devastating impact these conditions can have on your quality of life.
Dr. Smith is also at the leading edge of the treatment strategies, dietary protocols, and the precise lab testing needed to resolve these complex conditions.
Phase One of the Ancestral Autoimmune Protocol is all about giving your self, your body’s many tissues, your metabolism and your immune system a chance to settle down.
When I am working with an athlete, I use the metaphor of a race car. EVERY race car eventually needs to take a pit-stop to change the tires, add some fuel, and pop the hood to make sure nothing is about to explode.
When I am working with someone who has a chronic illness, I use the metaphor of renovating a house. You need to remove the furniture and appliances and not have any parties for a while to completely repair or improve the building from the inside out.
Today, I want to share with you the importance of resting and letting your metabolism and immune system ‘pull over’ and repair some damage.
In this article I am going to:
- Challenge you to reconsider one of our cultures least healthy beliefs,
- Describe why Winter is a great metaphor for what most of us need in midlife,
- Share the importance of having an honest relationship with your adaptability,
- Warn you about the consequences of a Cortisol and DHEA imbalance,
- And suggest why being aligned with nature helps you become aligned with your greater life purpose.
A Quick Story for Context
I live in one of the fittest cities in Canada.
With many lakes and mountains, it is a Mecca for people who love skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, trail running, swimming, windsurfing, and long-distance road biking or running. Most of the people who live here do so because they love fitness, health, and being in nature.
Because of this, some of my patients seem very healthy and fit, at least from across the street.
Every few weeks someone will come to see me with concerns of ‘early ageing’, or the ‘mid-life blues’. They are usually VERY fit and in their 40’s and have some, or all, of the following symptoms:
- feeling chronically tired,
- sleeping poorly,
- slow recovery from injuries,
- poor focus and memory,
- gaining or losing weight without changing their diet,
- digestive problems,
- feeling depressed and
- having little or no sex drive.
Most of my chronic Autoimmune patients know these symptoms as warning signs of a flare-up. I occasionally see younger people with these concerns, especially if they are overtraining and/or not allowing enough time for full recovery. These symptoms are also common with those who have experienced severe trauma and carry the weight of relentless subconscious pain.
Whatever the cause, any of us can get burned out.
The hardest conversation I have with my ‘fit and healthy’ patients, especially those in mid-life who have prided themselves on epic marathons, hikes and bike rides, is the conversation about the importance of Winter.
People who identify with being physically fit, myself included, can have a hard time when our bodies need some time for deep rest and repair.
I can think of several times in my Martial Arts career that I tried to return to training too soon and ended up spending more time injured than necessary. I see the same struggle with people who have a chronic illness and go back to work before they should.
It is good to be tough, but it is better to be smart. Especially as we age.
Your body is full of what I call ‘Tissue Bank Accounts.’ Cholesterol is the chemical basis for Vitamin D and EVERY hormone in your body. Your blood relies on your bone marrow and your liver is essential for almost 500 life-giving processes. Your skeletal muscle is an emergency bank account for your immune system, which is why people can lose their muscle mass so rapidly when they get severely ill.
When you get a blood test and the doctor says everything is fine, maybe it is. A blood test doesn’t tell you about your bank accounts, it tells you about the money in your pocket.
I have seen many people that would be diagnosed as Anemic by a Doctor of Chinese medicine, but their blood test says they are fine. I see this the most often in (uninformed) vegan patients after a couple of years of abstaining from all animal products. A year later they are severely Anemic…
This isn’t about being vegan. It is about bank accounts!
If you have chronic inflammation, or if you train six hours a day, you are going to end up on over-draft eventually. If you got an infection or an injury at this point, it may take twice as long to completely heal.
If you experience some of the symptoms listed above, please consider giving winter a try. It will help with all of your bank accounts
Chinese Medicine and Winter
In Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), each season has a certain energetic quality that can influence your health in positive or negative ways. Which way that goes depends on whether you align yourself and your activities with that season or not.
On a subtle level, Winter invites you to explore your inner world as the outer world is in a deep slumber. Traditionally, Winter is a time of stillness, listening, learning and consolidating your inner resources and allowing them to be stored for later.
Winter is associated with your Kidneys. In Chinese medicine, we use the term Kidneys to include your endocrine system, part of your vascular system, the function of water in your body, and of course, your kidneys. This means that they are responsible for your metabolism, elimination of wastes, your ability to adapt to change, and your capacity to heal from injury or illness.
In nature, water is the primary source of life. A lake in the mountains can support much more life than a little pond. The more you embrace the stillness and inner restoration of Winter, the more life-giving resources you will have for the rest of the year.
Some Ancestral Wisdom
As a proponent of Ancestral Wisdom, evolutionary diets, and primitive lifestyle habits, I like to remind people what Winter used to be like for most people’s Ancestors.
Imagine living before agriculture.
Winter would have been a time of listening to Elders telling stories, eating fat, meat, fish, and dried berries, getting a lot of rest and practicing old and new skills. You may go for a walk on snowshoes every few days to check your trapline, but most of the time you would have been staring into the dancing flames as you dreamed of Spring.
Functional Medicine and Burn Out
You have probably experienced the thrill of a good burst of Adrenaline.
That is Adrenaline’s job – to burst you out of a dangerous situation or boost you towards your next adventure.
The downside of too many hours, days, and months of running on Adrenaline is that it uses up many of your essential bank accounts.
The word Adrenaline, in day-to-day conversations, refers to your overall adaptive response to intense change – be it short term or long-term. This includes other stress hormones like cortisol, and over time, all of your other hormones. This creates imbalances in your neurotransmitters and weakens and/or irritates your immune system.
This conversation usually turns into a lecture on Adrenal Fatigue, but instead, I want to bring your attention to the very common-sense relationships of adaptability and becoming tissue catabolic - or in biochemical over-draft.
Adaptability is your most important ally and your most precious bank account in terms of how you experience health and how you feel about yourself in the world. The image below shows a graph of how your body adapts to chronic stress.
The Four Stages of Adaptive Overload
When you first get into a stressful situation, your body goes into a state of Adaptive Arousal (Stage I). If the situation doesn't improve over time, perhaps a few months, you will shift into the state of Adaptive Overstrain (Stage II). Clinically, the term overstrain implies using a muscle, a hormone, or another part of your body until it is strained or hurt. If you use that part of your body again, before it has time to completely restore itself to health, you will have an overstrain. The graph above shows how your abitity to produce cortisol will continue to increase until you run out of the ability to make more. All of the stress and neuroligical chaos are still hapenning, your body is just unable to keep making enough.
This chronic state of futile over signaling with inner alarm bells is what causes or, at least accelerates most chronic illness and decelerates wound healing.
If the stressful situation continues for a year or two, you will shift into the state called Adaptive Resistance (Stage III). This is where your deepest survival instincts start rearranging how your body works in some subtle ways to keep you going. Imagine bank robbers running around your body, stealing from one place to solve the next emergency. This can go on for fifteen years!
Just to make sure I am communicating this clearly, imagine living in a city with line-ups for food, alarm bells going off randomly 24/7, the banks keep going bankrupt, calling an ambulance or a firetruck doesn't always work out well, and the bridges are falling aprt - for 15 years.
Imagery helps sometimes. It brings empathy.
If you are still swinging for the fences after fifteen years you will eventually enter a state called Adaptive Exhaustion (Stage IV). This is usually when people are diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, degenerative neurological conditions like Parkinson's and MS. These conditions can arise for other reasons as well, but most of my patients with these conditions can describe each of these four stages of Adaptive Overload over the last decade or so.
In the later part of Stage Two and throughout Stage Three your lab tests would begin to show a very specific imbalance between Cortisol and DHEA. I think of Cortisol as the gas and DHEA as the oil. DHEA is a hormone that helps your body grow and repair itself - it handles the friction.
When Cortisol is higher than normal (or tries to be) for a long time, it starts to draw on the bank account that supplies all of your other sex hormones, stress hormones and DHEA. Over time, your lab tests would show consistently high Cortisol and gradually diminishing DHEA. At a certain point, your body becomes so catabolic that you may start losing muscle mass. If this ratio gets bad enough, I send people to the hospital.
Quick Aside: 200 years ago, the worst chronic illness you could get was called Consumption.
After years and years of going in and out of being Catabolic, your Cortisol will 'gas out', or become unsustainable. This is the classic Adrenal Fatigue experience. As your body passes its Adaptive Capacity and you become unable to keep going, your body shifts into a self-induced Winter - or time of hibernation.
This is where things get precarious for a while. I want to see their Cortisol and DHEA come back up slowly and together. Sometimes, especially with people who have experienced trauma, their Cortisol comes back a lot faster than their DHEA. This means that they are going to become Catabolic again, lose more muscle mass and do more damage to every Adaptive Resource that they have left.
If you want to learn more about how all of this works, I put a couple of videos on my old youtube channel that covers the essential Physiology.
At this point, in my experience, people need to make friends with Winter.
If your job, family, diagnosis, or fitness goals drag you into the very dangerous dance of Adaptive Resistance, you must get off of the roller coaster of chaos, or you are taunting Karma and the Universe to teach you about the humility of clinical exhaustion. I have been there. NOT FUN!!!
Why wait until you are sick to get better.
Join in the rhythms of Nature and restore your Adaptive Resources. If you are 50 you probably only need to take a break every four years.
If you are under 30, you are still invincible and I am surprised you are still reading this. 😉
Imitation and Alignment
When it comes to aligning your inner world with the outer world, spring fever is the easiest to wrap your mind around.
If you live anywhere with a lot of snow and shorter winter days, you will probably feel the joy of a child as soon as the leaves come out and the sun finally starts to feel warm. It is easy to align yourself with that - unless you are depressed.
In the practice of Qi Gong, which is sourced in the early shamanic Indigenous culture of Asia, imitating the Qi - the energetic quality of each season becomes a tangible rhythm in life.
In Qi Gong, Martial Arts, and many Indigenous cultures, imitating animals give you a feeling for their nature and intent, and perhaps even a taste of living that kind of existence. It is fun and sexy to become aligned with the energetic aliveness of different animals.
Becoming aligned with your deepest purpose, taking a decade to align your chakras, is all about being aligned with something that intrigues you, that you imagine will bring more to your life.
What if the purpose of all of these opportunities is more about learning about alignment than it is about seasons, power animals and energy centers?
In my experience, and that is all I am qualified to share on this subject, alignment is the hardest part and it is the real win. This Winter, take the opportunity to align yourself with the season. Give your body, mind a spirit a chance to settle in and spend some quality time together. Be physical in a sensible way for yourself, but practice your alignment skills with some inner stillness and tranquillity.
What can you do this year to get more rest, restore all of your inner bank accounts, and become more aligned with Winter?
Breathe of the Universe
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