Our bodies have to coordinate the activity of trillions of cells every single moment and our modern lifestyles often get in the way of this process. To help us know when to eat or sleep, or whether to be stressed or relaxed, our bodies respond to the signals we send. And now that we’ve changed so much about the world (from where we live, to how our food is made), we keep sending it mixed messages that stress it out and lead to chronic inflammation.
Minute by minute we tell our bodies completely different things – imagine your boss complimenting your work but in a sarcastic tone … mixed messages are stressful!
So what do you do if it’s not in your cards to have a Walden Pond moment?
If we can’t eschew the trappings of modern life, how do we manage our signals better to give our bodies a break? Here are a few things with really strong scientific support that work with the natural rhythms of your body and that we’ve found help lower our own inflammatory levels and reduce our period pain.
Spend some time in nature!
There is a striking link between experiencing nature and lower stress levels. The connection between greenery and lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone) has been extensively documented in scientific literature. Our hectic modern lifestyles can sometimes be so disconnected from nature – it is easy to go from house to car to office and back again without experiencing nature. Fortunately, even in our modern concrete jungles there are little spaces of greenery that are easy to find where you can spend a few minutes enjoying the outdoors. Research shows that interacting with nature soothes our minds and lowers the psychological stress which can be so damaging to us in the long run. Even spending just a few minutes staring at greenery can lower cortisol levels.
Nature is nice
There is a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku which focuses on connecting with nature using all five senses. The purpose of shinrin-yoku is to do a guided meditation in nature where you focus on the specific aspects of the forest and nature. Everything from feeling the movement of the forest to focusing on a specific tree and trying to still your body is part of shinrin-yoku. Even though it doesn’t involve soap or water, this practice is often called “forest bathing” in the U.S. because you are meant to soak up what nature has to offer. Give it a try!
Take a vacation and unplug!
Being constantly plugged into your work where you have to respond both day and night builds stress. Because your brain has to evaluate each email or message and determine how important it is, your body experiences each ping as a mini-threat with a corresponding mini-spike in stress hormones. And when you have to respond to a late night work emergency, your body goes into fight or flight mode – the same evolved response you would activate a few thousand years ago if a wolf or bear wandered into your sleeping area. It’s no wonder you have a hard time sleeping afterwards.
By taking a vacation and unplugging, you are giving your body a chance to clear out all the stress hormones and repair itself. When you are stressed and cortisol levels are high, your body delays some of the natural repair processes so that it can focus on that fight or flight response.
After all, what is the point of repairing those arteries or keeping your brain healthy if you are about to be eaten by a lion?
A vacation tells your body it is okay to focus on all those other bits of maintenance it has been deferring.
Help your body sleep!
One of the best (and surprisingly hard) things you can do is to improve your sleep habits. Our modern lifestyle does a lot to confuse our body, and tweaking your environment can help your body interpret what it should do. For example, continuous exposure to artificial lights makes it hard for our bodies to regulate when we should sleep and how much to get. Our hormonal systems are designed to respond to light levels (and the color of the light), to tell us when to wake up and when to get ready to go to sleep. For the entire time humans have been on the earth, we’ve only had the ability to truly light up the night at will for about the past hundred years.
Once the sun goes down, your eyeballs are expecting to get less light, and this tells your body to increase melatonin production, which makes you sleepy. Additionally, evening light tends to be more red-colored than morning light, so the blue light from all our electronics is telling us that it is morning … and essentially screaming “Hey you, don’t get sleepy!!!”
More sleep = less inflammation
To make evenings less confusing to your body, make sure that things like “Night Shift” (iPhone) or “Night Mode” (Android) are enabled on your phone. This reduces the blue light in your screen and makes it less likely that your body will treat your phone like a late night cup of coffee.
Get some excercise!
Take the stairs or go for a jog – just not before bed! Exercise truly is a wonder drug because it helps you with almost everything. It fights chronic inflammation by activating natural anti-inflammatory pathways, lowering cortisol levels and improving your mood by releasing endorphins and extra serotonin.
It is best to get some sweaty, annoyingly out of breath exercise every week, but that isn’t always doable, especially if you’ve struggled with a chronic condition like we (Cath + Lar) have. Even small changes to increase your physical activity can be really helpful to your body though, so don’t worry if you don’t feel up to the bigger stuff. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise you do – as long as you enjoy it. Keep in mind that the release of chemicals and neurotransmitters when you exercise does wake you up, so try to leave at least a few hours before you head to bed.
Get some exercise - even just a little bit!
The chemicals and smoke in cigarettes affect your immune system by increasing inflammation and suppressing certain anti-tumor responses. One of the strongest risk factors for period pain is whether you smoke. This connection isn’t fully understood, but is thought to both involve the increased chronic inflammation as a result of smoking and possibly the reduced blood oxygen levels. Unfortunately, the liquid used for vaping is also extremely inflammatory, so there aren’t any great alternatives at this time to the really hard process of quitting.
Eat less processed food
Food fuels us and we use it to do everything from celebrate special occasions to comfort ourselves after a bad day. Changing what you eat is one of the hardest things to do because food is such a communal activity. Unfortunately, we’ve constructed most of our modern lives around foods that can be really pro-inflammatory. Because how food affects us is so significant, and the biology so intriguing, we’ll have an entirely separate post to focus on that. So head over that way if you’re interested.
Keep in mind that this list is to help you, not overwhelm you. If you’re not following all six suggestions perfectly, that’s ok!
Take some time each week to decide what you want to focus on. Maybe this week you’ll work on getting more sleep by turning off your phone an hour before bed. Or maybe you’ll add more leafy greens to your diet. Or maybe this will be the week you try out forest bathing. Trust us, it’s not as weird as it sounds and your body will thank you!