The Cycles and Seasons of the Body
Day and night. Summer and winter. Catabolism and Anabolism. Life and Death. Yin and Yang.
The natural world and life as we know it operates in cycles. These cycles can be as grand of a scale as the Big Bang and the Big Crunch (yes I know universal expansion is accelerating, just accept the symbology for now) or as small a scale as the Krebs Cycle within our own cells. The beauty and harmony of the universe are maintained through the balance of these cycles. Since cycles are such a fundamental part of our reality, they are important to understand. And yes, they are still important to learn for the quest to six pack abs.
Catabolism vs Anabolism
A crucial hormonal cycle to understand in order to take charge of our own health and fitness is the catabolic and anabolic cycle. Catabolism is the body’s process of breaking down large, complex molecules into smaller and simpler ones, releasing energy in the process. Catabolism is what occurs when you work out. Your body breaks down energy containing nutrients either recently consumed or stored in the body. When you exercise, you aren’t just figuratively breaking yourself down, you literally, physically are. This is the sunshine and summer of your internal body.
On the other side, anabolism is the body’s process of building up larger, more complex molecules from smaller, simpler ones, consuming energy in the process. This is essentially growth. After breaking our body’s down with exercise, our bodies use consumed nutrients to build itself back up. This is the rest and digest phase, the night (think sleep) and winter (think hibernation) of the internal body.
As an example, athletes such as bodybuilders know the catabolic and anabolic cycle well and use it to their advantage. To a bodybuilder, muscle growth is the ultimate goal, and growth occurs with anabolism. However, you cannot naturally achieve the desired effects of anabolism without the process of catabolism. Through countless cycles of weight lifting and recovery, bulking and cutting, bodybuilders are able to shape their physiques how they wish through understanding and application of this crucial hormonal cycle.
Hormonal Imbalances from Modern Lifestyles
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles cause disharmony in our body’s internal cycles. The onslaught of blue light from our phones and computer screens late at night screws up our circadian rhythms. We try to go to sleep with wired brains, tossing and turning for a while before falling asleep. Then we wake up groggy the next day because our sleep was low quality. To wake us up for our daily responsibilities, we consume stimulants like caffeine to keep us up and alert until we get home and repeat the process.
In the graphs presented here, you can see the difference between normal hormone production versus our overstressed hormone production caused by our modern lifestyles. The black line represents the catabolic hormone cortisol, and the white line represents anabolic growth hormones.
Normal Hormonal Cycle
When the sun rises and shines on us, our bodies are stimulated and roused from slumber. The body understands the signal as the start of the day and starts to produce the catabolic stress hormone cortisol. By the way, we call cortisol a stress hormone but that doesn’t make it inherently bad. We need cortisol to keep us awake and alert to tackle the challenges of the day. After peak physical activity, our cortisol levels steadily decrease throughout the later portion of the day until sunset. At sunset our cortisol levels are lowest and concurrently our body begins to produce anabolic, growth hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and human growth hormone (HGH). Once we are asleep, our anabolic hormone production increases and peaks towards the middle of the night. Once we start approaching sunset, our growth hormone levels decrease and the cycle begins anew.
Imbalanced Hormonal Cycle
Now let’s look at our hormone production in today’s day and age.
We begin in the same way of cortisol production when we wake up; however, more often than not we are waking up from an alarm clock before the sun even rises! Our cortisol levels remain high throughout the day as we get stressed from our 8 hour work days, responsibilities, and workouts (some of us don’t even get to work out until late at night). Then, when we get home in the evening, we spend our time either out and about socializing or in front of phones and computer screens (or both!). By the time 10 or 11 pm rolls around, we decide to go to sleep, even though our cortisol levels are still high and we haven’t given time for our bodies to prepare for sleep. Then we sleep less than we should, ensuring that we don’t balance our catabolism with anabolism, resulting in the skewed graph you see.
Additionally, elevated cortisol levels while we are trying to sleep will be “fighting” against our sleep hormones like melatonin, resulting in low quality sleep. Over time, this chronic stress on our bodies takes its toll and can put your health at risk.
For our own health, it is important to acknowledge the happenings of the inner world of our bodies. We tend not to think about how our external choices might affect us within, and then we wonder why we are chronically fatigued, have pain and limited movement, and develop health problems. We all know how dangerous chronic stress can be, but did you know that just using a computer screen late at night puts stress on your body? If you didn’t, now you do. Learn about methods and practices you can do to balance your hormones to ensure that you are adequately countering the stress of everyday life with rest and relaxation. Always remember that harmony is maintained through balance. Don’t forget the Yin to your Yang.