In the last few months, I’ve gained at least 5 pounds. I don’t need a scale to tell me this (we no longer have a scale in our home), although recent doctor appointments have quantitatively confirmed what my wedding ring and jeans have already communicated. In the past, this kind of thing would have sent me into a frenzy of activity and a season of exasperated disbelief. “How can this be? I’m exercising like I’m supposed to and eating right, too, dang it! What’s the deal, Body – why are you fighting me?” And then, after disappointed resignation, the work would begin: Operation (Immediate) Weight Loss. “I’ll get this under control, just you watch. I’ll show my body who’s in charge. I’ll teach it a lesson. Fat-blasting coming up!” Can anyone relate?
But now, knowing what I know, I can breathe freely, relax, and understand what’s really going on. Rather than punish my body with longer, more intense, and more frequent exercise sessions or caloric restriction, constant food obsession and fad diets, I’m able to reflect calmly on the situation, as if sitting at the table with a cherished friend and a cup of something comforting, and begin to ask, “Hey, Body…I can see you’re not feeling or acting like yourself lately. You seem out of sorts. What can I do to help?” Because the underlying problem oftentimes is not laziness, or lack of self control, or a crappy fast food diet. IT’S NOT FAT. It’s inflammation.
Most of us have some degree of experience with inflammation, whether or not we realize it. Take an acute injury – say, a twisted ankle…what happens when we turn it the wrong way?
– Pain or burning sensation: the area is tender and perhaps sore to touch
– Redness: the area turns red as blood flow to the site increases
– Swelling: the area gets puffy as blood vessels expand to allow damage-controlling cells and substances to begin the important work of repair
– Decreased mobility: the area won’t function as it usually does so that we are forced to let it rest and heal
These symptoms are all part of the inflammatory response, and they are a good and natural way for the body to alert us to a problem, force us to slow down, and to help us recover from the assault. We don’t make that twisted ankle work harder and longer, or put demands on it while it’s clearly in a compromised state. We don’t force-fit movement before the healing has taken place or deprive it of nutrients as a way to get the results we want. No, we take it easy. We baby it. We rest it, ice it, elevate it, and wrap it. Within a few days, that twisted ankle is on the mend – the pain dissipates, the redness and swelling subside, and we are on our way to regaining full use and mobility again. Problem solved. Yay, Body! You’re an amazing, self-healing rockstar!
But what happens when that inflammatory response just won’t quit? What happens when it’s chronic? What do we do when the inflammation isn’t confined to a single part (like an ankle), but spreads systemically throughout our bodies and begins presenting in multiple forms and symptoms? Instead of a familiar twisted ankle, we have debilitating migraines, weird skin rashes, gut woes, swelling where there shouldn’t be, hormonal and blood sugar imbalance, mood swings, unexplainable weight gain or loss, strong food cravings and intolerances, autoimmune disease, or some combination of these? Each body is unique, and the way we respond to inflammation varies from one person to the next. But research is showing that these kinds of symptoms are evidence that the inflammatory response has surpassed a normal, healthy range and has simply gone haywire. And that’s exactly how I’ve felt for months…haywire.
When our bodies show signs of inflammation (this can be pants that are suddenly a little too snug around the waist, hips and thighs, or collared shirts that no longer fit the way they did just a few weeks prior), why do we so quickly jump to the conclusion that we must not be working out hard enough or obsessing over our food choices consistently enough? Why do we BLAME ourselves instead of CARING for ourselves? If you’re caught in this cycle of disappointing results leading to self-punishing behaviors, here are some questions to consider instead:
Am I getting enough sleep?
Am I spending time in nature?
Am I exposed to direct sunlight on a daily basis?
Am I exposing myself to harmful toxins or polluted environments?
Am I sitting most of the day?
Am I consuming foods that result in inflammation, or foods that fight it?
Am I exercising enough?
Am I exercising too much, too long, or too intensely?
Am I connected to life-giving, supportive people in a meaningful way?
Am I pursuing hobbies and interests that stimulate my cognitive growth?
Am I handling my stress in appropriate ways?
Am I committed to restoring my health, or reaching an arbitrary number on the scale?
Am I giving myself a little grace? or obsessing over every perceived failure?
So, those extra pounds I’m currently carrying and the inconvenient swelling…I’m not so concerned about them as much as I am determined to figure out what has caused them. While my diet is fairly well dialed-in, there’s still some nutritional tweaking to be done to help my body heal, and definitely much more I can do to improve in these other areas. My main priorities for the months ahead: more/better sleep, more time in nature, reducing toxins and pollutants, nurturing meaningful relationships, and finding ways to develop some margin in my life so daily stress doesn’t become so overwhelming. I can’t control it all of course – – much to my OCD disappointment– but I’m not a helpless victim either. Neither are you. What areas do you need to address in your own life?