- Building your adaptive capacity is crucial for becoming more resilient to stress and enhancing your capacity for growth.
- There are 5 pillars to building adaptive capacity: sleep, exercise, nutrition, mental fitness, and relationships and community.
- Sleep is essential for restoring the body, detoxifying the brain, and strengthening learning and memory consolidation.
- Exercise is a form of stress that helps increase physical and mental resilience, boost self-esteem, and elevate your sense of control.
- Proper nutrition involves consuming nutrient-dense whole foods, promoting an anti-inflammatory diet, and supporting a healthy gut microbiome to enable effective tissue repair and stabilize mood and blood sugar.
- Mental fitness is the ability to respond rationally and consciously to stress based on your values.
- Healthy relationships and community provide emotional support, reduce feelings of isolation, and encourage healthy behaviors.
Here at Aim 7, we're all about stress. No, not stressing you out, but teaching you how to adapt to stress to become more resilient in all aspects of your life.
In previous posts, we covered the concept of allostasis — achieving stability through change. Throughout the day, you constantly deal with physical and mental stress that challenges the body and forces it to adapt to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis can be thought of as your body's "set point" that it wants to maintain.
Each time we encounter a stress that forces us to adapt, this comes at a cost, and that cost is the cost of adaptation, which we have defined as a depletion of our adaptive fuel — the amount of gas in our gas tank. Remember that the size of our gas tank is our adaptive capacity — our total capacity to engage with and adapt to stress.
You start every day with a certain amount of fuel in the gas tank — your daily readiness level. With every stressful encounter, a certain amount of fuel gets depleted. The idea is to get to the end of the day with some fuel left, rather than sputtering along with an empty tank.
Building your capacity to engage with and adapt to stress means that you have to increase the size of your gas tank — increase your adaptive capacity. If you can increase your adaptive capacity, your ability to take on stress increases, you become more resilient to stress, and your capacity for growth is enhanced.
You can build your adaptive capacity using what we have coined the 5 pillars: sleep, exercise, nutrition, mental fitness, and relationships and community.
This might sound like a lot — and it is. But not to worry. In this post, we will introduce each pillar and talk briefly about how they can lead to a healthier, more impactful life. In future posts, we'll dive deep into each pillar and teach you specific strategies to maximize your growth.
Everyone needs sleep. Though we all require different amounts of it, sleep is a biological imperative, a lack of which is associated with several diseases, reduced mental performance, and a host of other health issues. Quite literally, every aspect of your physical and mental well-being rests (pun intended) on sleep.
A quality night of sleep ensures that your gas tank is full in the morning, providing you with the best possible opportunity to have a great day. A full gas tank means your readiness to engage with stress is at its peak. Your ability to adapt to stress can be boiled down to a simple equation: the right dose of stress and the right dose of rest. Sleep is a crucial part of this equation.
Sleep improves your mood and reduces irritability, making you an overall more pleasant person to be around.
Sleep also serves three crucial functions regarding your health and adaptability: restoration, detoxification, and learning and memory consolidation.
Sleep is the primary restorative period for your tissues, immune, and endocrine systems.
Slow-wave, or deep sleep, is associated with regulating and releasing several important hormones, including growth hormone. Growth hormone plays a critical role in the restoration of your tissues. In addition, during REM sleep, testosterone levels are increased. Testosterone plays an essential role in sexual function and protein synthesis.
If you've ever gotten sick after a period of poor sleep, you'll appreciate the benefits of sleep for the immune system. During sleep, your body initiates adaptive immune responses crucial for immunological memory — the ability to recognize and fight off invaders such as bacteria and pathogens that ultimately make you ill.
Sleep is also a crucial period of restoration and down-regulation of your two primary stress systems: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). In particular, cortisol levels are suppressed during certain sleep stages and elevated when we don't get enough sleep. The wakefulness-promoting effects of cortisol are great when we are awake and need all systems to be active to help us respond to stress, but they also suppress immune functions. That's why sleep is so crucial — it creates the conditions for healthy immune function and hormonal restoration.
The brain also undergoes profound detoxification during sleep. Exciting research in the past few decades has uncovered a system in the brain known as the glymphatic system, the primary function of which is to clear out waste products that accumulate in the brain while you're awake. Sleep is required for glymphatic clearance to occur. This explains why you feel revitalized and clear-headed after a restful night of sleep but foggy and disoriented when your sleep has been inadequate.
During sleep, you also learn. Although you might cram for a test or study a foreign language when awake, the neurons used during these activities are strengthened — and other less-essential neurons weakened — during sleep. Researchers have said, "sleep is the price your brain pays for plasticity." In other words, if you want to learn, you've got to sleep. Other brain benefits of sleep include better problem-solving ability and increased mental energy. Both of these are crucial for your ability to engage with stress. A sleep-deprived brain is unable to respond to stress productively.
Finally, sleep is indispensable for physical energy and performance. Without it, our workouts suffer, and our exercise routines won't contribute as much to our growth. As you'll see next, exercise is also a pillar of adaptive capacity.
You might not think of exercise as "stress," but it definitely is! The body is a highly interconnected system that doesn't differentiate between physical and psychological stress, at least from the perspective of building resilience.
Being physically fit is well known to blunt reactivity to stress, increase physical and mental resilience, and protect against illness. Because exercise training reduces resting heart rate and blood pressure and increases heart-rate variability (HRV), it improves your overall stress response — helping you become more responsive and less reactive to stress.
Increased resilience to psychological stress after physical training is known as the "cross-stressor" hypothesis. Adaptations to the body also benefit the mind and vice-versa. In fact, there's some evidence that exercise and meditation activate some of the same brain centers. Exercise even affects areas of the brain involved in pro-social behaviors.
Exercise also releases endorphins, "feel good" molecules that reduce stress and improve mood. These are commonly cited as the reason for the "runner's high." Cortisol levels are also reduced long-term when we exercise; becoming more physically fit helps regulate our HPA axis.
A fitness routine can also distract you from life stressors, boost self-esteem, and elevate your sense of control. While these may seem like less-tangible benefits compared to a stronger heart or bigger biceps, they're just as important — if not more important — for building adaptive capacity.
Finally, to tie it to our first pillar, exercise has been demonstrated to improve sleep quality. A great workout can begin a chain reaction of the pillars of building adaptive capacity.
When it comes to what you eat, a few aspects stand out as being particularly great for building adaptive capacity:
- An anti-inflammatory diet.
- Consuming nutrient-dense whole foods that provide adequate micro- and macronutrients.
- Eating food that promotes a healthy gut microbiome.
You can think of an anti-inflammatory diet as comprising mostly whole, unprocessed foods rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats and oils. This way of eating has been shown to reduce the risk for and symptoms of depression, among other health benefits. It also reduces the impact of stress on the body, stabilizes mood and blood sugar, and enables the effective repair of damaged tissues.
Contrast this with the modern pro-inflammatory diets comprising processed foods that trigger a constant immune response, impairing our capacity for adaptation. Not only that, they promote weight gain, reduce physical health, and even lead to brain fog and a more irritable mood.
Giving yourself enough energy is also a must, especially if you're engaging in a lot of exercise (pillar #3!). This means ensuring an adequate protein intake to support tissue growth and repair, hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis, and bone health. Healthy fats like EPA and DHA (e.g., fish oil) promote cardiovascular health and are also anti-inflammatory. Even carbohydrates — sometimes demonized on social media — can be important for supporting performance. In particular, fiber (a carbohydrate) is crucial for the health of your gut microbiome. We're only beginning to learn about the microbiome and its effects on the body, but needless to say, it plays a profound role in our health and stress adaptability.
Don't think of your next meal as "just food" but as an opportunity to build your adaptive capacity and "deflect stress." Bonus points if the meal is shared with friends and family.
At AIM7, we believe that mental fitness is the "future of fitness." Stress starts and stops in the mind, and without strong mental fitness, you can't reach your full capacity to adapt to stress.
Mental fitness is the ability to be consciously present and process information in a rational way. When you are mentally fit, you can respond quickly and sensibly to changing circumstances in a committed way based on your values. Rather than react impulsively to a stressful situation, mental fitness allows you to respond rationally. Put another way, when you're mentally fit, stress becomes an opportunity for growth.
In a stressful situation or constantly changing environment, it's easy to become overwhelmed and react impulsively. Imagine someone cutting you off on the highway. What you want in this situation is control — the ability to make a decision rooted in your values. Mental fitness allows you to do this. Rather than a curse-word-filled rant, mental fitness enables you to keep calm, turn up the music a bit louder, and carry on with your day.
There are several ways to improve mental fitness, which we will discuss in detail in future posts. When you build your mental fitness, your resilience to stress increases, your emotional regulation improves, and your self-awareness and self-esteem get a significant boost. Mental fitness allows you to engage in healthy coping strategies rather than unhealthy or destructive ones. Building mental fitness also involves developing a sense of mindfulness and reducing negative thought patterns.
Increasing your adaptive capacity may not be the biggest perk of building mental fitness. But Emotional regulation — a byproduct of mental fitness — will help preserve more of the gas in your fuel tank than any other strategy. A more rational response to each stressful encounter means using less fuel.
If you want to engage with and grow from stress, mental fitness is a must. Just remember that it all starts in the mind. Because the mind is highly connected to the body, you must strengthen both to maximize adaptive capacity.
Relationships and Community
We'll admit it — alone time can be great. But in reality, we need one another to truly thrive. If the recent pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we're better together. The rise in mental health problems during the pandemic and subsequent years has highlighted the importance of relationships and community for overall health and our ability to adapt to stress.
Research has shown that during times of stress, staying connected to friends and loved ones is a defense mechanism against poor mental and physical health. Community allows you to adapt to new and changing circumstances.
Strong personal relationships provide us with emotional support, reduce feelings of isolation, and are an incredible source of social and practical help for all types of situations. Don't try to solve all of your problems on your own! All types of communities — whether they're faith-based, sports-based, or simply a close group of friends — foster a sense of belonging and purpose.
Most importantly for our discussion, a strong, supportive community can encourage healthy behaviors — many of which are also pillars of building adaptive capacity — and reduce the number of stressors in your life. An 85-year study out of Harvard University — one of the longest-running studies on happiness ever conducted — found a strong association between happiness and close relationships.n Embracing community, it turns out, helps us live longer, and be happier.
While you might tend to lean more toward one pillar over the others — maybe you love to exercise or prefer spending time with friends as a way to buffer stress — they're all incredibly important, and none of them should be neglected.
Here at AIM7, our goal is to help you increase your adaptive capacity through all five pillars discussed above by giving you practical, actionable recommendations. That's what we will be doing in a series of posts to come, where you'll learn how to maximize each of the five pillars to build your adaptive capacity.