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Why Sleep and Stress Management Are Non-Negotiables

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Season 3, Episode 3  | February 10, 2020

While many aspects of our health are interconnected, there are two in particular we come back to time and again: sleep and stress. They play a major role in how we feel and function, both mentally and physically, and if we don’t have good habits in place, every other aspect of our health can start to crumble. In this episode, integrative psychiatrist, Henry Emmons, MD, discusses why they’re essential and offers tangible ways we can improve our sleep and manage our stress.

A Man Sleeping In A Bed.

01:33

Our guest on this episode is Dr. Henry Emmons. He’s a psychiatrist whose clinical practice at Partners in Resilience in Minneapolis, Minn. integrates mind, body, and natural therapies with mindfulness and neuroscience. He’s the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He’s also a columnist for Experience Life.

01:34

How and why Emmons’s practice has evolved to look at the physical, mental, and emotional sides of an individual.

01:52

Emmons believes the mental-health field made an error a long time ago when it ignored the body. When you dig into what makes for good mental health, you don’t have to dig far to realize the body is a central piece of that.

03:23

The long-term effects lack of sleep can have on the body.

03:45

Emmons has come to view sleep as the linchpin for good mental health. We all know it’s important, but he’s come to see it as absolutely central — and even less negotiable than a good diet or fitness. Without it, everything else starts to crumble, and your chances of developing health issues can go up severalfold.

04:57

How sleep deprivation presents itself in individuals.

05:14

After just one night of poor sleep, people’s response time and memory decrease measurably, along with their emotional reactivity or instability.

07:09

If you’ve been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, Emmons recommends prioritizing sleep, saying it will make a difference in your long-term outcome.

07:22

Is it possible to catch up on sleep, or is it that once the damage is done, it’s done?

07:49

Emmons says you can get it corrected. But it is a myth that we can catch up on sleep the way most people think about it, where you pull an all-nighter then sleep later the next day. That actually might make things worse because the benefits of sleep have so much to do with keeping our circadian rhythms stable.

11:42

Emmons’s thoughts around sleep aids.

12:56

Things we can each do for our ourselves to sleep better. 

15:08

We live in electrified environments, surrounded by blue light in our lightbulbs, phones, TVs, and other devices, which negatively impacts our sleep. How can we keep these from preventing us from falling asleep and sleeping well?

18:04

None of us are ever going to live a life without stress. The issue is what kind of stress it is and how long we’re experiencing it for.

20:34

Emmons walks through the stress response, including the hormones involved and the process that occurs within the body.

22:34

When our cortisol levels are elevated long-term, that’s when we can experience symptoms such as weight gain. It can also be a trigger for cognitive conditions.

24:17

Not all physicians believe in adrenal fatigue, but Emmons does. Often it can present similarly to depression.

28:06

When it comes to stress, what are some things people can do to start mitigating and managing it in their own lives?

31:04

It’s important to have these stress-management tools as a regular part of your daily lifestyle. We have to train our bodies just like we have to train for anything else, such as a 5K or a sports game.

33:44

For the most part, sleep and stress issues are influenced by lifestyle factors. But there are also genetic-related sleep and mood disorders.

36:35

The one non-negotiable healthy-living habit that Emmons incorporates in his daily life.

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Transcript: Why Sleep and Stress Management Are Non-Negotiables

Season 3, Episode 3  | February 10, 2020

Jamie Martin

Welcome to Life Time Talks, the healthy living podcast that’s aimed at helping you achieve your health, fitness, and life goals. I’m Jamie Martin, editor-in-chief of Experience Life, Life Time’s whole life health and fitness magazine.

David Freeman

And I’m David Freeman, the signature program lead for Life Time’s Alpha program. We’re all in different places along our health and fitness journey, but no matter what we are working towards, there are some essential things we can do to keep moving in the direction of a healthy, purpose-driven life.

Jamie Martin

In each episode we’ll cover the foundational elements of healthy living, including fitness and nutrition, health issues like sleep and stress management, and mindfulness and community.

David Freeman

And we’ll be talking to experts from Life Time and beyond who’ll share their insights and knowledge, so you’ll have the tools and information you need to take charge of your next steps. Here we go.

[Music]

David Freeman

On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about sleep and stress, and the effects that they have on our physical and mental health. These lifestyle factors play a major role in our day-to-day lives, so we will be diving into how to focus on these essential self-care habits.

Jamie Martin

Our guest today is psychiatrist Dr. Henry Emmons, whose clinical practice at Partners in Resilience in Minneapolis integrates mind, body and natural therapies with mindfulness and neuroscience. Dr. Emmons is the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp, and is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHeath.com. He also has a column in Experience Life called Natural Mental Health. So, Dr. Emmons, thanks for joining us on Life Time Talks. We’re so happy to have you here with us.

Dr. Henry Emmons

It’s my pleasure.

Jamie Martin

You practice as an integrative psychiatrist, but your work is largely focused on the mental health side, but you take a mind/body approach. So, that means you’re thinking about the physical side as well as the emotional/mental side. Can you talk about how and why your practice evolved into that…?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Sure.

Jamie Martin

…sort of practice

Dr. Henry Emmons

Sure. Let me say first, I think the mental health field made an error a long time ago when we kind of ignored the body. You know, the mind/body split, which pre-dates all of us, it led to some streams of thinking that we haven’t quite recovered from yet. And so, when you really dig into what makes for good mental health and what makes people resilient, you don’t have to dig very far to realize the body is a central piece of that. We can’t just be working with emotions and thoughts, because there’s just too many interconnections.

I have always been interested, just in my personal life, even before I went to medical school, I was interested in nutrition, and in fitness, or, you know, exercise, and just how those things make for a good, healthy lifestyle. So, for me, it always felt natural, right from the beginning, and yet, in my training, you know, it was really hard to get additional nutritional expertise, and exercise was just used as maybe a talking point, but there was no real emphasis on it, and certainly not in psychiatry.

So, I think that it’s an error we have to correct, because we’re learning how intimately connected the mind and the emotions are with our physical being.

David Freeman

How concerning has it been over the past few decades? Would you say that it’s something that’s hitting our society, when it comes to stress and sleep? You’ve probably heard the saying, you know, like, less sleep, more work for you to achieve whatever goals it is that you’re trying to achieve, but that long-term effect of the lack of sleep, what exactly does it do to the body?

Dr. Henry Emmons

I have come to view sleep as the linchpin for good mental health. And I haven’t always thought of it that way. We all know it’s important, but I have really come to see it as absolutely central. I see a lot of college students and other young people who are developing mental health problems for the very first time, and I can almost always pinpoint the beginning of it to a problem with sleep. We can dig more into this, maybe, later if we want, because it’s just so important, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s non-negotiable.

It’s even, you know, less negotiable than a good diet or fitness or movement. Because without it, everything else starts to crumble, and if you have good sleep, you still might struggle with various things. It’s not the answer to everything, but it gives you a fighting chance, whereas without it, it’s really hard to recover from these conditions, and your chances of developing something go up severalfold, if your sleep is not intact.

Jamie Martin

So, let’s talk about the chances of developing something. I mean, these include mental health conditions, but also it manifests physically for a lot of people. I mean, what are some symptoms of sleep deprivation that you see in people, and how it presents itself outwardly?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah, you know, the research on this is actually pretty amazing. One night of poor sleep and people’s response time, their memory go down measurably, really significantly, and so does their emotional reactivity, or instability. So, the kinds of things that we might otherwise just kind of roll with, and be able to respond effectively to various stresses, with really poor sleep, it doesn’t take very many nights. You’ll find people just don’t react as well.

Jamie Martin

Right.

Dr. Henry Emmons

And so, then, you know, things seem insurmountable which otherwise wouldn’t, and certainly cognitive abilities. You know, college students make such a mistake when they pull an all-nighter before a test, thinking they’re going to cram all that information in, because they can’t retrieve it very effectively. So, you know, it is probably the best thing we could do for our mental health. So, anybody listening, if you are not sleeping sufficiently, we can talk about what that is, but let’s say you’re just having problems sleeping or you’re not giving yourself enough time to sleep, start there, because you’ll get so many rewards so quickly if you do that.

Jamie Martin

Well, I think what’s interesting about sleep is that, and like, so many lifestyle factors, and that’s why we wanted to talk about this, is that, you know, there’s certain things that we can’t control. There’s certain things in our genetics that we’re, this is kind of nature versus nurture, and in many ways, sleep is among the lifestyle habits that’s a nurture thing. We have the ability to take some level of control with our sleep, among other factors.

We’ll get to stress-management later, too, but I think I want to point that out, because there’s so many things that come up in every article we do in Experience Life, sleep is one of those things that we continue, it’s just always one of the factors, in terms of taking better care of ourselves.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah. Yeah, and I would say, if you’ve been diagnosed with depression, or even anxiety, an anxiety disorder, start with sleep. It will make such a difference in your long-term outcome.

David Freeman

Well, I know from the, like, the health and fitness side of it, as far as whenever training with a client, we always put the staple number seven to eight hours good sleep, but I guess the question that I want to ask you is, if you’ve been doing, let’s say, since college these all-nighters, or just not getting enough sleep, the effects that it has on the cognitive function, but then is there a way that you can start to catch up on sleep, or once the damage is done, the damage is done?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah, no, great question. So, I don’t believe that it causes long-term damage. I do think that people can get that corrected, but it’s probably a little bit of a myth that we catch up on sleep the way that, you know, people think, well, I can pull an all-nighter and then I’ll sleep longer the next day. That actually might make things worse, because really, the benefits of sleep have so much to do with keeping our circadian rhythm stable.

And so, I’ll tell people even, OK, if you have one night, let’s just say you voluntarily are staying up till 3 in the morning, because you’re doing something fun. No problem, that’s not going to harm you, but get up nearly at the same time as you usually do that morning, take a little nap if you need to, but get back on your usual schedule the next night. You’re not going to hurt yourself doing that. It’s a lot worse if you stay up till 3 in the morning, and then you sleep in till 10 in the morning, thinking, I need my seven hours of sleep, because if normally you get up, let’s say, at 7, it’s just like you’ve traveled over three time zones, and you know that’s hard on your body.

And then, the next night after that, you’ll find, well, it’s just not as easy to fall asleep. So, that is really, really paying attention to the value of circadian rhythm. There’s other factors of sleep, you know, that we all need REM sleep, which is the dreaming stage. We all need a sufficient amount of deep sleep. That’s probably the most important aspect of sleep when it comes to physical health, because there’s so much repair that happens then. So, you know, I actually find it really helpful to have some sort of a sleep-tracking device nowadays, because there’s good ones, and they’re not that expensive.

And they’re getting better all the time, and I think a lot of people find that when they have one of those, they realize they’re actually probably sleeping a little more than they thought, a little bit better than they thought, because you know, one of the big problems with sleep is people worrying that they’re not getting enough sleep, and then, that just compounds the problem. So, just having a little bit of objective information is super helpful, and then it gives you something you can track, so you don’t have to be lying awake.

You know, a lot of us wake up at least once in the middle of the night, and it’s really common for the brain to kick into gear at that point, but rather than laying there worrying that you’re not sleeping, and therefore it’s going to cause a problem, have something that measures it so you just don’t have to be thinking about that too much.

Jamie Martin

I could’ve used that last night, when I was up at 3:30 in the morning, because I did, I did that exact thing. I was awake, and then it was like, OK, now I’m not sleeping, and so, I was worried about how am I going to do today, how’s today going to function. But that’s reassuring, you know, if we can use some sort of device or tracker to say, OK, for the most part, you’re doing OK, and you got X, Y, and Z out of that night’s sleep that you did get, the amount of sleep you did get, that’s helpful, to not stress about that, those two hours that I missed.

Dr. Henry Emmons

You know, one of the things that I have really found reassuring about using a device is that where I used to think I was awake for two hours in the middle of the night, I now realize that it’s more like, maybe, a half hour, or 20 minutes, or . . . and then, you know, maybe I’m sleeping lightly, but I am still sleeping, and typically in that last half of sleep is when you do more of your dreaming sleep. The deep sleep usually comes in those first three, four hours, five hours, whatever.

So, you know, most of us will have gotten the, probably the really important part of sleep already, even if you wake up after four hours, and then the rest is maybe gravy. You know, it’s just that extra, really good stuff, but I’ve learned it’s not as bad as I used to think it was.

Jamie Martin

That’s reassuring.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah.

David Freeman

What would you say to the individuals that are trying to hack the system? So, they have sleep aids now to kind of help them accelerate getting to sleep. What are the negative pieces that might come from sleep aids, if any?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Well, that’s a really big question, because so many people are relying on something, and you know, I’m a psychiatrist, so I also prescribe medications for sleep if that’s needed. And I’ve come to believe that sleeping is better than not sleeping, and so, if you need something to help with that, you probably ought to do it, but — this is a big but — anything that you use for very long, you’re going to get used to, and that’s true for natural things just as it is for prescription things.

And the prescription things are probably a bigger problem, because they’re harder to get off of if it’s been too long. But really, you don’t want to rely on anything outside of your own body and lifestyle to help you sleep any longer than you have to. But there, again, you know, if you go through a really rough stretch, or really unusually high-stress time, I think you’re better off using something and sleeping rather than not sleeping.

Jamie Martin

Well, I think that gets into the importance of sleep habits, and you already talked about the importance of kind of consistency with the time that you go to bed and the time that you wake up in the morning, but what are some other ways that we can support better sleep for ourselves, because I know there’s other choices we can make throughout our, starting from in the morning when you wake up, throughout the day, to help set ourselves up for better sleep quality.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Right. I think the two simplest and most important things, again, it’s about circadian rhythm. So, the first is, get up at the same time every day, seven days a week. It can vary by an hour, but no more than that. I would be concerned more about that than the time you go to sleep at night. So, getting up at the same time, crucial, and then, to really help with that, especially if you live in the northern part of the country like we do in Minnesota, using light to your advantage, super helpful for regulating sleep.

So, bright light in the morning, and then really dim light in the evening. So, in the summer, you know, it’s a little bit trickier, because it gets light so early. In the winter, you know what most people experience, is around 7 o’clock, maybe a little bit earlier, even, they get really sleepy, like, want to go to bed, and of course, most of us don’t go to bed at 7 o’clock. It’s because your melatonin is released based upon the sunset. Typically, an hour and a half to two hours after sunset, big boost of melatonin, which makes you want to go to sleep.

But if you don’t go to sleep at 7 at night or 8 at night, then by 10 or 11, there’s no melatonin. You know, you’ve already done that, it’s gone, and so, you can’t, a lot of people can’t fall asleep easily, even though they’re really tired. So, using light, bright light in the morning, and then in the winter months, living here, maybe another, shorter burst of bright light around 5 or 6 o’clock to help mimic sunset and push your melatonin release back a couple of extra hours. That can be super helpful.

Jamie Martin

So, one thing that often comes up with this is because, yes, dimming the lights, but we live in this electrified environment now. You know, there’s lights everywhere, but now, and you’re used to, we have lights, but then you also have our screens, which so many have, and that’s the whole blue light concept. What about that? I mean, how do we . . . I mean, it’s a choice, right, for all of us, like, how do we cut back on that use, but I think it’s a problem that a lot of people are struggling with.

Dr. Henry Emmons

A lot of people are struggling with this, and you know, so, blue light is a really big issue there, and you get it in screens, you get it in most, just ceiling lamps, or floor lamps. You can change your light bulbs. Nowadays, you know, with LEDs, you can get lightbulbs that are free of blue spectrum, and that’s really helpful, but what I try to compare it to is, you go camping for just a few nights, you’ll start to get really sleepy at around 9 or 10 o’clock, and you want to mimic the amount of light that you might have when you’re camping, at least in the winter months, can’t do it in the summer.

But think about really low lights in your house. So, most reading lights, they’re too bright. Screens, of course, the blue light is one aspect of it, and you can filter that out not, which you should do, but there is another aspect of screens, and that is, they flicker a little bit. You can’t see it, you don’t, your brain isn’t aware of it, but it’s flickering in the background, and that revs up your brainwaves in a way that’s not conducive to sleep. And then, the third thing is, you know, most of us, if we’re on a device, we are jumping from one topic to another, one page to another, and that puts your brain into a state that’s not conducive to sleep.

I know it’s hard, but I would say shut off your screens an hour or two before bed, at least until your sleep gets really good and normalized, and really, really be careful about how bright your lights are. I think it’s probably OK to watch, like, watch a TV screen that’s across the room from you, because it’s, you know, all of those flickering and so forth, it’s so much further away, and it’s not the same thing as cruising the internet and jumping around like that. It’s a little more relaxing for most people.

But really, if you’re not sleeping, shut it all down. Get into a rhythm of just doing something that’s calming and relaxing, maybe even a little boring towards the end of the evening, and really try to get your sleep on track before you add those things back.

David Freeman

Well, to go off of that, usually lack of sleep leads to putting stress on the body, so that’s a word that’s been kind of put into this negative light, but there’s different types of stress. So, obviously the stress that you’re putting on your body from lack of sleep, and then the stress that you probably experience from your body from exercise. So, can you dive a little bit in-depth around stress and how that benefits the body and how that can also be detrimental to the body?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah. Let me say first that none of us are ever going to live a life without stress.

Jamie Martin

That’s normal.

Dr. Henry Emmons

It’s here to stay, and we’re really well-designed for that. You know, our bodies are beautifully designed to handle stress. That’s not the issue. The issue is what kind of stress is it, how long is it there, do we get real breaks from it, or not, and really, one way of thinking about sleep is it’s a way of giving your body a complete break from stress. Even dreaming sleep, even people who have kind of stressful dreams, I won’t talk about trauma dreams, but just kind of normal stressful dreams, it’s thought that it’s your body’s way of processing really difficult things while there’s no stress hormones, no adrenaline or epinephrine in your brain to create an environment of stress.

So, it’s like a stress-free way of processing difficult things. So, we’ve got to have those breaks, and you asked about exercise, which, you know, it can present a stress. So, there’s good stress and there’s bad stress, and I would say that even good stress, if it’s too much, it can be hard on your body. But by and large, exercise is a really helpful way of mitigating or kind of getting stress out of your system. I see it as what our bodies are designed to do when we’re threatened in some way.

It’s the fight-or-flight thing, and exercise is just a way for us to intentionally engage in that fight-or-flight behavior. So, we’re doing just what we naturally should do, and we’re doing it on purpose, which is just really smart to do. I don’t think that exercise has to be super vigorous for that purpose, you know, to kind of mitigate the effects of stress. I think it can be pretty mild. Even some, you know, really gentle aerobic kind of activity can be really great for that.

I also think that doing more intense interval or weight training is really good for other reasons, and really, interval training, if you think about it, is probably the closest to the fight-or-flight reaction.

Jamie Martin

Right.

Dr. Henry Emmons

But for people who have just chronic stress, anxiety, trouble sleeping, doing some kind of regular, gentle aerobic activity is super helpful.

Jamie Martin

Can you take a second and kind of walk us through the stress response, and what happens in the body, the role of cortisol, and the other stress hormones that come about? I think that’s helpful for our listeners to understand, like, kind of what this cascade effect is.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Sure. Sure. So, there are two really important stress hormones. We all know them both. One is adrenaline, and the other is cortisol. So, if you were threatened, you know, you perceived a threat, real or not real, but you perceived the threat in your environment, adrenaline, excuse me, adrenaline would come into your bloodstream, just stream into it immediately. It’s just split seconds, and so, it gets us revved up, activated, kind of super alert, ready for action, and it happens immediately, but it doesn’t last very long.

You know, under normal circumstances, if you’re threatened and you have to fight or run, you can’t really do it for more than about 20 or 30 minutes, and then you’re exhausted. So, you know, think about adrenaline, normal stress response. It should last somewhere in that, let’s say, 20- to 45-minute range.

Jamie Martin

OK.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Cortisol actually takes about that long to even start rising. It takes several minutes before it starts to elevate, but it’s really the bad actor for most of us. It’s only bad if the stress becomes chronic. If it’s short-term, let’s just say, again, it’s a normal, natural reaction to something, some threat in our environment. Adrenaline, short term, it’s about survival. Cortisol is long-term. It lasts about a day, about 24 hours, and it does some really important things. It makes us hungry, so we want to restore energy that we’ve just spent through this running or fighting.

It also triggers the memory center, because hopefully, whatever that threat was, we’ll remember how we got into that situation, and we won’t do it again. So, it’s triggering those kind of things, and that’s super helpful in the short term, but if you imagine this going on for weeks or months, it’s doing some really bad things. That’s when people gain weight, because you’re constantly, you know, hungry. It tends to cause weight gain in the middle of the body, which is kind of a sign that you’ve been stressed for too long, and then, it’s constantly pushing those memory centers in your brain, which is really bad for those cells, which are not designed to always be activated.

And so, it’s believed, I really believe this to be the case, that it is one of the triggers for, you know, it’s just like Alzheimer’s for cognitive conditions. If you have been extremely stressed for kind of a long period of time, particularly as you get older, it just is really hard on those cells, and it can cause, you know, death because of them, because they’re not designed to be always activated.

David Freeman

With that combination, lack of sleep and then the unwanted stress, call it burning the candle on both ends, then it leads to what I’ve seen a lot in the health and fitness industry with adrenal fatigue. So, can you speak a little bit on how we can hack that system, how, obviously the obvious, sleep and not doing crazy things that elevate the stress, but what would be your answer to that or solution to those who might be going through or might be curious if they have adrenal fatigue. What does that feel like?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah, so, I believe in adrenal fatigue. You will find physicians that, I think, who don’t, because, you know, there’s a condition of low adrenal hormones where it would be measured in a blood test, and it’s clearly low, and it’s usually a different kind of a thing than adrenal fatigue or burnout, but I believe that it does happen, and I think it can become what looks like depression. So, you know, my field, I see quite a bit of this, where people have not dealt with the stress, or haven’t been able to get rid of it.

And so, it goes on for, probably takes months or even years before it becomes this problem, but after a while, your body becomes less able to regulate the cortisol system, the adrenal system. So, for example, the brain and the adrenal glands stop communicating properly, and they don’t shut it off, so it’s constantly putting out cortisol. After a while, you can imagine, gets hard for the adrenals to keep up, and then, you start getting into this state of real fatigue, not just, I’m tired at the end of the day, but I’m tired all the time, and I feel like I can’t think straight.

I have kind of that brain fog that’s there all the time, not just after a bad night’s sleep. So, those kind of things, mood tends to drop, but a lot of times it’s more flat than it is depressed. So, it’s kind of, like, emotionless, almost, blah, you know, empty kind of feelings, lose your passion for life. It’s like, you know, we need some cortisol. We need to have that regular, normal, up-and-down rhythm of the stress hormones, and if you don’t have it, you just don’t feel right.

So, in terms of what do you do about that, how do you get back, one is, you know, you do have to deal with the stress. You can’t expect your body to heal or your adrenals to come back online if there’s still too much demand on them. See, whatever it is, you’ve got to get yourself out of that burning building, or you’re still not going to be able to breathe. Your lungs aren’t going to heal.

David Freeman

Right.

Jamie Martin

Right.

Dr. Henry Emmons

But if you can do that, then I think this is really where nutrition becomes important. The adrenals have to be really properly nourished, and for a while. That may mean adding some good, you know, vitamins, and amino acid formulas, and maybe even something that gives the adrenals kind of a natural boost, like licorice root can do. So, like, in my practice, I’ll use some things that combine a lot of these nutrients into one or two things to give people, one, to take some of the stress off your adrenals, give them a break, so to speak, and yet, kind of prop up that system, and then, using some good herbs and nutrients to try to bring it back online, so to speak. And people can do that. I don’t think that that’s an irreversible problem.

David Freeman

OK.

Dr. Henry Emmons

I think that’s a reversible problem, even for people who have had it for quite a long time.

Jamie Martin

It’s just so interesting, and we cover this a lot of times in the magazine, but the interconnectedness of all of these systems and all of these lifestyle factors. You know, it’s sleep, it’s nutrition, it’s all of these things that kind of build and support one another, and so, I love hearing, like, how we can support our bodies, and these are things we can all do in our daily lives, to in some ways, I mean, we need help in certain cases, if it’s an extreme enough circumstance, but for somebody who is just feeling like, I just need to prioritize my stress management, I need to prioritize sleep. We talked about sleep a little bit already, but when it comes to stress, what are some suggestions that you might have for people for starting to mitigate that?

Dr. Henry Emmons

First and foremost is to be able to clearly see what is the source of stress. Usually, it’s something external to one’s self, but not always. Sometimes people are creating their own stress by their, the way they think about themselves or their situation. It’s not real, it’s perceived, but it has the same effect on the body, but you have to be able to see it clearly for what it is, and you do have to address it, so I realize that some people are in situations they feel they can’t get out of.

Might be a job that’s just eating at them, or a boss, or it might be, you know, a marriage that’s gone kind of poorly, and they just feel like, I can’t get at, I can’t change this right now. So, if they can’t change it, then they’re left with kind of managing the effects of it, but by and large, we have to be able to change things. So, in terms of just managing symptoms, it’s really crucial to have real breaks, not just, you know, a minute here, or grabbing lunch at your desk, and working through lunch, or eating in your car, or whatever it is. You got to have real breaks in your day where you’re not being productive, you’re not doing something.

You need downtime, but real downtime, where you’re not just doing something else. I think you have got to prioritize exercise, like we talked about. I would say 45 minutes nearly every day, but it could just be a simple, you know, gentle aerobic, walking, biking, something like that, but around 45 minutes a day, really, really important. You know, sleep, like we talked about, that’s just a crucial aspect of this, and then I would add that we need to play more.

You know, we need to intentionally do things that are simply fun, and nothing else, you know? It’s not productive in any way, but we’re just doing it because it gives us pleasure, and we’re doing it with other people.

Jamie Martin

That social connection with others is so critical as well.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah. You know, I’m a believer in doing things like meditation or some other mind/body practice, but I will say that when people are in a really high stress state, they have a very hard time doing that, and I recognize that. It’s probably better to think about starting a practice like that when you’re not in a super high stress state, and then sticking with it, but when you’re in that really high stress state, it’s hard to do it.

It might be best just to do a simple awareness of breathing practice, or some other kind of breathing technique as your mind/body exercise, or else, use a device, some kind of a really simple biofeedback device, or something more sophisticated, like HeartMath or something, that really gives people a way of measuring something physiological, and that is just a way of telling you that you’re getting into that state of relaxation.

Jamie Martin

One thing that you’ve often said, and I think it was recently in an Experience Life article, you talked about the importance of having this as a regular part of your practice, these stress management tools, because it’s like training for a 5K. You’re not just going to show up on the day and be able to run the 5K. We have to train for these things, just like we would for anything. Can you speak to that a little bit, and why this is really, again, we’ve talked about this in a couple other episodes, too, but it’s a hygiene practice in many ways?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah. Yeah, so, let’s say that you want to be really good at a sport. Let’s just say its basketball. You cannot just go out on game day and play very well. You’ve got to practice, you’ve got to be in condition. The same thing, you know, if you want to be really good at handling very stressful things in the moment that they’re happening. You cannot expect to do that if you haven’t prepared for it. I think it’s a very apt analogy, and so, preparing for it is probably not so different from preparing for a sport.

You’ve got to have some coaching or some, you know, you have learned some good techniques. You have to have practiced them when you’re not in a game situation, or you’re not in that stress situation. You’ve got to do them before you need them, or you can’t pull those things out. A lot of people will ask me, you know, without having gone through that process, they’ll ask me, well, what can I do when I’m really in a stressful situation? Well, not much, if you haven’t prepared for it.

If you have prepared for it, there’s a lot that you can do. You know, you can learn to pay attention to your body, so you can pick up on the onset of stress long before it gets to be harmful. You can learn to notice when you’re hungry and what foods might be most nourishing for you at that time. You can learn how to listen to your body and your needs, and your emotional needs, so that you don’t miss those signals before they become kind of troublesome.

And you can also learn to train your mind to maintaining some degree of stillness, or equanimity of the background, even when you’re faced with something really stressful. It’s just training. It’s just a skill that I think almost any of us can learn.

Jamie Martin

Interesting. I want to go off of, you mentioned genetics play a role in this, and there’s a lot of research right now about genetic variations and genetic predispositions for things, and they talked about the SNPs, or whatever they’re called. And you may not know the answer to this either, but are there any known, like, genetic variations that would set people up for sleep or stress issues, that you’re aware of, or that other researchers are looking into?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah, definitely. You know, I think, let me say first that mostly, problems are lifestyle and stress, and not genetic, but there’s definitely genetic-related sleep disorders, mood disorders, anxiety, even though I think all of those conditions, nowadays, the majority of people who suffer from them, it’s because of stress and lifestyle. But you know, most mental health conditions are believed to be about 50 percent related to genetics. We don’t really understand all of the, you know, individual genes and how they . . . and with something as complicated as depression, there’s not a single gene.

It’s many genes that are involved, but a really clear example of this that more and more people know about now is that there is a genetic variation where some people don’t properly use folic acid, or folate, which is, you know, something we get in our diets, or in a vitamin supplement. But if your body is lacking enough of the enzyme that’s needed to convert that vitamin into its usable form, you can get all kinds of it in your diet and still have a problem.

And it makes a big difference with mood, because folic acid and several other B vitamins are so crucial in the producing of brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters. So, you know, that’s a, if you know about that, that’s a relatively easy fix. You can’t change the gene yet, but you can just take a vitamin supplement that has the active form of folic acid. It’s a really smart thing to do.

Jamie Martin

And that’s the methylated version, right?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yes.

Jamie Martin

I think we’re talking, the genetic variation we’re talking about is MTHFR, if I’m . . .

Dr. Henry Emmons

Correct.

Jamie Martin

. . . getting to that, and we have some Experience Life articles that address that we can link to in our show notes for this episode to share that, but it’s interesting, because there are so many of those things that we just don’t know about in our bodies, and you know, as more research comes out and more tests become direct-to-consumer tests, we can learn more about those things. Whether you want to or not is another thing, but that’s one that is fairly common, is my understanding, like . . .

Dr. Henry Emmons

It’s relatively common, probably 15, 10 to 15 percent of people.

Jamie Martin

Are carrying that one.

Dr. Henry Emmons

I think if you have a really strong family history of depression, especially pretty severe depression that doesn’t seem related just to stress, I think you really ought to consider that, and really, it’d be pretty simple to take an activated B vitamin, see if it makes a difference.

Jamie Martin

Well, one thing that we’re asking everybody, and I don’t know that we gave you a little preview of this, Dr. Emmons, is, you know, we are curious about, we all have different things in our lifestyles that we do as part of our routines. So, in terms of you taking care of yourself, what are some of your non-negotiables when it comes to your own self-care for health and well-being?

Dr. Henry Emmons

Great question. Well, sleep is definitely one of them, and it’s something I’ve really only fully appreciated it in my own life for about the last, I don’t know, four or five years. I researched my last book, which was about aging, as, you know, taking care of your brain as you age, and I was really struck with the research on this, and I started to learn more about some of the things we talked about earlier, and I really made those changes.

So, I’ve never been a great sleeper, and I still have a hard time averaging 7 hours a night, but I’ve gotten way better, and I put it really high on my priority list. So, that’s probably No. 1 for me, but also, you know, as I’m aging, and maybe getting a little more mature and wise as I age, I am really learning to take more downtime, to do more things that I do just purely for enjoyment, and for nothing else. I’ve always been so focused on being on being productive, and you know, that’s good, but I’m really recognizing, I got to balance that more, and I’m doing that.

So, I’m doing more things that are just playful and fun. I’d consider that non-negotiable, and I did not used to. I’ve always eaten pretty well, I’ve always exercised. I stay with those things, you know, those, I just know I don’t feel good if I don’t do them, and that makes it a little bit easier, I think, to stick with. I walk a ton in the summer, and love that, and think it’s a great way to get good whole-body exercise. Those are probably the main things.

Jamie Martin

Well, thank you, Dr. Emmons, for being on Life Time Talks.

Dr. Henry Emmons

Yeah, you’re welcome, I really enjoyed it. Thank you both.

[Music]

David Freeman

Thanks for joining us for this episode. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our conversation today and how you approach this aspect of healthy living in your own life, what works for you, where do you run into challenges, where do you need help.

Jamie Martin

And if you have topics for future episodes, you can share those with us too. Email us at lttalks@lt.life or reach out to us on Instagram @lifetime.life, @jamiemartinel, or @freezy30 and use the hashtag #LifeTimeTalks. You can also learn more about the podcast at experiencelife.com/podcast.

David Freeman

And if you’re enjoying Life Time Talks, please subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. Feel free to write a review and also let others know about it, too. Take a screenshot of this episode and share it on social or share it with your friends, family, work buddies, life coach, you get the gist.

Jamie Martin

Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you next time on Life Time Talks.

[Music]

Jamie Martin

Life Time Talks is a production of Life Time — Healthy Way of Life. It is produced by Molly Schelper with audio engineering by Peter Perkins and sound consulting by Coy Larson. A big thank you to the team who pulls together each episode and everyone who provided feedback.

We’d Love to Hear From You

Have thoughts you’d like to share or topic ideas for future episodes? Email us at lttalks@lt.life.

The information in this podcast is intended to provide broad understanding and knowledge of healthcare topics. This information is for educational purposes only and should not be considered complete and should not be used in place of advice from your physician or healthcare provider. We recommend you consult your physician or healthcare professional before beginning or altering your personal exercise, diet or supplementation program.

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