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Sep272011

Fight, Flight, Fat Freedom

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response, probably in the context of a mother who performed an extraordinary feat of strength to save her child or in the case of an individual being chased or attacked by a wild animal.  It is a very real phenomenon.  In the face of danger, we confront the emotion of fear, and that emotion has a very tangible and measureable effect on strength and physical performance.  It’s an elegant illustration of what has been referred to as the “mind-body” connection.  The mind experiences an emotion, the physical body responds to signals prompted by the emotional shift.

Science has evolved so quickly in the last decade, many of the long-standing theories related to the “mind-body” are being re-examined and better understood.  Scientific study has allowed us a greater understanding of the fight or flight phenomenon, and with a true recognition of the link between emotion and physical output, we can revise our understanding of exercise, fat release, and the curing of dis-ease.

“Hold on,” physiologists would protest.  “Exercise is physical stimulus, and we’ve long known that physical stimulus results in a process of physical adaptation provided nutrition is adequate.  Emotion is a non-factor in this process.”

I understand the sentiment, but the line between thought and physical outcome is permeable.  We can shift back and forth allowing physiology to impact mind and vice versa.  It all comes down to a delicate balance between load and recovery, otherwise stated as stress and healing.

Consider that exercise, as a stimulus for change, is a stress and a factor in overall “load,” the stress accumulation from which one must recover.  Stress happens at a muscular level, but deep down it happens at a cellular level, and the end result of over-stress or over-load is what we refer to as oxidative stress.  In essence, it’s rusting at the cellular level.  The cell walls breakdown and since cells constitute tissue and tissue is the material that forms our systems, oxidative stress can negatively impact virtually every system of our bodies.

The trick to positive physical change lies in determining the adequate stress to challenge the body, while considering the threshold between “challenged” and “overloaded.”

If we cling to the conventions of aerobic exercise as a training modality, we got locked into the consideration of three factors, Frequency, Intensity, and Time, and when results stall, one of those must be increased.  Here lies a significant challenge.  If a twenty-first century human being experiences stress at work, stress at home, environmental stress, and he attempts to add in resistance exercise and “sufficient” aerobic training, recovery ability is going to be compromised.

Enter the new science related to fight or flight.  Historically the phenomenon was thought of as a decision.  The individual faces fear or anger, and suddenly he or she is better equipped to run or do battle.

As scientists have come to study reactions in milliseconds, and recognize “brain maps” to determine what specific areas are “firing” in a given millimoment, the complexities of fight or flight have begun to unfold and these insights carry us into a new realm of not only increasing the body’s propensity for fat loss, but also the reduction of inflammation.

Rather than an option, new science reveals “fight or flight” as a specific process with four distinctive steps.   The first “step” is “Freeze.”

In this state the hypothalamus notices, through your sensory nervous system, there is a potential threat.  It might be a touch, a sound, a vision, or an odor, and much like the iconic deer in headlights, you become unnaturally still.  The hypothalamus tells the sympathetic nervous system to notice and assess, “is there, in fact a threat.”  If it is deemed there is danger, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system and begins activating an adrenal network so within a fragment of a second the body is equipped to run . . . . really fast.  The digestive system and immune system almost go to sleep so metabolic energy can be focused into relying upon the muscular and respiratory systems to fast create distance between you and the threat.  So, you progress from the first of four states, “Freeze,” to the second which is “Flight.”

The sympathetic nervous system floods the brain with norepinephrine and noradrenaline, the heart rate speeds up, and respiration is increased.  That means you have greater oxygen capacity allowing you to perform at a superior level in any aerobic undertaking.  The endocrine responds by sending near 30 hormones into the bloodstream to create an ideal environment for accessing stored fuel.  You can “grab” fatty acids stored as adipose material (fat) to meet the necessary effort, as in an aerobic state your body can burn fat as fuel. 

You also begin to access stored glycogen in the muscles and liver so as blood sugar gets “used,” your internal pumps provide an ongoing supply.

At this point you're ready to run like the wind, with the leg muscles tirelessly receiving fuel and oxygen . . . but . . . if circumstances prevent you from fleeing, your brain is continuing to conduct an incredible process moving you forward into the next state.

With your sympathetic nervous system in full gear, your hypothalamus begins to manufacture Corticotropin Releasing Factor (CRF) which directs the pituitary to secrete ACTH.  The ACTH flood kicks the adrenals into high gear and catecholamines (epinipherine and adrenaline) flood the bloodstream along with DHEA and cortisol.   Your muscles begin to volumize and hold more ATP and phosphocreatine and you are ready to shift into an enhanced stsate of glucogenesis, where your body can manufacture blood glucose from amino acids.  

You are now ready to "Fight."  You’re fully equipped for an extended all-our effort, and if the “flee” option isn’t available, you are stronger and more powerful than you would be in any other physiological state.  The third stage, following Freeze and Flight, is “Fight.”

If the fight or flight state is chronic, as it is for so many stressed-out overloaded people trying to balance life, work, finance, family and health, the chronic adrenal stimulation can be destructive and can lead to a cascading series of microtraumatic episodes leading to dis-ease.  On the other hand, if you progress through the first three steps of the fight or flight process, and you actually utilize the available energy substrates, you move to yet the fourth stage.

The final stage in the fight or flight process is “Fright.”  Think of the mouse that was captured by a playful cat.  The cat carries its prize to the doorstep and proudly puts it down.  The mouse has been hanging between the cat’s jaws for minutes, hanging limp like a little mouse rag doll.  Suddenly, the cat looks away and the mouse scampers off to live another day.  It was the “fright” state that allowed for the muscles to relax as the mouse prepared to heal, to recover, to repair the damage.

Much as the mouse, if you are called upon to fight, you effectively utilize the hormones and substrates your hypothalamus was kind enough to provide, and you move into the “fright” state, a state where you may lie still, muscles relaxed, beginning the parasympathetic recovery (the slowing back down of circulation and respiration).  As you lie motionless, your adrenals crank out more DHEA which becomes a source for anabolic hormones needed for cellular repair.  It also continues to release cortisol, but it sends out new hormonal messengers and immunomodulators that have both anti-oxidant and anti-imflammatory properties.  In this state, cortisol itself becomes a powerful anti-inflammatory and the healing process speeds up, perhaps up to five-fold.

The more often you move through acute fight or flight (progression through the four stages in a matter of minutes) you strengthen the body’s parasympathetic response.  In other words, you get “better” at recovering.

This brings us to yet another benefit of accessing the fight or flight state as an exercise methodology.  Redcution in recovery time has been documented to correlate with reduction in CRP levels in the blood.  CRP (C-Reactive Protein) is an indicator and facilitator of inflammation, and inflammation is the root cause of virtually every disease.  From this we can extrapolate that if we, as fitness professionals, can help people “train” parasympathetically, we can help them reverse the inflammatory process and move those individuals moving toward disease back toward health.

In the ALIVE program we utilize brief (6 minutes at first) aerobic sessions to prevent any risk of “over-load” and in that 6 minutes we use external stimuli in high intensity bursts to simulate fight or flight.  I know it sounds bizarre to those who have been indoctrinated into “15-20 minutes minimum in your target heart zone” paradigm, but the results speak for themselves.  Not only are the individuals going though ALIVE reducing bodyfat significantly in 8 weeks, but they’re also improving all biomarkers that indicate progressive disease.

My intention in writing this is primarily to provide insights for those trainers and clients who hear “6-minutes” and think “too good to be true.”  An understanding of the basic science should at the very least alleviate some of the understandable doubt.  As our society brings us new stresses, new challenges, and new compounds and chemicals that may increase oxidative stress, we need modified solutions to counter the damage, and both the science and the evidence support the value of this novel approach.

Find out more by attending the next ALIVE webinar.

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