Stayin’ Alive – By Dr. Alan Christianson:
Hello Dr. Alan Christianson here. I want to talk about this whole thing called “survival mode.” We hear about survival of the fittest. We hear about adaptation. We talk about genes for survival and it is very relevant to a lot of facets of our health, including our weight. This is going to be some “bread crumbs” towards a big story that will make more sense with the upcoming book being launched here in the next several weeks.
So our first ideas about this came from a researcher named Hans Selye and he was working with lab animals, like many researches did. He noticed something that no one else noticed before. He noticed a lot of the different ways that the animals were disturbed would lead to the same types of health changes. That the animals would lose a lot of their muscle mass. They would get frequent infections. They would have heart disease and cancers at higher rates from many different triggers. He saw things like…for some animals someone forgot to turn off the lights, or maybe someone forgot to feed them, or maybe it was a noisier room. He noticed that these animals had predictable negative effects on their health. He also noticed they would exhibit more signs of trauma. They would chew on their fur. They would not eat properly, or they would eat ferociously and very very fast. So a lot of different types of difficult situations would lead to the same symptoms and the same long term health outcomes. He started to realize that in some way, living things have this way to survive trauma. They have this way in which they make their bodies work differently if there is a short term trauma.
So if we are in danger or if we are being chased by an animal or if we are under a great deal of anguish, our bodies shift how they function and we put out higher amounts of adrenal hormones. We change our brain chemicals. We make less of those brain chemicals that make us feel safe and secure and we process our blood sugar differently. You know the foods that we eat, less of them become burned and more of them become stored, when we are in this survival mode type state.
He realized that what happens is that this situation can happen in the very short term and be useful. If you are under acute danger, these are all steps that can help you. You know you can be more apt to focus on something moving fast or you can have quicker reflexes where your body diverts energy away from digestion and towards your muscles. So that is all useful stuff in the short term, but when you are held in this state for too long a period of time, this can cause a lot of trauma to your health.
He first saw this with rats and now we’re seeing this thing happen with really all complex living organisms, including us. So in this mode the body is not burning fuel in the same way. It is actually storing it more readily. So imagine that one is in a time of economic threat. They are told they are being laid off at work and they happen to have a surplus of cash. Would they run and get a new TV? No you would put the cash under the mattress. You would put it somewhere you can access it and keep it safe and secure. This is kind of what living things do with their calories, or their “cash,” during these times of trauma, in this survival mode state. They convert more of it into fat, right around the organs.
You know the organs need to have access to fuel and the fat that is under our skin. It is called the subcutaneous fat, and it is harder to get to. It is more so for cushioning. It may serve as reserves in times of pregnancy, but it is not as quickly available to the body. Think of that more like a long term government bond. You know it is there and it has value, but you can not get to it as quickly. Think about the visceral fat as cash under the mattress, you can grab and go…maybe even gold coins hidden somewhere that is even more useful then cash. That is how it is treated for living things.
So when we are in this survival mode, we are apt to produce more of this. Our bodies are gearing up for some type of crisis. You know in many cases in the distance past these types of trauma or crisis were caused by a lack of food so it was very common that these things would exist with famine or before famine. So having more food around your organs made perfect sense. So we can see fat growth, visceral fat growth and that is very different than subcutaneous fat.
If someone simply does consume too much food or moves less they may gain more subcutaneous fat but the visceral fat is different. The visceral fat does not simply come about by those simple activities. You know an example we see is with Sumo wrestlers. They intentionally lower their activity during periods of growth and they intentionally raise their food intake in strategic ways. When they do this, they gain subcutaneous fat and they do not gain as much visceral fat as is typical for their size. So the visceral fat or the belly fat is really what we are trying to sort out and it is really not a matter of moving too little or eating too much. It is really more of a survival response. So the body does this during times of trauma or during times that there is crisis or when there is some type of threat.
So here is thing there has been a lot ways in which many things that you would not think of could trigger the same response. Electromagnetic fields. The data has shown that being exposed to these low level magnetic currents can trigger the body to move into this state of survival. It can cause the body to have a sense of threat and go into storage mode from some of the free radicals generated from stronger fields. We have also seen that there is a temperature rhythm that living things expect in most circumstances. There is an expectation that the temperature will rise in the day and lower at night, and if that rhythm does not happen by itself it can be viewed as a trauma and push the body into a survival state.
There are also other rhythms throughout the day that keep this system working well. One of those is bright light in the morning. For animals like us that are active in the daytime, we anticipate large quantities of bright light to greet us and wake us up. The amounts we have indoors are not close to this and do not approximate this. So that absence of morning sunlight is one more thing that induces that survival state.
Along the same lines, at nighttime, we expect there to be darkness. There is actually subtle differences in the wave lengths of natural sunlight throughout the times of day, but in the evening we expect there to be darkness and we expect there to be more of a red/orange tinge to the light. So when our eyes do not see that it also confuses our rhythms and pushes us back to that survival state. Perhaps our body thinks we are coming into winter; that the day length might be changing and we go into that same survival storage mode from that as well.
Noise pollution can also trigger this. We have so much more sounds ongoing then we have had in the past. Between traffic or construction or television going on all the time or music or driving, the amount of noise we are exposed to is greater.
Then we have things that interrupt us on a continually basis. Think about in the 90’s when pagers came out. I remember there was a commercial for someone in the Phoenix area “I am JJ and I am the King of Beepers” and he was selling beepers or pagers and they were kind of a big thing. Then we went from those to cell phones and then we went from those to smart phones. What happens is that we have constant interruptions and those interruptions of course are not life or death traumas, but they do keep us in this state of vigilance. Keep us in this state of constant readiness, which is akin to this survival mode as well.
We have also had a change in our food. So foods that are higher in fructose. Fructose is something that we did not get much in our diets ancestrally. We would eat fruit on occasion but not that often and it was seasonal. To get even more specific most fruit was seasonal prior to there being times of shortage. When fruit was abundant that was typically the peak of growing season and then after that typically there would be leaner times. So fructose causes our body to go into survival mode and go into that storage state because typically it happened and we were exposed to it before there was going to be scarcity. Now fructose is more prevalent because it has been subsidized. Corn has been so subsidized and it is cheaper to buy corn than it is to grow corn so now so many foods have added high fructose corn syrup because it is such a crazy cheap ingredient.
Then we have a whole variety of environmental toxins. So this can seem counter intuitive and it blew me away to really grasp this concept, too but invisible chemicals that we do not see can act just like the traumas that would put the rats into survival mode. So if they had bright lights or loud noises or if their food was taken away that made them frightened, literally and also in a biochemical sense, but chemicals trigger the same response. Lead for example. If you are carrying lead inside your body that will change how quickly your fat gets stored and how quickly your body goes into this state of storage. It also shows that plastic derivatives can do this, and many other chemicals are likely related as well.
Of course we have also got mental or emotional stress. Things like the ongoing distractions that we face. Things like a faster pace of life. Things like just less security. We move more. We are fragmented and away from our families. There are many ways in which even though we are not fearing for our lives as often in the modern world, we have this higher level of background trauma. So if you put all of this stuff together and here is the thing: a lot of these factors became much more prevalent around the 1990’s. More electricomagnetic fields. The thermal changes. Light changes. The noise. The distractions that we have. The processed foods. The stress levels. The environmental toxins. Many of these started becoming more prevalent in the 50’s and 60’s, but they really ramped up around 1990.
So when you think about it, all these things…all these mechanisms…they trigger the body to go into survival mode and grow more fat as a safety mechanism. So if we are in this mode of survival and fear what would happen if our bodies were geared up for famine, and if you suddenly dropped your food intake. So think about this. Someone has had some weight gain and they are not sure why it has happened but they are not pleased with it and they are told to move more and eat less. So they do so and they move more and eat less but the body is in this state of survival and suddenly the food is being taken away. How would the genes respond to that? Would all these complex mechanisms we have that regulate our body weight, would they say, “Sure, go ahead and take all my fat. I don’t care.” No, of course not.
Your genes really interpret this as the survival threat they were anticipating. Your body is thinking wow I knew this was coming and thankfully I am gearing up for it, I guess now I really got to get ready for it. This is why food restriction does not work and typical dieting fails. Its why we do not see successful lasting fat loss from it.
So we will talk a lot more about what are the work arounds and what are the strategies but this is the big concept. There are these factors that push us into survival mode and they trigger us to gain weight regardless of our food intake. So this fuel is being stored rather then burned, so you are left more tired and fatigued from it.
So think more about creating a life of ease and living in a state of harmony and grace and balance. Reduce your stress load and clean waste out of your body. Minimize processed foods. Do not think about achieving health by starving, or by forcing yourself to be uncomfortable in some way. Think about it more as a matter of creating ease and peace. We will get more into specifics on how this plays out in upcoming episodes. So thanks for tuning in and this is Dr. Christianson signing off. See you next time.