As defined by the World Health Organization; Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
How many of us whom focus on eating whole grains, reducing refined carbs, cutting out animal fats, etcetera are truly aspiring to be healthy individuals? In the holistic definition, (holistic meaning dealing the whole sum and not just parts of the whole, mind and body), we generally tend to be unhealthy in our disregard for mental health and peace. Be it goals, self-imposed expectations, financial stresses, kids, or time management, we feel that health can be attained solely from nutrition and exercise. I believe firmly that nutrition and exercise is the first step in attaining health, but the ladder ascends still once those first two steps have been taken. We must climb further towards mental health and happiness.
The mind and body are one. They cannot be separated in regards to health. Our lives are partially governed by our hormonal responses to situations that arise in our day to day functioning. When we are stressed, our brain sends messages to our endocrine system and adrenal glands to pump out hormones to better prepare ourselves for the danger we perceive, these hormones cause us to function at our highest levels during the "fight or flight" response. The "flight" could be escaping a charging bear, in which we need exceptional muscle power and strength. The "Fight" could be functioning at our highest level while explaining the need for a budget cut to board members around a conference table. This stress affects our immune system, our blood sugar levels, and our general feeling towards the world around us. That stress may feel great at times, such as during running a 5K when your muscles are well fed and you excel at your sport, or it might feel horrible, like when you begin to "stress out" over financial obligations, time management, and other aspects causing distress in your day to day.
The brain controls many hormonal responses through its hypothalamus and pituitary glands. There two glands are the major "grand central station" for hormonal messages in the body. They send messages throughout the body, to your adrenal glands, to your testes and ovaries, and throughout your endocrine system. They produce release of growth hormone to repair muscle damage, they control release of thyroid hormones, and even affect metabolism, This grand central station even affects how addicted we become to certain objects in our lives by affecting dopamine response through management of prolactin levels, (prolactin actually determines milk production but affects dopamine receptor sites).
The point I am trying to make here, is that the mind and body are connected. The science sounds very complicated, but we know when we are stressed. We know when we are happy and when we are sad. We need to take a step back to adjust reality and look at the stress in our lives. Stress negatively affects our immune system and our enjoyment of the world we live in. Burning the candle a bit too much at both ends can cause depression and physical pain through a decrease in growth hormone response even causing muscle soreness and tiredness. A lack of stress allows for effective blood sugar levels, proper growth and repair of muscle, peace, and happiness. This is achieved by the body producing, "Rest and Digest" hormones through the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The beauty of trail running and long distance backpacking is that one learns what really matters in life. You get the beautiful opportunity to cut the extraneous crud out from your existence and examine it from afar. On hikes and long trail runs I usually find that the things that mattered most and were stressing me out in the preceeding weeks and months are the things that honestly matter the least. It is very hard to do this while immersed in the thick of it, especially as we endurance athletes are typically goal oriented individuals. I guess one may say that technically, goals in general cause stress! Ha hahaha. I am not saying to stop making goals, but realize when it is time to take a step back from training, work, etcetera and put it all in perspective.
Sometimes abandoning a goal is necessary, and sometimes that point of abandonment one meets and pushes through is the final crux which makes achieving that goal a remarkable accomplishment. What a challenge to know the difference...What a challenge to stay healthy.