Much has been written about our changing states and how having strong emotional and mental resilience gives leadership edge. Another ‘internal’ system we need to be aware of managing is the endocrine system. Defined as the ‘collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things’.
As our body experiences changing states, it releases a bunch of hormones and chemicals to aid calibration. Each of the hormones has a different role and function. Having awareness of what releases these hormones and how to regulate them makes the difference of whether we live in a state of fight, flight and freeze or with a sense of calm, ease and safety. If we’re in a state of constant fight and flight the body is releasing hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, if the supply store of these is constantly under pressure it will leave you fatigued and with no supply for when you really need them.
The point here is not to scare you, but to make you aware, and build a different relationship to complexity and stress.
There are two main body states; sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Sympathetic: releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. If we’re constantly operating from this system we’re in overwhelm and under stress. This system sends a different message to our body that we’re living under threat and we need to store resources for our survival. A common signal I come across with many Clients is reflected in weight management. Contrary to the belief you lose weight when stressed, most find that when under constant pressure they cannot budge those few extra kilos, you’ll find the body is storing fat believing its moving into survival mode.
Parasympathetic: releases hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. If we’re operating from this system we’re calm, relaxed and feeling balanced or happy. This state sends a message to your system that you’re safe. So, back to the example of weight management, the message is different – the body can burn the excess energy stored, as there is no imposing threat.
What is the easiest way to shift between the two different states? Not investment in knowledge, how-to courses and mentors… rather the simplest tool we all possess – our breath. The quickest way to regulate between sympathetic and parasympathetic is to take long deep breaths down into the belly (e.g. 4 seconds to inhale, 4 seconds to exhale, for a total of 3 minutes). Try it for yourself, feel the difference taking a a few minutes to regulate your breath correctly can make to your physical energy state.
Have you heard of runaway stress?
This is an increased state of stress over an extended period of time, its often not actually real, but is a habit formed as a result of trying to keep up with a busy life. Runaway stress changes the hormonal structure of the body. No one lives in a bubble and can avoid stress, but we can manage our responses to situations and have a different relationship to stress to mitigate the long-term health affects. Having a healthier relationship with, and the ability to regulate your physical response to stress, can be the difference in making it your friend vs. a foe. ‘Doses of pressure’ can be beneficial to help meet a deadline, cope with an enormous load or new business pitch, but understand it’s not sustainable over time. Recognise your patterns and how you may be forming habits that aren’t nourishing.
The main stress hormone is cortisol and it will have a harmful impact on our bodies if left unattended for a long time. Here is a quick cheat sheet on the main hormones:
Cortisol: often called the ‘master hormone’. Its job is to protect us from physical danger. If levels are out of whack it will impact the levels and ability of the other hormones to respond appropriately, and chemicals to be released accurately. It also directly impacts the emotional storage area of your brain, the hippocampus – which is how we regulate our emotions over time. It can directly affect our ability to form strong relationships with people as it’s affecting our emotional regulation.
Adrenalin: when cortisol is released, your body prioritises what bodily functions are required. Adrenalin is ON but growth and immunity are OFF. The adrenalin gives you a boost of fight/ flight/ freeze off danger. When you’re safe, you need to recover by draining cortisol and adrenalin. Many of us are over-producing cortisol and adrenalin, that we can’t remove the excess and it overrides all the good that the other hormones are attempting to perform.
Dopamine: often called the ‘pleasure chemical’. It’s job is to help you reach your goals. It regulates everything from your movement to attention span – as well as promoting surges of happiness when you experience pleasure. Kicks in when you score goals or achieve, from a video game to your sales at work, or the buzz from crossing off your to-do list or sending an email. Warning, as it’s the same hormone released when we gamble, smoke, drink or get ‘likes’ on social media. It doesn’t last and we can get addicted to the ‘high’ so it hijacks our reward system – and can deeply impact our sense of self-worth.
Serotonin: often called the ‘mood booster’. Its job is to improve our human bonds. It’s the gatekeeper for when your body regulates your mood, level of fatigue and tiredness and your appetite. To keep it simple, serotonin flows when you feel important. Your primitive brain relates importance to survival. Take an attitude of feeling important (over arrogant) and walk with pride, take care of yourself with plenty of hydration and meaningful conversations. Sugar is the no. 1 brake on your body’s ability to produce serotonin over time. Serotonin is released when we feel valued and recognised, it’s the boost we feel when a boss recognises our hard work and achievements or a parent/ coach tells us ‘I believe in you’.
Oxytocin: often called the ‘hug hormone’. Its job is to help us serve others. High levels are associated with high levels of physical contact, trust and cooperation. When you help someone else it is released, and also through handshakes, hugs and high fives. Look for trusting relationships and not just throwing yourself into a bunch of friends and social situations for the quick fix. A high level of oxytocin boosts immunity.
Endorphins: often called the ‘pain blockers’. It’s their job to mask physical pain. These are what gave our cave man ancestors the ability to out run their captor and not be caught prey. They give you the exercise high. They are only released when you exceed your limits, so aim high. Be wary that you can also create pain to burn endorphins, so be wary of when you’re pushing yourself to unnecessary levels of stress with exercise and hard-work – these build us for endurance (to a point!).
How can you apply this knowledge to leading your team?
Look at the behaviour and mindset your team exhibits. Are the team under constant pressure, working too long hours over an extended period, is there negative team energy produced from backstabbing and gossip? Then it is likely endorphins and dopamine are in over-production. Are there enough behaviours to promote the production of ‘helpful’ hormones? Serotonin and oxytocin are your allies. They are selfless chemicals, or what Simon Sinek calls ‘the leadership chemicals’ as they promote wellbeing.
Understand it is critical as the leader you’re capable of influencing people and how they manage their wellbeing. Yes, leaders need to lead the charge towards danger, the unknown and forge the way forward (you need the adrenalin for that!), but it’s also about protecting and nurturing the team to make it through times of high pressure successfully. Leadership is often quoted as being ‘like a muscle’, I encourage you to recognise it can also impact the rest of the bodily systems, and having healthy production of hormones won’t leave you feeling depleted or contribute to long-term health problems like adrenal fatigue, liver ailments, diabetes and heart disease. Simon Sinek articulated the relationship between leadership and hormone management nicely as ‘finding the ideal balance between consistency and intensity’.
How else can you keep your hormone levels in balance?
Start with the basics! Enough sleep, regular exercise, aiming for something that matters to you, being connected in meaningful relationships with others. The next best way to manage the release of our hormones beyond our emotional regulation is through management of what food and energy you’re consuming. I’m not talking about strict diets, but making smarter options when you understand how food is broken down and processed in the gut.
After stress, the second public enemy to the regulation of hormones is food. We can manipulate our diets to manage the release and flow of hormones around our bodies. What we consume goes through a process, and affects the chemistry of our bodies. Particularly when under periods of high workload – try to resist reaching for the crisps, take-out or toast for dinner, and instead make better choices.
I don’t want to do too deep into this area, as I’m not qualified in giving food advice. However I do know that being able to alkaline your gut system is incredibly beneficial to keep you charged. If you’re consuming a lot of sugar, fat and processed foods it creates an acidic environment in the gut. Often referred to as a ‘frat party for cortisol’. It goes into over production, acidic foods invite cortisol to activate and in time will leave you with inflammation and pain (like a hangover). Do the research (most indicators will point you towards the green foods!) and make the adjustments to your diet, to see if there is a difference.
How can you integrate it into your way of being?
How can you take responsibility?
How can you start with one thing, and do it really well?
In the next series of blogs we’re going to look at different concepts of energy and how to exploit it for your own sense of expansion and wellbeing.