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, it is 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 tender, 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:
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.
Experiment a little…
Take the time to answer some questions for yourself…
- How can you integrate awareness of the hormones and chemicals into your way of leading?
- How can you take responsibility for hormone balance for yourself and your team?
- How can you start with one thing, and do it really well?