Getting Unspent: Balancing Your Energy Accounts
by Frank Lipman, MD
Earlier this year, Dr. Frank Lipman’s book Spent got a lot of attention for declaring that Americans are, well, “spent”—tired, exhausted, burnt out, fatigued—resulting in aches, pains, and illness as well as general unhappiness. The good news? We can do something about it. Dr. Lipman has helped thousands of people recover their energy and zest for life by reconnecting them with their natural rhythms and physical needs for nourishing foods, restorative sleep, and active lifestyles. The following is excerpted from his new book, Spent: End Exhaustion and Feel Great Again.
Getting Back into Rhythm
Each of us comes into the world endowed with essential energy. This energy operates as a kind of bank account and supplies us with the power to grow and regenerate ourselves daily. We are meant to supplement this original endowment of energy with what we can manufacture from eating, breathing, sleeping, learning, working, playing, and relationships. Each day we make withdrawals and deposits. But when the balance of the scales tips to our using more than we put back, we’re in the red, with the prospect of getting further and further behind. Then we are forced to dip into our savings. When we continuously withdraw from our savings account, alarms begin to sound telling us that our survival is being challenged. These alarms are known to us as symptoms such as fatigue, apathy, depression, insomnia, brain fog, lowered resistance, stiffness, digestive problems, and signs of aging. These are our body’s way of telling us that we are mentally, emotionally, and physically Spent. When we are Spent, our body is doing everything it can to tell us that it is time to slow down, rest, detoxify, repair, replenish, and restore.
Our bodies were not built to be sedentary or run marathons, exist on nearly no sleep, live without sun and nature, eat bizarre combinations of processed foods, or subsist on no-fat or no-carb diets. Nor were our brains wired to handle profound amounts of mental and emotional stress. We get Spent because our modern lifestyle has removed us from nature and we have become divorced from its rhythms and cycles.
We evolved over thousands of generations as beings who lived and worked in harmony with the seasons, and as a result these rhythms became imprinted in our genes. They are a part of every aspect of our body’s inner workings. Dr. Sidney Baker, one of the fathers of functional medicine, describes more than one hundred rhythms that form our internal body clock. This clock has what are called circadian rhythms, which reflect nature’s twenty-four-hour cycle of day and night and govern most of our physiological processes. Each rhythm influences a unique aspect of body function, including body temperature, hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure, even pain threshold. Every system in the body is affected by circadian rhythms. And just as “official” clocks are set precisely to Greenwich Mean Time, our body clocks are set precisely to these natural rhythms. Science has shown clear patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, enzyme production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities, each linked to these daily rhythms.
As Homo sapiens, we are physically and mentally designed to eat natural and seasonal foods from our nearby environs and exercise in spurts—exert, rest, recover, exert, and so on. We are meant to have fresh air, sun, and water. We are built to sleep when the sun goes down and wake when it rises. And very few of us are living this way. Though I am not suggesting that everyone give up their homes and go live in a hut fashioned of sticks and mud, I firmly believe that if we don’t move back in the direction of our genes, we will all ultimately end up Spent. In other words, we need to move back to our body’s innate natural biochemical rhythms and genetic design because in our genes and biology we are still our ancient ancestors—yet we are living at a pace and rhythm that are completely foreign to our genes and biology. Fortunately, when prompted correctly with natural light and good food at the correct time, the right supplements, appropriate exercise, and exposure to nature, our genetic clocks can reset themselves.
How I Discovered the Importance of Rhythm
Soon after I graduated from medical school in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I grew up, I began treating patients in the rural area of KwaNdebele. Although it was only about two hours north of Johannesburg, the biggest city in South Africa, it was like being in the middle of nowhere. Despite facing the harsh realities of poverty-stricken lives, the people didn’t present symptoms of insomnia, depression, or anxiety. Women would carry their babies on their backs all day, walking long distances with buckets of water or other heavy loads balanced on their heads, yet they rarely came to the doctor complaining of back pain or fatigue. In many ways, this community was healthier than the patients I was seeing at my other job in a private practice in one of the wealthy suburbs of Johannesburg. Sure, they had some disease (mostly from poor sanitation and untreated water) and came to the hospital with broken bones or pneumonia, but they did not suffer from fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, or the general aches and pains that my more sophisticated urban patients did. Since there was no electricity, people were forced to live with the rhythms of nature. Day and night dictated what was done when, and being synchronous with the seasons was essential for survival. Community, music, and dance also played an integral role in bringing rhythm into their lives. It was during my time with these people that I began to be aware of the importance of nature’s rhythm and its powerful impact on our health.
Soon after working in KwaNdebele, I emigrated to the United States. After doing the required internal medicine residency, I began a rigorous study of Chinese medicine, which turned my world inside out. Instead of symptoms being seen as something to suppress with drugs, they became a clue to some imbalance in the body—a sign that the body was out of rhythm. This completely different philosophical outlook led me to a radically new way of regarding and treating the body.
My Chinese medicine teachers taught me to see the body as a garden and myself, the doctor, as a gardener. When a plant is sick or not doing well, it is crucial to look at the environment in which the plant is growing: What is the quality of the soil? Is it getting enough nutrients? Does it have enough sun, water, and so on? As a creature of nature, you too need light, nutrients, and healthy soil to thrive.
On my journey, I also discovered functional medicine, where I learned about the importance of the environment and its effect on gene activity. I had been taught in medical school to think that your genes are carved in stone and that the diseases you get are determined by them. We now know that for the most part this is not true. The new science of epigenetics has shown that genetic activity is determined by your responses to the environment. Whether you become Spent is determined by the unique way your genes interact with the many variables in their environment. Like a computer, our cells, and therefore our organs, are programmable—their health is determined by what information they download from the outside and what information you feed them.
Now I had to find the best means of merging all of these modalities—my Western training, my Chinese medicine and functional medicine studies—to foster enduring balance and rhythm. I became the ultimate guinea pig. Restorative yoga, interval training, alternative diets, supplements, tonics, meditations, dance, different types of bodywork, healing with music, and sweats were all part of my experimenting. You name it, and I’ve probably tried it. Out of this personal research as well as from the many thousands of people who have been helped through my work, I developed a comprehensive system for getting people back into rhythm—and a more refined system for healing Spent.
Reprinted with permission.