I don’t know about you, but I have this kind of indestructible myth going on about my body and I always expect to bounce back from major health stuff immediately, but then I have to remember what I always say to my clients – health recovery is WAY more work for your body than you think it is and it takes SO MUCH LONGER than you think it will. This applies pretty much across the board and the bottom line is to be gentle with your body, be gentle with yourself. There are so many ways that your body can be asking for help and support and at the end of the day, it’s the most intelligent tool you will ever have so here’s some more reasons to treat your body right.
It’s hard to accept the idea that something you had a month ago might actually still be affecting the way your body is doing things, but the fact is that for some common conditions, recovery can literally take years. This does not gel with our instant gratification society at all.
So – why is this important? Well, your body is more vulnerable when it’s trying to recover from something so part of your resources are devoted to that task – meaning there is less to go around for everything else. Still, the human tendency is to push to what you can normally do, or even worse: what you feel you *should* be able to do rather than listening to your body’s signals that it needs rest, nourishment, sleep.
What Happens When You Ignore the Recovery Period:
- Recovery Takes Longer: The recovery HAS to happen. Your body has an imperative for that to continue. If it doesn’t happen then it just keeps dragging you down in the background or weakening your fundamental energy and strength. It’s like an open drain at the bottom of your bucket – your energy is constantly siphoned off, bit by bit.
- Energy Drain: The more you push through, the stronger the signals your body will send to not push through. Energy gets lower and lower because your body has to make you stop and rest somehow. Really, how many ways can your body tell you it’s still hurting?
- Resources Dwindle: Your body is actively using nutrients, energy reserves and even hormonal reserves to try to deal with this lingering issue and if you’re not giving it extra time, rest and nutrients to do that or if you’re expecting to do all he things you normally do in a day as well then reserves get used up quickly.
- Long-term Consequences: Pushing through just compounds the problem and can lead to long-term consequences. Conditions like chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue and “burn out” are all natural consequences of your body bearing more burdens than it can handle for longer than it had the resources to deal with. These burdens can include stunted or ignored recovery times, emotional stressors, nutritional deficiencies, unhealed viruses, high inflammation and sleep deprivation.
So How Much Time Does Your Body Need?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a magical one-size-fits all answer to that question? Sadly, there isn’t but there are ball-park figures that can give you an estimation. The healthier you are going into something the generally shorter the recovery period is, but the biggest gift you can give your body is actually listening to your body’s signals. Here are some typical situations that take far longer to recover from than you would ever think possible:
- Dehydration/heat exhaustion – Typically initial recovery to the point that your body feels normal takes 4-6 weeks depending on how severe the dehydration was. After that count on at least a year of having to be vigilant about hydration, trace minerals and electrolytes because your body is far more susceptible to relapse in this time – even though you may feel “normal” your reserves are still far lower than they should be. If you don’t put the effort into rebuilding those reserves you can perpetuate a situation where relapse remains an issue, even for a decade or more.
- Food sensitivities – Food sensitivities are a bigger issue than you may realize. So many people discover a food sensitivity such as wheat or corn, but because they’ve been eating that thing their entire lives they don’t especially take it seriously, or eliminate the food 95% but cheat a few times per week. This can actually raise the total level of body inflammation and perpetuate it. We are human, and sure – cheating happens, but it’s actually better to save it and do it big than to cheat in little ways frequently. Like the Christmas cookies cheat and the birthday cake cheat and the rest of the time be 100% sensitivity free. Eliminating a food sensitivity completely will yield long-term results but your body will be changing, regaining health and recovering from that food for a long time – even years. Of course this is hard to quantify, but I can say that I noticed subtle, positive changes continue to happen for me for approximately the first four years of being wheat-free before things leveled off. There is digestive repair, better nutrient absorption, replenishing nutrient reserves, reducing inflammation and healing damage. Of course the little constant cheats undermine that process and essentially stop progress.
- Pregnancy, pregnancy loss, delivery – Pregnancy takes a huge toll on a woman’s nutrient and energy reserves, as do pregnancy loss (especially late losses) and labor and delivery. Your body is programmed to give the best of everything you have to the baby. The best nutrients, the best fats, the best minerals, the bulk of your reserves. It takes a lot of time to build those up again. Outside of that, actually building a baby is a tremendous effort – think of it like continuously running a marathon. There is a reason the first and third trimesters are such sleepy times and although part of it is changing hormone levels, those hormones make you sleepy for a reason. That reason, of course, being that you actually need far more sleep, far more rest, far more down time because your body is building a human. The hardest scenario to recover from is back-to-back babies. Although there hasn’t been research done on the length of the recovery period ancient cultures tend to say that six weeks of rest, relaxation, pampering and the most nourishing foods will prevent six years of fatigue, frustration and sadness. This truly means six weeks of being cared for after delivery. Here’s a great article on postnatal depletion.
- Virus – Of course every virus is different and your body will recover from the common cold (usually rhinovirus) far before it will recover from mono or parvovirus or herpes. The thing about viruses is that they linger in your system and can become dormant, only to reemerge in times of stress (the classic is herpes – cold sores or outbreaks will happen any time your body reaches a certain level of stress or depletion). Recently medicine is realizing that high viral loads also accompany conditions like chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia – especially the slow-burn viruses like epstein-barr (mono) and cytomegalovirus (which typically only causes symptoms in newborns and the elderly, but can eat away at reserves in the background). As a general rule I like to give the body two times the active period of the virus for recovery if you really rest and let your body do it. So however long you feel symptoms give your body twice as long as that again to actually focus on great nourishment, good sleep, low stress and moderate activity. Remember for mono the symptoms can last easily 6-12 weeks so 12-24 weeks after that for recovery.
- Over-training – Over-training can be a big issue in athletes and weekend warriors alike. Essentially it’s a situation where you ignore your body’s actual capacity to reach a goal. The common factor is ignoring capacity – athletes have a tremendous capacity and typically take great care of themselves physically, but also generally push the limits of what their body can do, how it performs and how much it can do. Weekend warriors are typically not the best at taking care of their bodies, but over-push when they get a chance to because they don’t get as many chances to as they’d like. Either way, the consequences are similar – little bits of damage with every work out that don’t always get a chance to fully heal before the next workout and so build up in the background. A good trainer or coach should encourage rest days and even rest weeks to their athletes, but that doesn’t always happen. Again – it comes down to actually listening to your body and responding appropriately. Typically though when you stop listening injuries start to escalate. It starts with small things and then bigger things as you re-injure vulnerable areas that haven’t fully healed. For a cycle like this I suggest 3-6 months off of training with great nutrition, hydration, rest, and gentle therapeutic exercise to the injured area (often range of motion exercise, stretching, foam roller and massage to the area). Truly letting your body heal is hard when you’ve got a goal, but so worth it in the end.
- MTHFR recovery – For anyone struggling with MTHFR you know it has often been a lifelong symptom picture that just isn’t addressed until the gene mutation is discovered. Once the mutation is discovered then starts the long road of nutrient repletion, damage repair and detoxification. Essentially your body has always been malnourished in a fundamental way and starting to re-nourish with the active forms of folate and B12 also allows your body to get the wheels turning on all of the work it couldn’t do while you were malnourished. This process can take years to fully evolve and can be incredibly rocky as you’re first trying to find the best protocol for you. Once you do find a good protocol, plan on allowing the process to unfold for several years before you really see the true end-result. Stick to your supplements and listen to your body because you will need more rest, better hydration and better nutrition through this process as your body catches up with the backlog of work it didn’t have the resources to do before. The more severe your mutation, the longer the process will take. Count on at least a year and typically longer to see the full results.
- Anaphylaxis – A serious allergic reaction triggers so many processes within your body and it uses a tremendous amount of resources in an extremely short time. With appropriate treatment your body can get feeling back to normal even within the first 24 hours, but for most people the allergic response is actually heightened for weeks, sometimes months after the event. This means that smaller insults and things that don’t normally trigger full-blown allergic responses can do so because your body is already more keyed up. Recovery takes rest, lots of water, trace minerals and electrolytes but also a “clean” environment where you work to eliminate even the minor allergies from your sphere so that your body has a chance to truly calm down. Steroid treatment is the fall-back if you can’t interrupt this process naturally, but steroids take a toll on your body too. The best way is to avoid as much as possible your food sensitivities, environmental allergies and triggers and give your body good hydration, nutrition and electrolytes. Let your body calm down naturally and plan on at least 3 months.
- Surgery/Trauma – Naturally it depends on the type of surgery or trauma, but recovery truly does take far longer than most people consider. Repair and remodeling is typically happening well beyond the length of time you feel the pain of the wounds. Use the viral model – however long you were hurting, take that length of time again after the pain stops to recover fully. That means during that time you’re focusing on good sleep, good nutrition, good hydration and minimizing stress.
- Mental and Emotional Stress – This is a biggie – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client in my office who had a divorce two years ago and their health just hasn’t been the same since. Likewise with family dying, extended stress or grief situations and lawsuits. Mental and emotional stress is as much of a stressor for your body, your system and your reserves as any physical ailment you can think of, and maybe more. This drains energy, keeps up an unhealthy hormone cascade and uses far more nutrients than you might realize. Recovery after a stressful period is often years in the making and requires not only physical rest and nurturing but mental and emotional rest as well. Counseling, homeopathy, meditation, spiritual or religious work and hypnosis can all be helpful at this point. Use the tools that work for you and allow yourself the time and space to fully heal. Get help when you need it, ask friends and family for support, do things that bring you joy. Allow yourself to grieve fully, release emotions, sleep, cry, scream, get angry and do whatever it is you need to do. Just try not to “push through” and ignore your needs or tell yourself you “should” be over it by now – if you’re not, you’re not. Just listen to your body’s needs.
Health Recovery: How to Truly Recover Fully:
Your body has an inherent wisdom and a knowing about what needs to happen. The problem is that your brain often overrides that wisdom with all of the social rules you learned as a kid – you “should” be tough enough to handle this. Laying around or sleeping too much is “lazy.” Taking all that time is “self-indulgent.” “Other people have it way worse.” Sure – they might, but life isn’t a competition to see who suffers the most and only that person gets to feel bad. Western society has a kind of work-martyr complex where we all need to be pushing as hard as we can all the time to be better, faster, richer, slimmer, nicer and younger. Because that’s possible. Actually recovering requires letting some of that go – stepping a little to the side and acknowledging that you are important to you. I am important to me. Important enough to rest, to relax, to let go of the extra stuff. Important enough to do this:
- Stop when you’re tired in any way – mentally, physically or both. This requires noticing when you’re tired so if you’re one of those people who notices they’re exhausted only when they sit down, then it’s time to start sitting down every 10 minutes just to check in. Don’t tell yourself all about the things that need doing, just sit your but down and pay attention.
- Stop making excuses – we all do it. When people ask how you’re doing and you say “Busy!” with that note of eager pride it means that your life is unnecessarily cluttered up by ridiculous things. If your answer to that question is or has recently been “busy,” “hectic” or anything similar then it’s time to sit down with your schedule and get brutal about slashing things away. You don’t need to volunteer for the PTA, the neighborhood association, business networking meetings or anything else that isn’t directly your job or your family. The kids don’t need 8 extra-curricular activities to which you need to drive them. You won’t die if your house is less than perfect, if the car doesn’t get washed or the lawn doesn’t get mowed. I’m willing to bet you make time on your schedule for all kinds of people who you don’t actually want to spend your time with. Slash it all. Everything that isn’t absolutely necessary, needs to go so that you can have space to do whatever nourishes you. Here’s a great article about it called “The Busy Trap.”
- Do what nourishes you – If really what your body wants is a long soak in the bathtub, make it happen. If you’re craving that extra two hours of sleep in the morning, find a way. If you want to sit and stare at the wall for 20 minutes doing nothing, go for it. If walks in nature or journeling have always been your solace then take the time. If you loved drawing or coloring or whatever as a kid, then try that again to see if it still sparks your mind. If you want to lay on your bed and stare at the ceiling then by all means. Schedule it in if you have to, but do it – not just once. Carve out an hour a week for just you. Once you’ve got the hang of an hour a week, carve out a second hour.
- Eat nourishing food – I”ve heard the argument that “what nourishes me is a dozen krispy kremes.” Actually no, no it’s not. Granted, it’s a great drug but ultimately using a drug (alcohol, sex, pain, food, drama) to take your attention away from your own life, health, situation or healing boils down to avoidance. That doesn’t mean a good pizza and donut night is entirely out on the recovery plan, it just means that it isn’t every night or even the majority of nights. Focus on fruits and veggies and simple grains like rice. Slow cooked meals, soups and stews are great because the long-cooking essentially partially digests them so your body has less work to do. Eat foods your mom or grandmother would have made for you – chicken soup, chili, beef stew, roasted veggies, baked apples.
- Hydrate – drink lots of water, every day. Add lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt, trace minerals or electrolytes if it seems like the water goes straight through you. So many of us are chronically dehydrated all the time – get used to drinking more.
- Sleep – I don’t care what everyone else says you should get. Sleep as long as your body wants as often as your body wants. If you have to get up to go to work then do it, but sleep as much as you can. Go to bed earlier, get up later. Nap. Invest in a hammock. Just sleep.
- Emote – I’m often surprised by how much emotion comes up in every type of recovery. Even something emotionally neutral like foot surgery or a common cold. That is totally okay,, and whatever is coming up just go with it. If you need to cry, or scream, or throw things, or put on the Cure and mope a bit then get right to it. You don’t need to understand it, you don’t need to judge it, you don’t even need to attach any importance to it. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter why you feel like that, if you’re supposed to feel like that or how long you’re going to feel like that. Just let yourself feel like that. Emotions don’t make logical sense and they aren’t really supposed to. Sometimes you have to just let them happen and accept them.
- Don’t Judge – You are human. Stuff takes longer than you think it’s going to. Life isn’t what they show in movies, and it isn’t going to be. Hollywood is in no way representative of reality. Recovery takes a long time and you need more love, gentleness and care than any character John Wayne ever played. Our society loves to martyr itself – we have the work martyr, the family martyr, the achievement martyr. There are so many ways to hang yourself on that cross, but here’s the thing. Killing yourself to do more, be better, ignore your own needs or downplay your own suffering doesn’t actually help anyone at all. Nobody benefits when you burn yourself down to a nub, or when you make a bunch of judgements about actually taking care of yourself. Just let it all go and allow yourself to be human. The more you are able to take care of your own needs, the more you actually have to offer the world. There is a reason they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping those around you.
Health recovery is slow, stepwise, and can’t be skipped. Don’t fall into the trap of opening the drain at the bottom of your bucket and forgetting to close it again. You can contribute so much more to the world when you are operating at full capacity.