Achieving and maintaining a state of homeostasis, or balance is more important for keeping your body in top physical and mental condition than you may realize.
“When you have harmony in the different areas of your life with your mind, body and spirit, you’re so much stronger. Especially in intense situations.” -Frank Shamrock
Successful athletes put their bodies through some very stressful situations. These situations designed to ensure a readiness to perform to their highest potential, when the time comes. This is especially true for MMA fighters and other combat sports athletes, who are required to compete in a specific weight division, while under threat of physical harm. It is the nature of the sport and it’s no easy feat.
Stressors that push the body to its limits such as workouts, training sessions and anything involving physical exertion, have to be counteracted internally to avoid damage and maintain activity. This is where the concept of achieving homeostasis becomes crucial. The ability to regulate the functions of homeostasis can increase performance, prevent illness and literally mean life or death in some cases.
What is Homeostasis?
Homeostasis refers to any process or reaction that the body utilizes to actively maintain a constant internal environment. These efforts to maintain balance are necessary for survival and in athletes, they are necessary for optimal performance. Here are the primary areas where homeostasis is required to restore balance for athletes:
Heat is a product of the body converting food into energy during exercise. The extra heat can cause body temperature to rise. Body temperature is also affected by external factors such as air temperature. To maintain homeostasis in a human, temperature should be around 98.6 degrees. Sweat is the body’s natural cooling system. It works when blood vessels in the skin allow more blood flow to the surface of the body where it disperses heat. The respiratory system also pitches in by allowing the body to breathe out warm air.
During physical exertion, the body needs to maintain a constant supply of oxygen in the cells to support the working muscles. This could require 15 to 25 percent more oxygen than when the muscles are in a resting state. A normal resting respiratory rate is between 60-100 bpm but can elevate significantly with exercise. This is why rapid breathing is common during a workout session. If a person’s respiratory rate is unable to adjust to fulfill the required amount of oxygen, fainting could be the result.
During a workout, muscles being used require additional oxygen. In order to make this happen, hormones are released to signal heart rate to increase. Oxygenated blood is delivered to muscles where it is needed. The range for an athlete’s normal resting heart rate can be as low as 28 to 40 beats per minute because the heart is conditioned to pump blood efficiently. People who are less active tend to have a higher resting heart rate because the heart is less conditioned.
During exercise, nutrient and energy delivery needs to be executed at an increased rate. This causes blood pressure to rise. Changes in blood pressure are routinely made to direct appropriate amounts of oxygen and nutrients to specific parts of the body. During exercise, additional oxygen needs to be supplied to skeletal muscles, so blood delivery to these muscles is increased. The blood pressure of an athlete is typically lower than that of a sedentary person.
“When I train I create serenity and I produce oxygen in my blood. It helps me to think better and relax.” -Jean Claude Van Damme
Sleep – Wake Homeostasis is based on the body’s need for rest, dependant upon factors such as time elapsed between sleep cycles, external factors such as light (circadian rhythm) and energy expenditure. Athletes often have a difficult time balancing homeostatic drive for sleep. This is the result of the body’s need for rest after exertion. Naps during the middle of the day, and traveling into different time zones are factors that can throw off sleep cycles, resulting in poor performance. Sleep is crucial for optimal athletic performance.
The body requires water to maintain normal temperature and blood volume. The average adult human body is 50-65% water and depends on that make-up to activate survival tactics when things get tough. This is one of the reasons dehydration methods for making weight in combat sports has become more regulated. Decreasing fluid intake can also decrease blood volume. This can cause the body to overheat. It can also impair muscle strength and endurance. And ultimately, decreased alertness during crucial moments.
Blood Glucose Levels
Energy exertion during a workout can cause blood glucose levels to drop. The body then breaks down carbohydrates into glucose to send energy where it is needed. This glucose is the “fuel” needed so that fighters don’t “gas” (AKA – get extremely fatigued) inside the cage. Making sure the right nutrients are being put in the body will help to maintain a state of homeostasis.
When Homeostasis Fails in MMA:
Is there a situation where homeostasis is unattainable? Yes. Sadly there are a number of examples in the MMA community where the inability to achieve homeostasis has resulted in poor performance, injury or death.
Weight-cutting can be the perfect nightmare for a body trying to remain in balance. Calorie deficits deny adequate glucose production to supply energy. Fluids are intentionally depleted, causing the body difficulty or inability to regulate temperature. Blood is thickened, which slows the rate at which oxygen-rich blood cells can be delivered to muscles in need. When the body is malnourished and unable to balance, it becomes more susceptible to injuries. This lack of homeostasis has essentially been attributed to the few deaths that have been reported due to poor weight cutting.
“I don’t think that the cutting weight process is ever going to be perfect, but I don’t care what level you fight on, no fight is worth dying over. If you can’t make the weight, don’t take the fight.” -Dana White (UFC President)
In 2016, the California Athletic Commission implemented strict weight cutting monitoring procedures to ensure the safety of competitors. MMA fighters must be weighed the week of the competition and be within 8% of their target weight. This is to discourage extreme fluid depletion. Temperature, blood pressure and heart rate (all crucial to homeostasis) are also recorded to monitor for changes. Other states are starting to implement similar measures.
Hyperhydration (overhydration) can also be a concern during the weight-cutting process if competitors are initially “water-loading” to induce increased urination and detoxing of the body. This can result in weakness, confusion, irritation and even seizures.
MMA fighters and other athletes are not the only demographic that should be concerned with homeostasis. Both heat stroke and hypothermia are results of the inability of the body to regulate temperature in extreme situations. The inability to restore balance can also result in a compromised immune system amongst other issues.
Potentially Beneficial Ways to Improve Homeostasis
The body typically does a good job of regulating itself and obtaining homeostasis. General health is crucial to the proper function of all the body’s various systems, though there are specific factors involved in leading a healthy lifestyle that could give the process a boost.
Mood-Boosting Hormone Release
Muscles are typically going to be sore for those pushing themselves during workout or practice. Massage therapy does more than just relax muscles. The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, nerves and their small nerve endings. This system works with the endocrine system that regulates all the functions of the entire body by releasing hormones that produce a physical response to achieve homeostasis. Some of the effects of massage include dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and decreased cortisol.
If you have no idea what that is, you are not alone. The Hypothalamus is the part of the brain that regulates homeostasis and links the endocrine and nervous system. This is accomplished by producing, releasing and inhibiting hormones, which stop and start the production of other hormones throughout the body.
The hypothalamus contains cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids such as CBD bind to these receptors and help to regulate homeostasis.
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Maintaining a sufficient level of hydration is crucial for optimizing performance. This is because adequate hydration keeps many of the body’s systems moving, allowing for adequate blood flow and nutrient distribution. Without this, the body essentially slows down and refuses to cooperate.
Food intake is also crucial. Glucose is a necessity for energy production. They type of nutrition provided determines how efficiently the body can work. Burning off glucose reserve in an intense workout without replacing it, will result in instability within the body’s systems.
Quality, quantity and timing are all important when it comes to sleep homeostasis. Keeping your sleep schedule consistent is beneficial as is reducing the amount of blue light emitted around the time you should be sleeping. Electronics such as laptops, computers, phones, etc emit blue light, which suppresses melatonin. Sleep-wake cycles are regulated by the hormone, melatonin. During the day blue light can be beneficial, but at night it can disrupt homeostasis.
Balance in the Big Picture
Keeping balance in your life is critical to overall health and wellness. If you find yourself feeling “off”, it is likely because something is out of balance. Take time to assess your situation and attempt to determine where you are lacking harmony. Homeostasis can be achieved- it is your time to decide.