Throughout Selye’s book, “The Stress of Life,” he refers to a type of “energy reserve” with which each person is born. This so-called “Adaptive Energy” serves as a reservoir that can support and adapt to whatever life’s daily wear and tear from stress may bring – individually-speaking, of course. He places a theoretical limit on this reserve, “It is thought, at birth, each individual inherited a certain amount of adaptation energy, the magnitude of which is determined by his genetic background, his parents. He can draw upon this capital thriftily for a long but monotonously uneventful existence, or he can spend it lavishly in the course of a stressful, intense, but perhaps more colorful and exciting life. In any case, there is just so much of it, and he must budget accordingly.”
When I first came across this only 65 pages into his 306-page book, I had my eyebrow raised in intriguing fashion with this new, yet familiar perspective. As I read further about his General Adaptation Syndrome theory, his experiments with stress hormones, and the removal of organs or glands to “fix” a stress-related disease I began to question if his hypothesized limit for Adaptation Energy really held ground because, and I may be bold here, the scientific solutions of his lab-based experimental problems were merely fixing the symptoms, not the cause. He focused on the internal responses and symptoms of stress-induction. His mechanisms to support his theory were rather limited because he had to prove that stress was a real thing and that it had a physiological effect on the body via specific stressors. While he was successful in proving his theory, there are many grey areas that can be found between the fine lines.
Now would be a good time to provide his definition of Adaptation Energy: “The energy necessary to acquire and maintain adaptation, apart from caloric requirements.” The ending is what has me pump the brakes on the limits of Adaptation Energy. If we were to run off of absolutely zero caloric energy, we would die. Yes, we can fast (go without food and live solely on water) for an extraordinary amount of days, but it is my understanding that this can only be done with a well-rounded reserve of nutrients, glycogen stores, muscle tissue, and fat stores; that is, a reserve of energy stored and then converted from calories. In a state of caloric deficiency (aka stress), the body will release stress hormones which can tap into stored “energy” to maintain life (adrenaline to use up stored sugar/glycogen in the liver and muscles, and cortisol to convert muscle tissue/proteins/amino acids into sugar). So what if we didn’t have those foundational stores? What if the caloric energy was comprised of non-nutritious foods that created more of a stress environment? What about external factors such as climate, relationships, personal happiness? How is energy created if there’s nothing to create it?
I do back the theory of Adaptation Energy as a form of reserve energy which the body can tap into in times of [great or average] need via stressful situations (dietary, exercise, emotional, mental, etc.). However, I do not full buy into the concept of a defined limit with which we are born and must “use wisely” throughout our lifetime because once it’s gone then sayonara life. The body is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant machine, so-to-speak, in the sense that it has the power to rejuvenate and recover itself under the most wild circumstances because of its ability to, in the words of Gunny Highway, “improvise, adapt, and overcome.” But those very mechanisms it uses to adapt to such situations are ever-so precious and must be built upon a sturdy foundation to take on anything – that foundation, as I see it in my current understanding of health, is a combination of hydration, nutrition, rest, and mental strength. I wish it were as simple to say it’s just caloric energy, but that would overlook the incredible importance of sleep and mentality; how creating energy is parallel with expending energy (yin and yang) and the mind-body connection, respectively.
Selye does come around at the end of the book to chalk one up to possibility, “Still, we have not fully excluded the possibility that adaptation energy could be regenerated to some extent, and perhaps even transmitted from one living being to another…” Given his theories were published in 1956 and new perspectives have since developed, it doesn’t write off the fact that Seyle was onto something universally important and has left a solid foundation for understanding the mechanisms of stress, wear and tear on the body, disease, and possible underlying causes.
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