Understanding Allostasis: 12 Ways to Change Your Set-Point

We can change our health set-points for good using the principles of allostasis.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

This blog post is part 2 of 3 in a series on allostasis. You can read part 1 here.

Part 1 of this series describes six principles of allostasis that are helpful for gaining a more holistic and accurate understanding of how our brain-body system recovers, maintains, and improves health. Unlike outdated mechanistic ideas that suggest health is achieved by maintaining a homeostatic equilibrium (balance), allostasis is grounded in the recognition that stable health is achieved through anticipatory adaptation to our ever-changing internal and external environments. The brain seeks and achieves optimal functioning through its ability to anticipate, learn, change, and communicate across all brain-body systems moment-to-moment, day-by-day.1 

Jamie Street/Unsplash
Source: Jamie Street/Unsplash

This brain-body system of ours is smart. It can learn, recall, and apply new information after even one experience. During one night of snacking, for example, your pancreas responds to the midnight snack by releasing insulin that in turn communicates with multiple organs and hormones to manage food intake. Your smart system remembers this and it releases a bit of insulin and other hormones the next night around the same time in anticipation of another midnight snack. Sensing that, you might wake up, feel the desire to snack, and so the cycle builds.

Over time, your brain-body adjusts to handle the influx of calories and little by little this smart system develops a new set-point (more like a set range), higher than its previous range. If blood glucose is consistently elevated from insulin release, the receptors anticipate this and attempt to down-regulate. This reduced sensitivity can lead to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes. The system is persistent in its efforts to be efficient so the range of fluctuation changes, narrows and the average “set-point” is altered. 

So, how do we change our health set-points?  

Changing our set-points is challenging but possible. It is often gradual and frequently includes plateaus followed by periods of improvement. (Remember to think of expanding your range of adaptability versus a narrow set-point).

Here are 12 simple ways to begin changing your health set-point:

1. Cultivate radical self-love and acceptance. Acceptance is not justification, excuses, or self-deception; it is accepting you: flawed—and also whole. Acceptance of yourself without shame or blame sets the stage for productive change. You are not a label, category, or diagnosis, but exist on the continuum with the rest of us. You are not good or bad, sick or well, but on the continuum: you are alive. Practice guided self-compassion with Kristin Neff here

2. Create a daily rhythm. Rhythm can give structure and flow to your day and teaches your brain-body what it can anticipate and when—which it loves.2 Use behavioral anchors throughout the day leaving less room for old habits to hijack your goals. Not sure where to start? Wake up the same time every day, practice low and slow breathing for 20 minutes, and eat breakfast around the same time each day. Gradually place more anchors in your day to allow healthy rhythms to take root with more ease and less friction.

Dustin Scarpitti/Unsplash
Source: Dustin Scarpitti/Unsplash

3. Stop dieting for good. Restricting food too much is threatening to the brain and can increase its stress response driving hunger all the more. Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules, states simply, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” He avoids dieting dogma and reminds us to eat whole foods (less processed), eat seasonal foods when possible (aligning with nature’s rhythms), and understand where our food comes from (giving it context).

4. Want little, need even less. Decide right now you have enough; enough time, stuff, space, energy, skill, achievements, and importance. Trust that you already have everything you need to move forward with what you want to do. 

5. Spend more time in nature. Go outside more often even if it means trading time at the gym for a walk, bike, swim, or time gardening. Although nature is often overlooked for its healing capacity, Western medicine has more recently tapped back into the power of ecotherapy to enhance health. A natural window view can improve recovery after surgery, animal therapy reduces agitation or anxiety, and time outdoors increases attention span.3

6. Try something new and work hard for it. Our brain’s pleasure centers respond more positively (with increased dopamine) when it’s had to work hard for an achievement. As Angela Duckworth describes in Grit (2016), trying new things expands not only our skills and talents but our mental and emotional capacities as well. Try a new musical instrument, sport, craft, social group, language, art, or flavor; cook something new, get a pet, or learn to build something. Choose one hard thing and dedicate yourself to it for one year.

7. Lean into discomfort. When difficult things arrive (as they do), lean into the discomfort rather than following the natural instinct to pull away. Pema Chodron asks: Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying it make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?

8. Fail often. Failure may have a bad reputation, but it is where we learn, grow, and build the courage to take risks that expand our range of possibilities. Take full responsibility for a failure as a normal part of life and an extraordinary part of building self-respect.

9. Be curious and explore the unfamiliar. Adventure and inquisitiveness keep us mentally agile and resilient beyond prejudice and pettiness. Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence… It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” 

Nattu Adnan/Unsplash
Source: Nattu Adnan/Unsplash

10. Feel all of your emotions. We are designed to feel a range of emotions that include sadness, disappointment, anger, and joy without obligation to subscribe heavily to one in particular. Emotions come and go. Author Anne Lamott speaks to more durable joy as an inside job—where all the real work begins. Research consistently debunks the idea that happiness is something that we can purchase. (Read about "Debunking Myths of Happiness.") 

11. Find something bigger to care about. What do you hold sacred? Scholar Andrew Harvey suggests finding this out by asking, “What breaks your heart?” The answer guides us toward our bliss as we align our daily work with our deepest values.  

12. Let go and play. The less we are tied to outcomes the more freely we can engage in the process. This reduces anxiety about how things will turn out. We can connect differently to the moment and savor what is happening as we open to curiosity, rhythm, and joy. 

Part 3 of this series will address how allostasis applies to society. Can society change its set-points?

References

1.  Sterling, Peter. (2012). Allostasis: A Model of Predictive Regulation. Physiology & behavior. 106. 5-15. 10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.06.004.

2. Foster, R. G., & Kreitzman, L. (2004). Rhythms of life: The biological clocks that control the daily lives of every living thing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

3. Song, C., Ikei, H., & Miyazaki, Y. (2016). Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(8), 781. doi:10.3390/ijerph13080781