Dr Libby Weaver: The Invisible Load
Dr Libby Weaver explains the relationship between our mind and our body.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in country New South Wales, in Tamworth. We had chickens in the backyard and grew some of our veggies. I remember picking an orange and Mum saying things like, “Oranges are rich in vitamin C, and that helps prevent a cold.” So, the benefits of food were discussed conversationally.
I later went to university and studied communications because I loved writing. But I soon realised I only liked writing about human health, behaviour and nutrition. So, I studied psychology, then a Bachelor of Health Science in nutrition and dietetics, and finally honours and a PhD in biochemistry.
After fourteen years at uni, I started my own practice and began seeing patients. I also worked in some big health retreats. Now, I work as an author and speak at courses and events.
Do you have a special interest?
My big focus is women’s health and the effect that stress has on it. When I started my clinical work, I created a three-pillar approach to health, where I looked at everything through three lenses: nutritional, biochemical and emotional. That exposed how stress played such a massive role in constantly outputting stress hormones. Those hormones impact functions in other body systems, like digestion, our sex hormone balance and thyroid functions.
I observed that once stress hormones lowered, lots of other issues corrected themselves. Strong, robust, healthy women can help children grow up knowing they are safe and loved. The ripple effect of helping women inspires me enormously.
Why did you write The Invisible Load?
For so long, we have been told to manage stress, and that’s not working out very well for our health and quality of life. I wrote The Invisible Load because I wanted to change the conversation about stress. I wanted to get to the heart of why people make stress hormones in the first place, and how we can make fewer of them.
What is the invisible load?
It’s the mental load we carry that we don’t let anyone else see, and it’s almost like wearing a backpack that’s filled with rocks. Some of the rocks are genuine stresses happening in the world and people’s lives. But a massive amount of stress is created because of how we think. Those are the rocks we can change, and they are my main interest. We also experience a body load, or body burden. Not that long ago, the only food we ate was what we now call whole real food. Now, we also have junk food.
Our body has all the equipment to break down food, but we can’t break down some of the substances in the junk we eat or the chemicals we absorb through our skin. So, the liver has to change the structure of those things so they don’t accumulate and can be expelled.
'Detoxification' is a word that gets lots of confusing press, but it’s a function going on inside us all day, every day. Our lifestyle choices impact how effectively that happens. For our liver to change the structure of substances that could harm us, it needs many nutrients. The body load is when there aren’t enough nutrients to run all the biochemical pathways of our body.
What happens to your physical health when your mind and body are overloaded?
Your health deteriorates very gradually over time.
Because our body doesn’t have a voice, it gives us symptoms to tell us if it’s happy or not with our choices. That feedback tells us whether we need to eat, drink, move, think, breathe or believe and perceive in new ways.
At first, feedback is usually whispered and we can easily ignore it and keep going with our lives. But if we leave those whispers too long, the body will eventually scream at us. Your health can become undone, requiring you to take a break from work and consult a health professional to sort through some big stuff. My goal is to stop people needing a crisis to wake them up and make changes.
Who does the invisible load impact the most?
Men and women both have invisible loads, but they look different.
When a baby is born, someone has to care enough about them to give them food, clothing and shelter. They won’t survive otherwise. So, we unconsciously work out at a young age that we need to maintain the favour of adults in our lives to survive. As we grow up, we try out different behaviours to get their attention and foster connections. We learn to adjust ourselves to have our needs met, which contributes hugely to the development of our personality. The personality traits we take on are still quite different for men and women.
When I’ve asked women to explain how they need other people to see them, the three most common answers are kind, thoughtful and selfless. For men, a lot of the values they carry were instilled in them from their fathers. Hard-working and efficient are common answers.
In my experience, men have a bit more flexibility in handling how other people see them. Whereas women can’t bear to be thought of as unkind or selfish. That's because girls are raised to be good and prioritise the needs of others. And I want to qualify that this is a beautiful thing, because demonstrating kindness to others and creating a sense of community is what human beings thrive on. It’s necessary for us to do those things, but it’s gone too far.
I wrote a book in 2011 called Rushing Women’s Syndrome. I was fascinated by how some women could give and contribute enormously without their health suffering, but others became incredibly unwell. The most concise way I can sum up the reasons is that the women whose health didn’t suffer felt they could say no when needed. Whereas the women whose health was falling apart couldn’t bear to say no.
Doing things out of duty depletes our health and energy. But if we do things out of genuine care and we’re fully invested, we are energised. We need to discern whether our ‘yes’ is an authentic yes or driven by a desire to be seen as kind and thoughtful.
What symptoms would a woman experience if she feels overwhelmed by her load?
Digestive system complaints like irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and even reflux are very common. This is because the adrenaline we create when we’re stressed diverts the blood supply from our digestion. Instead, it's sent to our arms and legs, because that will help us in a fight-or-flight situation.
Sex hormone imbalances are also common. The biochemical pathway that creates our sex hormones is also the pathway that makes cortisol, one of our stress hormones. The hypothalamus in our brain is constantly assessing our environment, asking: Am I safe? And it looks at our blood to help answer that question. If we have high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the answer to ‘Am I safe?’ is no.
The hypothalamus then tells the pituitary gland at the base of the brain: We’re not safe. The pituitary sends that message to the thyroid, ovaries, parts of the digestive system and the adrenals. Your body starts to respond appropriately. Then, the function of the whole endocrine system eventually starts to occur.
Progesterone holds the uterus lining in place, but it’s also one of the most powerful anti-anxiety agents our body can make. Progesterone either gets converted into oestrogen, testosterone or cortisol. When our hypothalamus says ‘We’re not safe’, we produce lots of cortisol. And when we follow that chemist pathway I just described and get to progesterone, instead of holding onto progesterone to convert into sex hormones, your body converts it into cortisol.
Progesterone is supposed to be the dominant sex hormone in the second half of the menstrual cycle. If it’s not, the woman’s body either won’t ovulate but still menstruate. Or, your cycle could be late and you only make a little bit of progesterone instead of a lovely big surge.
Symptoms of low progesterone include anxious feelings and fluid retention. You also get symptoms of elevated cortisol, like a slower metabolism and increase in body fat. And your body starts to regulate blood glucose levels differently.
If you have very low progesterone and excessive oestrogen dominance in the second half of the menstrual cycle, you get painful periods, swollen and tender breasts. You can also suffer mood swings that go anywhere from irritability to intense sadness, headaches or pre-menstrual migraines. Some women also notice their sleep is compromised just before they menstruate. This is from low progesterone. What’s heartbreaking about all this is that women think they just have to put up with it, and that’s not true.
How can a woman get help?
Integrative GPs look at things very holistically, so finding one would be helpful. A degree-qualified naturopath trained as a medical herbalist can be very good at helping women regulate their cycle. They usually suggest dietary changes and medicinal herbs. And sometimes, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner or acupuncturist can be helpful.
How does our invisible load impact our kids?
Children have their own invisible load, but from an emotional maturation perspective, little humans are supposed to be egocentric. If they detect someone is unhappy in their environment, they consciously or unconsciously relate that to whatever they’ve just done. From those experiences, they create beliefs about how they must behave to receive joy. Beliefs are basically just thoughts we think over and over again, but it’s all made up in an attempt to understand our environment.
But the good news is, there isn’t a child in the world that misses out on this development phase. I’ve worked with peaceful families who have no chaos or rages at home, and it was all really pleasant. And I’ve worked out that it doesn’t matter. Children will still develop a belief that they are not good enough in some way.
Until the age of about two, we think we’re special because we haven’t formed an idea that there’s an opposite experience to that. Then, we pick up on who we are. We create meaning from interactions with other people, and by the time we’re seven (or earlier), we don’t believe we are special anymore, and we now have a void that tells us we are deficient in some way. It could be that they’re not tall enough, pretty enough, smart enough, loud enough, et cetera. And that has nothing to do with parenting.
In my work, I have seen that our voids create our values, and we use those values to contribute something worthwhile. Our values determine what we go after in life, the difference we want to make in other people’s lives, what we create or give. Some children will do magic with it, whether it’s calm or chaotic.
How can we change our outlook to better manage stress?
We need to realise not everything we think is true and learn to question our own thoughts. A psychologist named Daniel Kahneman worked out we have two thought systems, and in The Invisible Load, I call these Old Brain and New Brain. The Old Brain works unconsciously at lightning speed and generates feeling based off patterns and associations we have been creating since birth. The New Brain has the ability to apply reason and logic. But, it’s a lot slower than the Old Brain, and its use is optional. Here’s an example.
If you are at the market and see Mrs Smith, who you know, but she avoids making eye contact and walks past you. Your brain will generate feelings based on her actions.
You might think she doesn’t like you, which triggers stress, but you don’t know why. Now, you’re leaving the market feeling upset and wanting to drink a bottle of wine or eat too many chocolate biscuits. There’s information in your reaction. We need to learn to pause and ask why we feel that way.
It could be that you’re worried about Mrs Smith because your kids play together at school. If they had a fight and she’s upset at you, you think she’s questioning your parenting ability. You perceive some form of disapproval from Mrs Smith, which is a very child-like, egocentric response based on that initial need to keep favour with adults for survival.
In reality, her behaviour is almost always a reflection of what she’s experiencing. If you went around to her house and asked if she was okay, you might learn that she’s upset about something entirely different. Or, she just had a big pimple and was hoping to not run into anyone. If we don’t address Mrs Smith and find out what’s wrong, our Old Brain runs away with us, and we forget we have a New Brain that can get to the bottom of the problem. By questioning our thoughts, we can lower our stress.
How does breathing help with stress?
Breathing is one of the most magnificent tools we can use. If we watch a little baby, they breathe in through their nostrils, and their belly rises and falls as they breathe.
If you walk into a room filled with adults, most have a shallow, rapid breath that uses the upper part of their chest. That shallow style of shallow breathing drives adrenaline. If we can drop down into diaphragmatic breathing, we communicate to our body that we are safe. That means breathing through our nostrils and pushing our belly forwards, then slowly exhaling through our nostrils as our belly shrinks back towards our spine. Developing habits to routinely check in with our breath throughout the day can lower our stress levels and keep our bodies functioning healthily.
What are three ways mums can lessen their invisible load?
Take steps to eat more whole foods. Imagine there are thirty-five meals in a week—three mains and two snacks each day. If you are eating seven whole food meals out of those thirty-five right now, aim to include one more whole food meal, snack or drink each week. In two months, you’ll be at fifteen whole food meals, and you’ll have literally doubled the amount of nutrients going into your body and decreased the potentially problematic substances going in.
Reducing or taking a break from caffeine would also help. Caffeine produces adrenaline. You need to get honest with yourself about how those other drinks are impacting you and ideally reduce your intake to one per day.
Lastly, we need to let ourselves enjoy what we already have. If you talk to someone who is dying and ask them what they’re going to miss the most in the world, they will tell you the most ordinary details. They’re going to miss their partner’s face, patting their dog, or the night sky. Too often, we are focused on what’s missing. I think we need to spend more time thinking about what we already have. Let yourself watch the sunset, notice the clouds and look at the thing your child really wants to show you. Maybe not every time, but more often.