As a missionary, I’ve noticed that one of the things we don’t talk about too often on the mission field is our bodies. We think about them all the time in terms of things like, “Is Africa making me fat?” or “Do I have a tapeworm?” or “I wonder what kept me up on the toilet all night long.” But rarely as missionaries do we have a high value for taking care of our bodies because we’re too busy trying to take care of everyone else.
Some people overseas seem to feel they earn gold stars based on how much abuse they’ve inflicted on their bodies to “sacrifice” for the cause. We say things like, “I haven’t showered in five days,” or “Well, I’ve only eaten posho and bugs” as though we’ll gain more street cred. Often, we mistakenly link self abuse to holiness as though it is some kind of contest for who can earn the title of “most miserable.” We buy into the lie that self-victimization means we’re more serious about our calling.
I was guilty of this myself. Or maybe deep down we believe the lie that God will be more pleased with us the more hardship we endure. The truth is God is already pleased with you.
It’s not just the mission field either. Stress is at an all-time high in Western society, particularly in the United States. A poll of 1,000 adults showed that 57 percent of Americans are stressed about politics, terrorist attacks and economic anxiety. In another study, stress levels were found to be up from 18 percent in 2015 to 24 percent in 2016, with people reporting they were “highly stressed.”
Over the years, I forced my body to endure extreme stress and malnutrition and ended up with candida albicans—a fungal infection—of the gut from all the antibiotics I was on from various diseases. I had chronic joint pain which is linked to candida. I also developed adrenal fatigue and thyroid issues because I didn’t understand the long-term effects of my lack of self-care.
I now have new perspective. Harming ourselves in this way is a kind of false humility we use to garner the world’s approval. But deep down all it really is, is pride. I believe God wants us to take care of our bodies. Our bodies are His temple and the more we take care of them, the healthier we will be to do His work. And yet so often as missionaries our bodies come in last. The result of this is that many are developing things like adrenal fatigue which can speed up how stress degrades things like your cardiovascular health, digestive system and your cellular regeneration.
Adrenal fatigue is no joke.
The adrenal glands produce many hormones that regulate our body’s functioning, including cortisol, a hormone activated when our stress levels rise, telling our body to enter a heightened state of emergency. When cortisol levels remain elevated it disrupts immune function, sleep, blood sugar and the thyroid which can lead to extreme exhaustion. You might feel guilty because you feel exhausted all the time, but perhaps there is something deeper going on.
Some signs of adrenal fatigue include body aches, depression, irritability, inability to lose weight despite exercise and the need for stimulants like caffeine to get going in the morning. You can test for adrenal fatigue through saliva cortisol tests and I highly recommend this for people on and transitioning off the field. It can take a while to recover from adrenal fatigue and it will require lifestyle changes and a reduction of your stress to do it.
It’s been three years, but after a lot of commitment I’m finally recovering from my health issues and living a fuller life in the Kingdom.
Some ways to recover:
Rest when you feel tired as much as possible. Sleep 8–10 hours a night. Try to keep a normal sleep schedule. Laugh and do something fun every day. Minimize work and relational stress. Eat smaller, more frequent meals on a regular food cycle, and reduce your caffeine and sugar addiction. Heal your gut. Exercise (even moderate exercise like yoga/pilates and walking can help). Avoid negative self-talk.
Take time for yourself—that could include doing something relaxing like journaling. Seek counsel or support for any painful experiences.
You can also purchase supplements to help restore your hormones into balance.
I believe that God can heal us from any of these issues. But I also believe He’s given us wisdom and tools to help us heal ourselves. The reality is we are made up of body, soul and spirit, created in God’s image as Triune beings.
Each part is equally important. If you abuse your body eventually it will affect the other areas of your life. For example, poor gut health is linked to depression and anxiety. All these things affect our connection to Father God and our effectiveness to do His work.
How are we going to spread God’s message of health, love, joy and freedom to the rest of the world if we are exhausted and aren’t modeling it in our own lives? It’s time we start taking care of all the aspects of our being, including our bodies. We will be able to serve our communities better with more energy and love if we spend a little effort on ourselves.
A version of this article originally appeared on http://www.saritahartz.com/. Used with permission.