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  • Writer's pictureLaurent Notin

How Entrepreneurs Can Invest in Their Capacity To Adapt To Stress with Erik Korem

This interview is a transcript from Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code, with Erik Korem, Founder & CEO of AIM7. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Aron Clymer, Founder and CEO Data Clymer

There are many stressors in your path as an entrepreneur. Whether these are financial, relationships, physical, projects, work, or chemical, increasing your capacity to adapt to more stress with less cost is critical to your productivity and wellness.

Unexpected things will always happen in your businesses, and in such situations, you need a fuel reserve to get yourself to the next landmark. You will get stressed, overwhelmed, sick, and make poor decisions when you don't have it.

Dr. Erik Korem, the founder and CEO of AIM7 and sports scientist, shares his insights about building adaptive capacity as a business owner to improve your performance, longevity, and ability to adapt to stress.

You help people become the most healthy, resilient, and impactful version of themselves. Isn't it what entrepreneurs are supposed to be?

Yeah. But we're often not. We're often burnout versions of ourselves; look it takes, what it takes to an extent. With a tremendous amount of work and effort, things are going to pivot on a dime; there are a lot of stresses you cannot predict, so if you don't have the right processes in place, you're going to end up in the wrong spot.

How many of these entrepreneur shows have you heard of or somebody up at a hospital who had some cardiac issue, gained a lot of weight because they were coping with food or just not exercising and all these different things?

Not to say that I'm perfect by any means. There are periods when you're just slightly more tired than others, which will be normal. But if entrepreneurs don't have the capacity to adapt to stress, those stressors can debilitate them.

What is wellness?

I think wellness goes back to something called "Adaptive Capacity". If you are well, you can adapt to physical and psychological stress. When your body cannot adjust to physical and mental stress, you get burnout, injured, sick, or die. That's just the fundamental biological process.

So, if you are well, your body is coping and adapting. It fundamentally comes down to stress. Stressing itself is not a bad thing. Stress is actually the gateway to growth. If you want to improve your physical fitness, you have to engage in exercise, which is a stress on the system. If you want to learn a new skill, you have to deliberately engage in the task of learning, which causes agitation; it's a stress that drives the brain's plasticity.

The problem is when you exceed your capacity to adapt to acute or chronic stress, which happens when you get burnout. That's when you get sick. That is when you have problems.

And so, there's a term I think that would be good to anchor our conversation on: "Allostasis". Dr. Bruce McEwen was a giant in the world of neuroendocrinology. I wouldn't expect you to know who he is, but he reframed how we think about stress. Allostasis is the ability to achieve stability through change. So, your body wants to be in this state of homeostasis. Your body is striving for allostasis; you have a big stress, it wants to come back to normal.

Then there's another term called "Allostatic Load," which is the cost of stress. Every time you encounter stress, there is a cost, physical or psychological. And there are different financial, relationship, physical, and chemical stressors. And so, what you're trying to do is trying to create the capacity to adapt to more stress with less cost.

So, think about it this way: if you and I were going on a trip and we got into my car, I had to fill it with gas or petrol, right? You only have a specific size gas tank. When you run out of gas, you're out of luck. What if we could make that tank bigger and put more gas in then? Guess what? We could go farther. You'll reach your final destination as long as the car is in working order.

And what entrepreneurs need to do is to build more capacity to adapt to stress. Because there will be times when suddenly, something will happen, and you'll need a fuel reserve to get you to the next landmark. And if you don't have it, you'll get sick. You're going to get overwhelmed. You're going to make poor decisions.

How can entrepreneurs adapt to stress?

There are five pillars for building adaptive capacity. These things are in the scientific literature, and it's proven that they improve your longevity and performance as a human being and increase your ability to adapt to stress.

Now, when I tell you these things, you'll be like, well, sure. Still, there's some nuance: sleep, exercise, mental fitness, nutrition, living in a community, and fostering healthy relationships. We can go into those if you'd like, but there are certain critical thresholds you need to reach with each one.

I've heard those before, and everyone would say, yeah, of course... But so many entrepreneurs don't do it. They don't sleep well, they don't eat well, and they end up burning out. Why is it so counterintuitive to take care of oneself?

First of all, our world has changed dramatically. Most of us were doing physical jobs several hundred years ago or just a hundred years ago. So, we were getting a lot of physical activity.

Now we are in a knowledge-worker economy, earning money by thinking and creating. So that lends itself to being static or just not being ambulatory. So, we believe that if we sit there, focus, concentrate, and pound away at the keyboard all the time, we're going to create more.

The problem is the very systems that support creativity need to be nurtured. Your brain needs to be nurtured. How do you nurture your brain and expand its capacity to adapt to stress, be more plastic, and learn faster? Sleep, exercise, nutrition, and sunlight are all things that will make you more creative and a higher performer; you need to invest in them at some level. And if you don't, you will pay a prize. It's just pretty straightforward.

But I hear so many entrepreneurs telling me, yeah, I know I need to exercise. I don't have time. How can we help them change their mind?

Well, first of all, I would say don't try to fix everything at once. That's the most significant roadblock I find. People are like okay, I want to do something, and they try to do everything. You need to pick one thing to start with and get that, invest in that, and make small, tiny, little behavior changes until that is like, okay, I'm at a stable place. I'm hitting the basics; I'm doing well.

Now we have the next thing. Because the key to long-term change is not intensity, it's consistency. Does that make sense? Consistency of small things over time will create radical changes.

And so, I would say that you need to pick one of these areas, and if I were an entrepreneur, I'd say the first two things I would look at, number one, would be your sleep. This one is sacrificed consistently.

People don't realize, especially if you're a knowledge worker or an entrepreneur, that all the work you put in during the day and all the learning you try to do is cemented when you sleep. So, when you sit down and learn something, like if you have to engage in something hard, you got to write a blog or whatever, there is this sense of agitation, well that's what's called "The Sympathetic Nervous System" ramping up. That leads to increased respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure; these are all good things. It makes you more focused and alert.

During this period, the neurons used at this point are marked; when you sleep, specifically deep sleep, those neurological connections are strengthened. They enlarge in size. Other ones are selectively weakened. Tononi and Cirelli are the two scientists that demonstrated that your brain expands and contracts while you're sleeping. It's getting larger and smaller in certain areas. And so, they say that sleep is the price the brain pays for plasticity; that's number one.

Number two, sleep dramatically enhances our immune defenses. Many entrepreneurs get sick frequently because they're just so stressed out. During the day, your stress systems are turned on, enabling you to get going. Right? But at night, they are turned off or downregulated. And that is when your immune system recovers. It also is when your immune system creates "Long-term Immunological Memory". So, when it recognizes a foreign invader, it can again attack or neutralize it.

The stress hormone cortisol, which is phenomenal, is what you get a big pulse in cortisol in the morning; it wakes you up, it makes you alert. That's downregulated at night. If that's chronically elevated, you will get sick.

For men reading this, when you sleep at night, specifically rem sleep, that rapid eye movement sleep later at night, is when most of your testosterone is released. You can predict testosterone levels in older men by looking at sleep duration if you restrict yourself to five hours a night for a week.

So, every year after age 30, your testosterone naturally decreases by about one % to 2%. If you restrict sleep just for one week to about five hours a night, your testosterone decreases by 10 to 15%. You've aged yourself a decade.

There are other things like growth hormones. Growth hormone is secreted during the early parts of sleep that restores your tissues. Sleep also regulates your hunger hormones. So, if you consistently sleep less than seven hours a night, you tend to overeat up to almost 400 calories daily. So, you're going to have a hard time maintaining your weight.

Really important for entrepreneurs, especially if you're a team. Sleep helps with emotional regulation and control of your mood.

Sleep deprivation triggers imposter syndrome in my case...

No question. There's also something very interesting.

In the past 15 years, we learned that the body has a system called "The Lymphatic System" like this metabolic drainage system. Well, your brain doesn't have that. Your brain has what's called "The Glymphatic System".

And this is a recent discovery; the system is only engaged when you sleep. It flushes out metabolic waste products from your brain; one of the important ones is "Amyloid Beta." It's like a bad metabolic waste protein accumulation in the brain and is strongly related to Alzheimer's disease and Dementia.

Here's what we're finding. We are sleeping significantly less than we were a hundred years ago. The average sleep per night was around eight hours. I saw recently that Apple and the American Heart Association partnered, and they released this study tracking all these behaviors with devices and heart health. They had millions of nights of sleep, all these people wearing these wearable devices, and the average person slept six and a half hours a night. Based on the scientific literature, we need at least seven to nine.

So, think about this. We're sleeping less; we're having an incline in neurodegenerative disease. And now we know that when you sleep at night, your brain is flushing out all these metabolic toxins. If you don't get enough sleep, what's stuck in your brain?

So, you're not even able to think clearly. We could talk about so many things, but I would start with sleep. And if you're reading this, you're probably like, thank you for telling me I need to sleep more.

How do I do it? I studied how sleep impacts the brain's ability to adapt to stress. We learned about something called "The Circadian Rhythm." So, two things create our sleep-wake cycle. One is the circadian clock. It's this 24-hour rhythm, and it's an endogenous rhythm. It's wired into us but needs to be synchronized and anchored. The primary time givers are light, temperature, food, and movement. The strongest one is light.

One of the things that's happened with being an entrepreneur or just being in modern societies, we spend so much time indoors; we were not designed for that. So, when you wake up in the morning, one of the most important things you can do is literally go outside and get natural light. Even if you're in northern climates where it's very cloudy, it doesn't matter. The intensity of the light coming through the clouds is thousands of times stronger than the artificial light in your house.

It signals to every cell in your body through increasing temperature that it's time to be alert and awake. And then frequent exposure to sunlight during the day, even if it's just every couple of hours, going outside for five minutes, or walking around, increases your melatonin level at night. Hence, you're able to fall asleep faster.

So, if all you did was get up in the morning, even if you're an early riser when the sun comes up, get some sunlight, and then frequently throughout the day, walk around your block a little bit, maybe eat your lunch outside, sit next to a window, you're going to start sleeping better. Give it a few weeks.

And the last thing I would say is if the light is an alerting signal there, it's an alerting signal in the evening. So, when the sun goes down, the lights in your house should start dimming, and you need to create an environment conducive to sleep. So, your bedroom should be cold, dark, and quiet, like a cave.

If you just do these couple of things, you'll naturally want to go to bed. Now if you drink a bunch of coffee or espresso, make sure you're cutting that off by one or two o'clock because the life of caffeine is long. But if you do those couple of things, you'll start sleeping better.

Let's be practical. Let's talk about you because you're a busy startup founder trying to disrupt an industry. How do you juggle the five pillars?

That is a great question. I used to want to do all things at one time. For instance, I do jiujitsu and all these different things, and I realized I can't do all of this stuff, right?

So, I must first think about what's important to me. I'm a father and a husband, and I have three kids. My faith is crucial, and my health is very important to me and my business, right? So, let's say those four things, relationships with others, five.

So, I can't do everything excellently simultaneously, but certain things must stay intact. I have to keep my family intact. I have to keep my health intact; my faith is very important. So, I have to invest in that every day. It doesn't have to be crazy.

I got up early. I'm an early riser. I find that I go to bed by nine o clock. I put my kids down. I'm in bed sometimes at eight forty-five. I don't watch TV. Cut that out. Maybe we'll watch a little TV on the weekends, and I'm very consistent with my sleep routine.

I'm up at five to five thirty in the morning, and I go for a walk even though there's no sun. Get myself going. I invest in the things important to me right then and there; I take a cold shower, so I'm alert, spend a little spiritual time, and then get to work.

Those are sacred hours. Like nothing else in the world is really going on. If I can win the hours of six to eleven AM, I'm good because then I have my meeting with my team, and then it all hell breaks loose in the afternoon sometimes.

Let's just be honest, you got all these random things, and I'm getting better at this. I'm creating room for chaos so I don't feel stressed out. I work out in the late afternoon, and then at night, I don't feel the stress of having all these things to do.

Instead, I would go to bed early, wake up early, and feel like I have just crushed it by lunchtime. And then I walk a lot. That's how I get a lot of exercise. So, I'll take walking meetings; I try to get as much natural movement as possible.

From a health perspective, food. I make a lot of things in just batches. Chicken, batch it all up, and put it in a bin. Roast a bunch of vegetables on the weekend. White rice, and I try to keep it super simple.

I just came off a very intensive week. We are in an adventure studio, and I'm slightly tired. I didn't get to sleep like I wanted to last week. I knew it was coming, so I'm adjusting, you know, I'm getting extra sleep right now. I'm going to bed even earlier. But I also make room for those times with my kids; we're at the ballfield, and I'm around my kids all weekend. I'm spending time with them, and I'm investing with them.

Sometimes exercise is going to come down, work is going to go up, and family's going to stay in the middle. Maybe it's a period in the summer where families are at the highest, work in the middle, and exercise is the lowest, but you're still doing something.

Take all your experience, and summarize it into one practical recommendation for other entrepreneurs.

I would say invest in adaptive capacity so that you can be your best without burning out. If we were to take all of it, you've got to build capacity. If you don't, you will never get to your end destination.


Connect With Eirk Korem

Listen to the full conversation on Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneur Bottleneck.


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