Stress, mind and the body.
No-one bangs on about how much they love stress, that they feel pumped after leaving a bill or work deadline to the last minute. Yet here we are allowing our minds and bodies be taken over by this devilish body function.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to both good and bad experiences that can be beneficial to your health and safety. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones and increasing your heart and breathing rates. Your brain gets more oxygen, giving you an edge in responding to a problem. In the short term, stress helps you cope with tough situations.
In the long term? Stress can be the bad guy and cause high levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline, both produced by our adrenal glands (located adjacent to our kidneys) and can decrease white blood cells, causing a lowered immune system.
When stress is chronically high and the adrenal glands continue to pump cortisol and adrenaline, our “non-critical” functions are inhibited – things like digestion, liver metabolism and detoxification, cellular repair, immune function, and reproduction.
If your goal is to get stronger, faster and/or fitter, along with gaining muscle and losing body fat, then stress is your number one inhibitor. Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase blood sugar levels, which then elevate insulin levels. This, among other things, will stop you from burning fat no matter what exercise or diet program you follow.
It’s not just your hormones that suffer. Our mental state also deteriorates, having us reaching for anything to relive the stress….smoking, drinking alcohol, eating sugary foods. You’ve probably felt how fast your heartbeat can get during stressful situations before. What’s really interesting about this is that your fast heartbeat actually send a signal to your brains prefrontal cortex part that handles thought processing and decision making. The signal tells this part of your brain to shut down temporarily and let your midbrain take over. When we’re in this state, instinct and training take over from rational thought and reasoning.
There are many chronic stressors in today’s society including mental/emotional stress, food sensitivities, blood sugar imbalances, infections (i.e. parasitic, bacterial), excessive exercise… basically anything that is a perceived stress on the body.
So how can we keep this at bay and swing a positive on it?
There are two brain functions that categorise our activity:
Sympathetic activity – which is often called “fight or flight” activity
Parasympathetic activity – which is often called “rest and digest” activity.
As you can imagine, most of us tend to be much too “sympathetic.” It might be our jobs, our homes, our bills, our relationships, traffic, or any other stressor that throws us into a “fight or flight” state.
When we think of relieving stress through exercise, we usually turn to a high intensity workout or go for a long run. These type of session release more cortisol in our bloodstream causing our bodies to go into a further state of stress.
Stress is, specifically, a sympathetic nervous system response to mental, physical, etc. challenges in life.
Therefore, when “stressed” we’re really experiencing a sympathetic overload which manifests in a high heart rate, an abundant cortisol release by the body, and high concentrations of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) in the blood. As a result of this, when people have lots of “outside” stress in their lives, doing more high intensity exercise (which is actually another major stressor, leading to the same effects – high heart rate, cortisol release,) is never the prescription.
So, in essence, the prescription for dealing with stress isn’t more stress in the gym.
Whilst a baseline of high intensity exercise is okay during periods of high stress, balancing this plan out with parasympathetic activity is paramount.
Parasympathetic activity includes: meditation, meditative yoga, low intensity cardio activity, etc.
The “ultimate stress busting workout” for the average person would be 2-3 days per week of strength and/or interval exercise and 2-3 days per week of low intensity activity such as walking, bike riding, meditative yoga, etc.
Its not always stress itself that causes fat gain. So don’t sweat it if you think that by toning down your exercise routine, you will gain weight or lose any gains in the gym.
For example, when stressed, night time cortisol levels are high. When this occurs, it’s very difficult to get to sleep. When folks aren’t sleeping they end up eating more during the day and eating more processed/sugary carbohydrates.
In addition, during stressful periods, folks typically miss out on meals because they’re busy and because their hormonal status blunts hunger. However, unfortunately, because they skip meals during the day, they end up binging – again on high sugar/processed foods.
So it’s this combination of no sleep, no hunger, carb cravings, and binging that brings on the weight gain.
Nutrition is key for kicking the stress. I touched on food causing stress earlier. This can be through food allergies or eating too much/too little.
The hard-working gut allows nutrients and water to enter the body while preventing the entry of toxins/antigens. It’s a selective barrier between “us” and the outside world. But a distressed gut can’t act in our defense. Instead, it allows dangerous compounds to enter the body.
That’s where nutrition can come in. The right diet strengthens the gut in its guardian role, improving overall health and well-being.
If we looked at someone who is highly stressed insides, we might see that their markers of inflammation are elevated. We might see that their connective tissues aren’t healing. We might see their happy neurotransmitters and anabolic hormones going down and their catabolic hormones such as cortisol going up.
If you are someone who is eating when stressed, reaching for the cookie jar or a glass of wine, you will be loading your body wih sugar and putting yourself under even more stress and risk of illness.
The number one stress culprit is sugar.
Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. So part of our stress-induced craving for those foods may be that they counteract stress.
Of course, overeating isn't the only stress-related behavior that can add pounds. Stressed people lose sleep, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, all of which can contribute to becoming overweight.
The ideal diet for anyone, but especially for people under stress, consists of nutrient-dense whole foods. Under stress, you may crave a sugary doughnut for breakfast, but your body will quickly digest the refined carbohydrates and fat, leaving you hungry again and reaching for more of the same. In a whole-foods diet, the foods you choose – fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, legumes, nuts and seeds – supply the nutrients needed to help you avoid weight gain. For example, a vegetable omelet or Greek yogurt with berries for breakfast provides protein and fiber that create longer-lasting satiety so you don’t overeat.
How you eat is also important for stress and weight control. When you’re stressed, you may skip a meal and then find yourself bingeing later. Having regular meals and snacks throughout the day regulates your cortisol levels and your blood sugar so you don’t reach for unhealthy “pick-me-ups” like candy and soda.
The fat cells in your abdominal region are hypersensitive to cortisol, so too much stress may increase belly fat and put you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders.
Conquer stress in the body and mind
Stress management techniques are endless and can vary per individual. Options such as mediation, deep breathing, yoga, guided imagery, and behavioral distraction are all options. This can be a difficult task to undertake right away, but start small. Focus on just one minute a day of guided meditation and keep increasing it daily until you reach thirty minutes of mediation per day.
On top of active stress management, we need to make sure that our lifestyles are not increasing our stress levels. Make sure you are sleeping seven to nine hours in a completely blacked out room.
We also need to be eating a nourishing diet that is high in nutrients. This does not include processed foods. Eating more nutrient-dense meats, fish, eggs, fruits, and vegetables can give our bodies what they need to fight the chronic stress we are under.
Taking a step back and looking at all the areas of your life and determining what areas need work can go a long way to achieving optimal health. Address those weak spots by focusing hard on them for thirty days and see the results that come about. I am willing to bet you will not be disappointed.