For years doctors have been telling us how important it is for us to manage our stress. But not many people take that as seriously as they should outside of those facing serious cardiac repercussions.
What if part of your struggle with weight loss is due to stress? Or what if you could perform better athletically if it weren't due to your stress?
You probably already know that cortisol is our fight or flight response hormone. We can think of it very simply: as cavemen, cortisol was the hormone that told us if we should fight in the face of a predator or run away. Cortisol is also a glucocorticoid (glucose + cortex +steroid) hormone released by the adrenal cortex. When it's released, it enhances glucose availability to be used as energy for muscles in a flight scenario. The goal is to survive the stress and our body essentially goes into shut down mode with the sole purpose of providing glucose (energy). When the stress is gone, cortisol levels return back to normal and so do the metabolic processes in our body.
But what happens if these stressors become a regular occurrence?
When you think about it, it would seem like insulin and cortisol would balance each other out. As insulin levels increase, the body stores energy as glycogen and fat. When cortisol is released, the body releases those energy stores as readily available glucose. But when cortisol levels remain high due to our much more complex lives (work problems, arguments, traffic, poor sleep quality, etc) glucose remains high and there is no downtime from the stressor causing cortisol release. As glucose levels remain high and insulin is released in response, leading to weight gain. In fact, studies show that increasing cortisol not only increases the release of insulin, but can lead to insulin resistance.
For athletes and those not struggling with excess body fat, high levels of cortisol can mean that you're doing more harm than good during your training sessions. As cortisol is released Ito the body, the body releases glucose for energy needs as mentioned. But it will also cause gluconeogenesis - breaking down protein into glucose. This means you're breaking down the muscle you've worked so hard for because of too much stress. This becomes worse as your body released more cortisol as you workout - a normal response, but your body is under further stress in this condition.
While this may not lead to weight gain, it can lead to overtraining and feeling like crap in general. Not only will you feel poor during workouts, your recovery will decline, you'll stop seeing progress, and you may even start to move backwards in your training. This is why rest and recovery, in addition to proper nutrition, become so important in the athletic field.
We're never going to get rid of all the stressors in our modern lives, but here's a good place to start:
- Set your body up for success with proper nutrition. Eating junk makes you body work much harder to maintain the status quo, especially in your gut. Treat it well, lower inflammation, and keep your digestive tract healthy.
- Make sleep a priority. This should really be number one on the list. Everyone is go-go-go and we all have a million tasks to complete each day. However, a single night of sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels by more than 100 percent. And in a study conducted on healthy volunteers reducing their sleep to 4 hours per night, their insulin sensitivity decreased 40 percent, and after five days of sleep restriction, their insulin secretion increased 20 percent. Ever feel like you gain weight when you're not sleeping well? You can thank cortisol and insulin for this.
You should be aiming to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Keep regular sleeping hours, where you sleep in complete darkness (ditch the electronics in the bedroom) and see sunlight as soon as you wake in the morning.
- Reduce stress levels as best possible. Regularly exercising is a good way to reduce stress as it releases endorphins and improves mood. Set aside time for social connectivity. We're social creatures and being part of a group or community is essential for our mental health. Incorporate mindful meditation into your schedule. It might seem silly, but mediation alleviates stress by allowing us to be present in the moment. Taking anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes per day to sit and meditate, reflect on your day, and work through your thoughts and stress can not only help reduce stress levels, but studies on mindfulness intervention show that participants using yoga, meditations and group discussions successfully reduced cortisol levels and abdominal fat.