"Work" and "stress"
2 words that, when in the same sentence, can be either very positive or terribly negative.
Let’s examine, shall we?
When Bobby lifts, he works his muscles in a way that places stress on them, thus promoting consistent progression in muscle growth.
Acute, mechanical stress causes muscle growth and development-- muscle growth/development is good!!
After a busy day at work filled with meetings and overdue projects, Bobby felt very stressed.
Chronic, emotional stress causes mood swings, fatigue, muscle loss, fat gain, and plenty more-- I think we know where I’m going with this one- mood swings, fatigue, muscle loss... all bad!
While the topic of that “good” and healthy, muscle-building stress has been touched on through other posts here in the past, the “bad” and unhealthy, muscle-destroying type has not, and it is this type that we need to learn more about before we start ruining our gainz!
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural defense against danger. When activated, it flushes the body with a hormone called cortisol (as well as other chemicals such as adrenaline) and the “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in, preparing us to either stay and fight or get the heck away as fast as possible!
In short, our body is always looking out for us- trying to keep us safe. This is great, and small spikes of cortisol can be plenty healthy and positive, unless we trigger that reaction too often...
The Two Sides of Cortisol
As just mentioned, cortisol is the “stress hormone”. It is a catabolic hormone, this means it breaks down energy sources such as glycogen, fat, and protein (whereas anabolic hormones build those energy sources up). When the body's functioning normally, it likes to break down carbohydrates (glycogen) first for energy, however, when high amounts of cortisol are released, the order is reversed and protein gets broken down initially.
This breakdown of muscle-building proteins can be a bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast’s worst nightmare. Consistently releasing cortisol can mean all your hard work in the gym is going to nothing, and strength/progress can quickly plateau.
As your body burns up protein, it stores fat and carbohydrates to “help you” for when you need energy most. It’s important to remember that, while we may think our world revolves around our weight training sessions and strength/muscular gains, our bodies have different thought processes and care very little about our aesthetic and strength goals. Their main focus is to protect us and, when cortisol hits the bloodstream, the body’s idea of protection is clinging onto prime energy sources (carbs/fats) to help combat whatever threat is coming at it.
It’s a sweet thought, and in the perfect situations, it is supremely helpful; however, if you’re someone with a lot of stressors in your life, this “protection” does more harm than good.
You can think of cortisol as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It has this dark, “evil” side that stores fat and shrinks muscle. When it is chronically elevated, it become destructive and works against us. However, in the right situations, it is beneficial and required for optimal health, and it can actually burn fat! The key is the situation has to be just right, and “just right” means having acute stress (like exercise) as opposed to chronic stress (like work stress).
Chronic, or ongoing, stress leads to chronically high cortisol levels. This is bad-news-bears for a number of reasons, the top ones being your fat stores, sleep, and muscle recovery.
Chronic Stress & NPY
By this point, you probably are drawing the conclusion that lots of stress=lots of cortisol and lots of cortisol=less muscle, more fat, and you’re on the right track, but there’s a few other factors that play into those equations. Those are catecholamines and NPY (Neuropeptide Y).
Catecholamines are other hormones produced by the adrenal glands. These hormones are released when you are under acute stress and work WITH cortisol to help you burn fat (catecholamines are part of that “just right situation” talked about above).
However, NPY does just the opposite. NPY stimulates appetite (particularly for carbohydrates) and has a fat-storing ability which, when mixed with high levels of cortisol, makes the body becomes even more responsive to that action. As a result of the increased levels of NPY, a disruption in the catecholamine release takes place (so, goodbye fat-burning, hello fat-storing).
Add poor sleep into all of this, and now you’re really cooking with the fire to burn away muscle and increase fat.
Chronic Stress & Sleep
Have you ever heard of the saying “lose sleep over it”? Well, that saying holds truth to it! When you’re stressed about something, it makes good, healthy, & deep REM sleep harder to come by. This is why chronically stressed people have poorer quality of sleep and find it more difficult to function well during the day. Lack of sleep then generates MORE stress, and before you know it, you’re caught in the messy web of chronic stress and poor sleep.
This is because the brain chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same ones that tell the body to stop cortisol production. Without deep sleep signaling a shut off, the cortisol keeps flowing. As a result, the next day you feel more stressed. The next night, you find it harder to fall asleep, your body keeps increasing levels of cortisol, and so the cycle continues. If you don’t sleep enough at night (which many Americans don’t…) your cortisol levels can boost up anywhere from 37-45%! This increase can seriously threaten your muscle development and send you spiraling into the world of messy, stress-related health risks-- such as impaired muscle recovery.
Chronic Stress & Recovery
As we talked about in the beginning of this post, acute (mechanical) stress, such as exercise, triggers changes to make the body stronger. However, chronic stress impairs your body’s ability to respond to acute stress, therefore weakening it's power to become stronger, better, and faster.
In fact, a Yale study of college-aged, weight-training students with varying stress levels demonstrated just that. The study found that after a strenuous leg workout, the group with the lowest stress levels regained 60% of their leg strength back after 60 minutes, whereas the high-stress group had only regained 38%. As well, after 24 hours, the more-stressed students felt more tired and sore than those with less stress.
This is because of cortisol’s relationship with the body’s rate of repair. Simply put, the inflammatory signals necessary for for recovery and adaptation are dysregulated by chronic stress.
Managing Cortisol Levels
No matter how strong or how fit you are, high cortisol levels caused by chronic stress can still wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. Learning to manage cortisol/stress on a daily basis is key to keeping your well-being in-check, and paying attention to your lifestyle, diet, and exercise are three of the best ways to do so.
Find as many opportunities as possible in your everyday lifestyle to prioritize some R&R activities. These include getting an adequate amount of sleep every night, practicing meditation and/or yoga, stretching, foam rolling, laughing, taking leisure walks (preferably in nature), taking naps, spending time with friends/loved ones, spending time with pets, partaking regularly in tai chi, listening to relaxing music, taking hot baths, getting massages, and practicing deep breathing to name a few.
All of these activities have application in lowering cortisol.
Your diet can influence cortisol for better or for worse. From the foods you eat to the timing of your eating, a few small changes can help ensure your levels stay right where you need them.
I think it’s rather obvious that natural, “clean” foods leave you feeling better post-consumption than something fatty, processed, and/or packed with sugar. It’s the reason why a healthy, home-cooked meal sits better after the fact than a large, carb-packed and butter-filled fast food dinner or entrée out. This is because the body releases more cortisol as a result of sugar, trans fat, low fiber, alcohol, and caffeine (that list goes on but I’ll cut it there for now). Regular, high intakes of these will, in turn, keep cortisol levels elevated.
However, not all foods trigger this reaction. Natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, and clean-sourced protein, as well as green and black tea and water, actually benefit your cortisol levels and keep spikes at bay.
As well, your eating frequency (or timing of meals/eating) should be observed in your attempts to manage cortisol. This is important as not eating frequently enough can raise levels. Skipping meals sets off an alarm in the body which can cause blood sugar changes that create a cortisol response. Remember when I said our bodies are always trying to “look out for” and “protect” us? Well, that’s what’s happening when your body senses it is losing out on fuel (aka food). Your body increases cortisol in order to stimulate glycolysis or gluconeogenesis and provide you energy for whatever you’re doing.
While every person is different and there is no “right” amount of meals or calories every one of us should be consuming, every person CAN be on the same page with honing in on his/her hunger, energy, and cravings. Do frequent self-checks on these 3 to avoid a meal-skipping cortisol disaster. If your “HEC” is in check, then your cortisol levels likely are as well.
Short, intense exercise, exercise that is weight-training dominant, or slow, relaxing exercises are best for cortisol.
In the case of short & intense and weight-training dominant, these types of exercise elevate cortisol while also raising growth hormone and the catecholamines-- this means fat burning! As well, when working with the short duration, it is less likely your body will go catabolic.
Relaxation style exercises such as yoga and deep breathing should also be tossed into your weekly, exercise regimen to control cortisol. These teach you to control your respirations and stress levels.
As well, following up any workout with slow, relaxing movements is another great way to lower cortisol. Slow, leisure walking has been shown as one of the best approaches.
While this should never be your go-to, I did still want to mention it. There are natural supplements out there to reduce cortisol levels.
Again, these should NOT be your first approach as just taking supplements alone may not be enough and is actually more like a “slap a bandaid on it” type of solution to a bigger issue, but when paired with the correct dietary and lifestyle changes, why ignore the advantages they can provide?
Some of the top supplements out there for reducing cortisol levels include…
Lastly, there are plenty of stress-relieving tips, tricks, and techniques out there on the world-wide-web, so start researching and find some that would work best for you!
Combine those with your new lifestyle, diet, and exercise changes, plus supplementation, and you’ll be one low-cortisol, relaxation machine.
Stress is going to happen, the key is not letting it happen too often.
Pay attention to how you’re feeling and make it top priority to keep cortisol levels balanced. Get all of the good without any of the bad out of that hormone