It seems like stress is a part of our daily lives and it comes in different forms:
Dieting (yes, being in a calorie deficit is a form of stress)
More often than not, we tend to hate stress and try to avoid it – especially since more stress can lead to less fat loss.
The thing is though, without stress we wouldn’t be able to be productive, perform in the gym, and allow our bodies to breakdown stored nutrients.
So, we want stress if we want to see physical results with our training and nutrition but too much of it can have the opposite effect – pushing us further away from making progress.
If you don’t balance this fine line of stress management you give stress an open door to wreak havoc on your mental, physical, and emotional being!
Before we can talk about how to properly manage stress, let’s start by getting a better idea of what stress does to your body.
The Stress Response
Once your body perceives a stressor it begins to elicit a stress response. Stressors can come in all shapes and sizes from the jerk who cuts you off on your way to work to having an irregular sleep cycle to experiencing food sensitivity. You can get a more comprehensive idea of all the possible stressors in this handy drawing below.
Your body actually has a poor job differentiating all these different stressors from each other – it perceives them all as a threat and will create the same response to help combat the stressor it’s presented with.
Once the stressor is perceived, the body reacts with a “fight or flight” response and activates the sympathetic nervous system. Once this happens stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline are released into the bloodstream to help overcome the perceived stressor.
I always like to equate the stress response to an ambulance or other emergency vehicles on the highway. When you’re faced with an “emergency” (perceived stressor) all the other cars on the highway (your other bodily functions and processes) have to “pull over” until the emergency passes and traffic can flow as normal once again.
However, if the stress becomes chronic that doesn’t resolve itself, then all traffic will come to halt until it resolves itself causing these baseline bodily functions (the traffic flow) to suffer over time.
The human body was designed to combat short bouts of stress but it wasn’t meant to handle the consistent psychological, emotional, and physical burdens that are unfortunately all too common in today’s world. Chronic stress means your body won’t be able to work through its regular metabolic processes stalling your weight loss in the process. In certain situations, chronic stress can also lead to various health conditions and diseases as well!
Like I mentioned earlier, cortisol is one of the hormones released during the stress response.
This particular hormone is one we want to manage most when we’re trying to manage our stress because of its impact across your entire body including metabolism and immune response!
It’s also helpful because it forces you to MOVE – remember we called this a “fight or flight” response too. When cortisol gets pumped into your blood it allows energy mobilization, it’s the leader in a hormonal process that converts stored energy into fuel for performance.
Cortisol and Energy Production
Cortisol helps us be stronger and more explosive in our training, which is why it can be advantageous.
If you’ve ever heard of “Mom Superstrength” where regular women have been able to lift a car off of a loved one trapped underneath them – that’s a result of cortisol! When you’re in a truly stressful situation you can pull off strength you never thought possible.
Now, we’re not saying you can replicate this every time you workout, but if you can allow it to rise in a training setting you’ll likely experience a boost in performance.
Cortisol and Circadian Rhythm
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal sleep and wake clock.
Cortisol – in an ideal situation – is highest in the morning and lowest at night. This is because it works in the inverse of melatonin (the sleep initiating hormone) which is highest in the evening.
It’s also highest in the morning for survival purposes because it gets you up and tells you to start moving to feed your body!
Regulating your circadian rhythm is a great way to manage your cortisol levels.
Cortisol and The Thyroid
Cortisol also works well with the thyroid which is often referred to as the control center of the endocrine system.
The thyroid is a gland that controls almost every single cell in your body. Unfortunately, more than 12% of Americans – and 25% of women! – experience some sort of thyroid dysfunction.
When there’s a lack of cortisol in your system, there is also low cortisol activity which can hinder several functions in your body. When cortisol is elevated though it blocks the thyroid from converting inactive thyroid hormones to active thyroid hormones.
If the thyroid isn’t able to function then your metabolism takes a big hit as well because your thyroid is the main regulator of your metabolism. So in this way, we can kind of say too much or too little cortisol slows down your metabolism.
Cortisol and Appetite
That’s right – cortisol still does more! Especially when we add stress by being in a calorie deficit or dieting phase.
Cortisol actually increases cravings – which is another reason that being stressed can hurt your fat loss journey. Managing your stress will help you avoid massive cravings and wild binge episodes.
Not only that, but cortisol will also practically shut down the hormonal signals that your brain is sending to tell you you’re full!
Which makes sense when you think about it. Food is so often used as a coping mechanism, it’s so common that we even label them as “stress-eaters”. It can also happen in other high-stress situations as well, which is why you find yourself holding a tub of Ben and Jerry’s the last time you got dumped – high emotional distress led to raised cortisol which led to cravings which led to empty tubs of ice cream at your bedside.
Cortisol and Fat Loss
So by now, I hope you can see how impactful being stressed is to your fat loss goals, but also why it’s important for them too. Balance is the ultimate differentiator, but how do you do that?
You have to control it – and there’s a lot of ways for you to do that!
Get 7-8 Hours of Sleep Per Night – As I said earlier, cortisol is deeply affected by your circadian rhythm. Making sure you keep that in check will help manage your cortisol levels properly.
Focus On What’s In Your Control – I know, easier said than done but important to remember. The more you stress about events, people, and happenings that are outside of your control the higher and longer your cortisol levels will be elevated which we now know will slow your metabolism, lead to cravings, and hinder your thyroid health.
Deload Training and Diet Breaks – Training and dieting are important stressors you need to make use of to lose weight but you shouldn’t be dieting all of the time nor should you be hitting the gym at full intensity all the time. Take some time every 4-6 weeks for training and 6-12 weeks for nutrition to get back to maintenance calories and ease off the training intensity.
Cooldown Post Training – Good post-workout nutrition can help blunt cortisol production but you can also get out of your “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system state by going on a slow walk post-workout, doing some deep breathing on your back, or doing some light yoga. Anything that helps you slow down and be more mindful after your training.
Just Chilllll – Simple, yet effective. Studies show psychological relaxation is one of the best promoters to recovery so do the things that make you happy more often so you can manage cortisol and get the body you’ve been dreaming of!
Have questions about anything relating to this blog? Our inbox is always open to help you out!