There can come times that no matter how hard you’re working out and how clean you’re eating, certain health goals just aren’t happening. You’re not losing fat, your muscles aren’t getting bigger, something just isn’t working. It could be time for a new routine, a slight tweak in diet, or it could be about stress.
Stress, on a Chemical Level
Stress can mess with health and fitness goals, not to mention your health in general. Chemically, stress shows up in your body as cortisol. Cortisol comes from your adrenal glands and is secreted when your body is under stress as a way to prime your body to respond to danger.
This response is really helpful when you do need to run for your life or are put in a survival situation. Your body responds the same way to all stressors, whether you’re in a life threatening situation or not. So if you’re constantly stressed from work, relationships, and the struggles from everyday life, your adrenals are constantly pumping out cortisol.
Your Body on Stress
After dealing with excess cortisol for long periods of time, your body can start to experience several issues that will impact your fitness goals and your health. Cortisol prompts glucose production in order to create quick energy to respond to that stressor and survive. Too much glucose production can raise your blood sugar, and prolonged increased blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance.
Too much cortisol also affects the body’s inflammatory process and becomes more inflamed which can lead to other health issues. Your adrenal glands are also responsible for making other hormones in your body that have a wide range of functions. Cortisol also prioritizes itself over other endocrine processes in the body, since it’s linked to survival. This means other vital endocrine functions like producing sex hormones.
Excess cortisol can also affect your digestion. Optimal digestion occurs in the parasympathetic state, also called the “rest and digest” state. When you’re stressed, you’re in the sympathetic state, meaning the chances for proper digestion is very low and could lead to digestive issues.
Belly fat can also be attributed to too much cortisol. Cortisol activates triglycerides in your body and stores them into fat cells in your abdomen. The more fat cells that are there, the more cortisol that could be produced, creating a vicious cycle.
How to Dial Down Your Stress
While stress is important for survival, it’s clear that too much stress can really affect our health and goals. There are many ways to turn the volume down on stress. Try a few and find out which ones really work for you. Stay present while you’re doing them and see how your body feels.
Deep Breathing: If you need to destress quickly, you can always turn to your breath. When you get stressed, it’s normal to hold your breath or shorten your breath. In doing this, less oxygen is circulating, which can increase tension and stress. Take a deep, belly breath in through your nose for three counts, then let the breath go through your mouth for three breaths. Repeat as often as you need to until you feel more calm.
Meditation: Meditation is a practice that can overall help dial down your stress and recenter you if you’re feeling stressed or out of sorts. Consistent meditation has proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Meditation can be as long or as short as you need it to be. You can sit quietly and count your breath and observe your thoughts for as short as a minute to as long as an hour, if you need it.
You can be sitting or lying down, whichever is comfortable for your body. There are also lots of different kinds of meditation, from silent to guided that you can find on podcasts and apps to try to see if you like them.
Restorative Yoga: Restorative, or yin yoga, is focused on deep stretching of the connective tissues around muscles. Yin yoga involves props to place your body in a protected position to hold stretches for several minutes rather than seconds. This slower yoga style can be deeply relaxing, as well as good for any tight muscles you may have. Depending on where you practice, the instructor could also incorporate essential oils or muscle adjustments that can further the relaxing experience.
Take a Rest Day: Rest days are just as important as when you’re working out. If you’re doing vigorous workouts, try to take at least 2 days off a week to rest and give your muscles time to rebuild. Intense strength training or HIIT workouts increase cortisol levels in the body, so if you’re stressed on top of doing a lot of strenuous activity, that can add to amount of cortisol circulating in your body. Rest days are also helpful for repairing muscles and building strength.
Do Things You Enjoy: One of the best ways you can destress is doing things you love. By connecting with the things you enjoy, you relax and give your body a chance to rest and not be pumping so much cortisol all the time. Double down on relaxing things you enjoy, like reading, creating, cooking, taking walks, spending time with friends, activities that won’t increase cortisol levels.
Take a moment to do inventory on how much rest and stress you’ve got in your daily life. If you know you’ve got a lot of stress in your life, try adding in one restful activity per week and maybe dialing back on working out, if you suspect you might be overtraining. Swap out a training session for a long walk with your pet, loved one, or friend if you still want to keep active.
Keep checking in with yourself and notice what’s going on with your body. Are you feeling stressed? Are you taking deep breaths? Noticing your stress and taking steps to dial it down is a practice and an exercise in it itself. As you get better at noticing your stress, you can help push past plateaus that could be caused by that stress.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
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