The purpose of this series is to look at things besides diet and exercise that can affect how the body stores or burns fat. In the first article, we took a look at the role of sleep.
This next topic examines another crucial lifestyle factor that can have an outsize impact on your ability to lose fat: stress.
It's important to note that stress and sleep are interrelated too, as you probably know from experience - when we are relaxed and stress-free, we generally sleep a whole lot better than when we are overly stressed!
In a state of acute stress, like high intensity exercise or getting yelled at by your boss, your body goes into alarm mode. This causes a rise in so-called "stress hormones", such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
In the case of the exercise session, the stress goes away after your workout ends, and your body easily shifts into recovery mode; the stress hormones decrease, and your body shifts back into a rebuilding phase.
But in the case of being yelled at by your boss, you will likely continue to experience stress for a lengthy time afterward - hours, days, even weeks or months if this is a common occurrence.
As a result, those stress hormones continue to circulate in your body at elevated levels, and that is when we begin to run into problems.
Let's start with cortisol. With stress, circulating cortisol levels can be 2-5 times higher than baseline, and various metabolic processes are disrupted.
1) Cortisol directly interferes with insulin uptake. This is your body's attempt to keep sugar circulating in your bloodstream so it's quickly available if needed.
During a workout, this is a good thing. As soon as your workout ends, the cortisol should decrease and insulin is allowed to do it's job of helping store energy and rebuild muscles.
But if the stress continues chronically, this can cause your body to become insulin resistant. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes, and is strongly linked with storage of dangerous visceral (aka abdominal) fat.
2) Circulating cortisol tells your body that it's okay to break down muscle protein, again to try to create extra available energy for your body to use.
Muscle fibers are also broken down during a hard workout, but the goal is that with proper post-workout nutrition and rest and recovery, those broken down muscles rebuild even bigger and stronger.
But when you are chronically stressed, your body is not able to fully enter that recovery process, and thus even the best workout program could yield little result with respect to muscle gain and/or fat loss.
1) Going back to sleep: as mentioned above, when we are stressed out, we don't sleep well. Sleep is an independent factor that causes fat gain. Refer to the previous blog post for more on this!
2) Stress eating: chronic stress is linked with more frequent snacking, and consuming more so-called "comfort foods" - foods that are high in fat and sugar.
This is partly a learned coping skill, but studies have also linked high stress with alterations in hunger hormones. Our body is actually sending us a physiological message that compels us to eat more carbs/sugar/fat, which is a very hard thing to resist.
Before beating yourself up for not working hard enough in the gym or being perfect enough with your diet, take a step back and look at the big picture.
Are you getting adequate sleep? Are you constantly stressed out? These things are very likely hindering your progress, and putting some work into changing your lifestyle could be the ticket you've been looking for.
In the case of stress, maybe it means drastic measures like finding a new job or a new living situation. If the big things are out of your control, find yourself a good therapist who can help you learn healthy coping techniques.
A small but effective step that you can take on your own is beginning a daily meditation practice - even 10 minutes a day could make a world of difference.
Check out this article with 5 meditation apps for your phone that will help you get started.
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