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How Stress Hormones Affect Your Nutrition & Fitness Efforts

fitness hormones nutrition stress
stressed woman

Ongoing stress is a key problem for many women; in busy, modern life it comes at us from all angles. Money, relationships. work, family, world news, local news, home... There's always something going on and it's compounded by our use of technology which is both a blessing for how useful it is but also a curse in that we now have more capacity for productivity and we're available to everyone 24/7.

Most people rarely think how this could be affecting their health and fitness goals because wellbeing and the nervous system haven't been recognised as key factors until relatively recently (plus, high ongoing stress levels are more of a modern occurence).

However, if you've been doing all the right things and you're still:

  • Not getting results
  • Tired with low energy when you wake up in the morning and throughout the day
  • Maybe even going backwards with your results

This could be part of the problem.

The good news and the bad news

The good news: Your body is designed to handle a certain amount of stress! It has a system that jumps into action when we're experiencing a stressful situation (whether real physical danger stress or perceived stress like a full email inbox), and then regulates when that situation resolves. To learn more about this, you can read about your fight or flight response.

The bad news: Unfortunately, as we looked at earlier, stressful situations don't appear/disappear as they should due to the way we live our lives now. Perceived stress is a far greater issue than it used to be.

As a result, the key stress hormones - cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine continue to be produced at  a higher level on an ongoing basis without ever fully regulating and bringing your body back to homeostasis (that's a fancy word for 'normal'). Our body isn't designed to hold these stress levels constantly which has a run on effect to other systems in the body.

How stress affects your nutrition and fitness efforts

Stress hormones help our body prepare to run and escape physical danger. Our nervous system can't tell the difference between physical danger (i.e. running away from a tiger) versus perceived danger (activities that cause stress but can't physically harm us like emotional stress, anxiety, work overload) and so it reacts the same to both.

We become more alert, have trouble sitting in stillness/struggle to 'do nothing', our blood pressure and heart rate may rise, digestion system slows (we can't stop for the toilet when we're running from tigers!). Depending on your metabolism, your blood sugar may rise (to become available to your muscles for a faster getaway), muscles become tense, appetite increases, our immune system function decreases, our adrenal glands go into overdrive and changes happen in the brain.

And that's just a starting point. You can see how some of the above things may begin to negatively impact your energy levels, your training and nutrition results over time.

What can I do to lower my stress levels?

Different things work for different people. Seeing a professional life coach, counsellor or therapist may help. Here are some suggestions to explore as a starting point:

  • Address the source/s of your stress (how could you reduce, minimise, remove, share or delegate things to help shift this?).
  • Getting adequate sleep quantity and quantity are both important.
  • High intensity exercise may add to your stress levels. If you enjoy this style of exercise, doing other activities to balance it out is important.
  • Learn correct deep breathing. So many people have dysfunctional breathing habits which reeinforces your stress response. Make sure you're breathing slowly and deeply - but not forcefully - down into your belly and not up into your collarbones. Think about the way we breathe when we're panicked or running away from something; we want to do the opposite. This helps regulate your vagus nerve to shift back out of fight or flight.
  • Feeling resistant to slow-paced activities like yoga, meditation or stretch sessions can be a sign your nervous system is in stress mode. Just like any activities we struggle with, practice helps. Start with a few minutes and work to extend it over time until it feels more comfortable.
  • Limiting technology. If you spend a lot of time scrolling your phone, watching screens or answering emails, these are all brain input activities. To stop the information overload, we need to switch it off!
  • Pursue happiness. Do things that make you feel happy and relaxed - such as hobbies and spending time with friends.

If you find life particularly stressful, it may feel like any efforts you do seem too small to make a difference. Remember, it does all add up and it's worth pursuing, so take the time to learn how to manage your stress effectively.

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Reference / Understanding The Stress Response (3 April 2024). Reviewed by LeWine, Dr. H.

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