Is Stress Killing Your Gains?
In this blog by guest author Roger Sutherland – Shift Work Health & Well Being Coach, learn how stress can affect your progress in the gym and ways to mitigate it.
Let’s talk about stress
All we ever hear about these days is stress. It’s everywhere. Stress is bad for you. You must reduce your stress. Stress will kill you. Stress this, stress that. I get stressed just thinking about stress, and that’s not even mentioning all the misinformation around it. But is all stress bad?
I will break down exactly how stress impacts us, especially when it comes to fat loss or getting those “gains” and is there any type of stress that is good for us? I will also take a look at simple strategies to reduce the stress that is less than ideal for us and also what the evidence says around supplementation to help control the impact of stress.
The Autonomic Nervous System
We will start with The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This is the key to your continued survival. Your ANS is a system of networked nerves spread throughout your body that control processes subconsciously. Processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.
Even while you are sleeping your ANS is at work controlling your breathing and your heart rate.
The ANS is a part of your overall nervous system, but it is running autonomously in the background, controlling processes without you thinking. The ANS connects your brain to majority of your internal organs.
The ANS has 3 separate parts to it.
1. Sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight)
This system activates processes that help you in times of need, especially in times of stress or danger. It prepares you for fight or flight.
2. Parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest)
This system is the direct opposite of your sympathetic nervous system.
This is the side of our ANS we really want to live in. No Stress
3. Enteric nervous system
Not often mentioned but extremely important.
This system operates independently of our brain or spinal cord
This system manages how our body digests food.
The enteric nervous system is a network of sensory neurons that stretch from the lower third of our oesophagus right through to our rectum and is embedded in the lining of our gastrointestinal system.
Today I will just be focusing on the two main sides of the ANS and the diagram below illustrates how each side operates as direct opposites to each other.
Imagine your house with all the electrical wiring within the walls running to each appliance within your home.
The fridge runs all the time, just like your heartbeat and breathing.
The lights go on and off as they’re needed.
You get the idea.
The nerves are the wiring connecting your brain to your major internal organs.
An example of how your ANS works.
You get a sudden fright. Your body senses danger and so the ANS subconsciously triggers its sympathetic side.
Eyes: You need to be able to see clearly to assess the danger and run and to do this more light is needed. Your ANS dilates your pupils to allow this.
Heart: To run away or fight, your heart needs to beat faster and your blood vessels need to dilate to allow blood to pump faster to energise your muscles to react.
Lungs: To oxygenate your blood, you need to breathe faster. The lungs expand and contract quicker to enable this.
Those are just a few examples of how we subconsciously react in the sympathetic side of our nervous system.
How does high stress affect us?
Any stress within our body, the sympathetic responses are triggered to cope with it.
This response triggers a release of hormones, including cortisol. Balanced levels of cortisol are essential to human health but too much or too little impacts on us significantly. Our inflammatory response, immune system and metabolism are all impacted by high levels of cortisol.
Elevated cortisol levels impact how our body metabolizes sugar by elevating our blood sugar levels. High stress also inhibits the release of insulin to prevent the lowering of blood sugar levels and makes our body more resistant to insulin.
This all makes sense when you think that the body is preparing for fight or flight and is preparing the energy to undertake that activity.
Check right now, are you breathing through your mouth? If you are, then your body is more than likely in a sympathetic state. Your body is trying to get more oxygen by breathing through your mouth. Our mouth is not designed for us to breathe through. Calm nose breathing indicates you are in a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state.
Check in with yourself during the day and make a concerted effort to remain calm breathing through your nose. This is natural and healthy.
Remaining in a sympathetic state for too long has a number of biological impacts.
Over activated sympathetic state increases anxiety, panic attacks, nervousness, breathlessness, heart palpitations, high blood pressure and high cholesterol just to name a few.
Where being in a sympathetic state really impacts us if we are wanting to build muscle or lose body fat is in two main areas.
Insomnia (poor sleep) and inability to digest our food properly.
Stress, or living too long in a sympathetic state, impacts greatly on sleep due to our inability to relax. Not being able to go to sleep, waking up mid sleep worrying and not being able to go back to sleep, or not getting sufficient sleep, impacts greatly on our hunger controlling hormones ghrelin and leptin.
Sleep is where the magic happens in so many biological functions. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released, and our body cleanses our brain and repairs itself while we sleep.
Insufficient sleep increases ghrelin, which increases hunger and makes it really difficult to stick to a calorie deficit if fat loss is your goal. This will also cause problems with excessive fat gain in a muscle building phase.
I haven’t even mentioned the impact that just being tired has on our physical and emotional state. Too tired to train with any intensity or breaking down or losing the plot because you simply can’t use the machine you want to. No one copes well when they are tired.
The second biggest problem with being in a sympathetic state is that our digestive system shuts down in readiness for flight or fight. Everything is focusing on fighting for survival or running and digestion is not what we need.
This creates big problems for metabolising the nutrients we have consumed.
Gas, bloating, pain, constipation, diarrhoea are all symptoms of a digestive tract not operating in a sympathetic state (rest and digest). If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, then looking at and managing stress must be your number 1 priority instead of turning to supplements or drugs.
Is there such a thing as good stress?
Yes, there absolutely is. This is referred to by psychologists as “eustress”
Eustress is a stress that leads to a positive response. It is the direct opposite to “distress” and can be physical or psychological. This kind of stress is generally short term and often feels “exciting” instead of creating anxiety or fear.
This kind of stress is manageable and can even be motivating if we embrace it.
The physical response to eustress can be quite similar the way it presents to distress. Feeling nervous, increased heart rate, racing thoughts. So, what makes this different? The way we perceive these physical sensations.
A great example of this would be riding a roller coaster. Scary but exhilarating.
One of the best examples of eustress for us, without doubt, is a solid session resistance training in the gym.
It’s short-lived stress. Increased breathing. Increased heart rate. Sweating. We “go hard” for a short period of time. This means we are bringing about adaptations from that training session. This session pumps up our feel-good neurotransmitters, known as endorphins. This brings great feelings even though we are technically “stressed.” All of this is a very beneficial stress for us.
Little or no stress creates boredom and depression. Too much stress can cause anxiety and poor health. The right amount of acute stress tunes up our brain and improves performance and health.
Exercise reduces the negative effects of stress.
Ways to manage stress
We have covered why we shouldn’t live in a sympathetic state for the damage that it does to us physiologically. So how can we manage stress and tip the scale back into the parasympathetic state?
1. Follow a healthy diet
We are what we eat. Eating highly processed and less than nutritious foods affect so many aspects of our health, including our mental health. The evidence is clear that people who consume highly processed and added sugar foods are more likely to be stressed. This also leads to a decrease in nutrients which support overall health and mood.
Stressed people also have a higher tendency to over eat more ultra processed and highly palatable foods. It’s a vicious cycle.
2. Physical Activity
Your body is designed to move and it greatly benefits from it.
Stress is significantly reduced and mood is increased by just a daily walk.
Physical activity improves mental health and reduces depression.
Sedentary behaviour increases stress, poor mood and brings poor sleep.
Find a movement you enjoy that’s sustainable long term so you can stick to it.
3. Control What You Can Control
Learn to say ‘No.’ Saying yes to everything and finding there is nothing left of you is the quickest way to stress.
Saying ‘No’ to things that don’t serve you well or fulfill you takes a stress away from you.
Why keep other people happy while you’re stressed out with no time for yourself?
4. Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake
Caffeine is found in numerous foods and energy drinks.
Everyone is different when it comes to their tolerance to caffeine but there is one thing for sure, caffeine impacts greatly on quality sleep. Poor sleep leads to fatigue and poor mental health, including stress and anxiety. Reduce caffeine and only have it up until midday and see if that makes a difference to your sleep, stress and anxiety.
Alcohol, while many believe it helps them sleep, this is severely outweighed by the impact it has on the quality of sleep. Alcohol disrupts necessary sleep cycles, increases heart rate and decreases sleep time.
Avoid alcohol at least 4 hours before sleep.
5. Mindfulness, Meditation and Gratitude
Stop, pause and be present in the moment. We live such a rushed life and rarely do we actually make time to stop and be present. Heads looking down at our mobile phone, absorbing content that causes more stress and completely missing what or who is around us. We are communicating with people who are not with us and not communicating or listening to people who are with us. It’s a crazy world we live in.
Take a moment to just stop and take in everything around you.
Establishing a meditation practice will boost your mood, change the way you see the world and decrease stress and anxiety. The evidence is very strong in this area and 5 minutes a day is all it takes to establish a practice.
I can highly recommend the app “insight timer” to learn a meditation practice. It’s free and has literally 1,000’s of meditations and courses to help you establish your own practice.
Practice gratitude. Before you go to sleep every night, write down three things you are grateful for from the day. Simple things like “I’m grateful for this comfortable bed.”
Our brain simply cannot process all it sees and hears during the day so it filters out anything we are not focussing on.
When we focus on negativity, activities and people that stress us, all of the good is filtered out and not seen.
A gratitude practice over time begins to filter out the negative and stressful things and you only see the good.
An example of this: you buy a brand-new red Toyota car. You drive it out of the showroom and all of a sudden, every second car on the road is a red Toyota. That’s your reticular activating system at work.
Focus on things you enjoy and that are good and that’s all you will see.
6. Practice deep breathing
I’ve left the best until last.
One of the first things to go when you enter a sympathetic state is your breathing. It gets faster and we breathe through our mouth. This further triggers stress hormones and leads to a faster heart beat and constricted blood vessels.
The absolute best, and proven way, to get yourself back into a parasympathetic state is to practice slow and controlled deep breathing.
Focus on controlling your breath: 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out and all through the nose. Put one hand on your belly and breathe slowly in and out and down into the belly.
Deep and controlled breathing activates the parasympathetic arm of the autonomous nervous system.
This will slow your heart rate and bring a feeling of peace.
Our body relies on several vitamins and minerals to control our mood and stress. When we are deficient in these nutrients we become imbalanced and this affects our mental health and in particular our ability to cope with stress.
A balanced and nutritious diet full of lean proteins, plants, fruits and vegetables ensures we cover most of these vitamins and minerals.
There are also studies showing that certain supplements may in fact assist our body to reduce stress and balance our mood.
Note: It is imperative that you consult a physician before taking any of these supplements. Your physician can give advice unique to you in case they impact on current medications or your personal situation.
Chronically stressed people can easily become depleted in magnesium.
Supplementing magnesium has been shown to improve stress in chronically stressed people. You need to be deficient in magnesium for there to be any benefit.
Dose: 300mg daily with Vitamin B6
PMID:33260549 PMID: 33210604 PMID: 30562392
2. Rhodiola Rosea (SHR-5 Extract)
A herbal supplement with adaptogen properties that helps provide general resistance to stress and fatigue. Increases resilience to stress at both cellular and systemic levels.
Dose: 288-680mg daily
Note: there is no benefit to taking above this.
Also a herbal adaptogen and has well researched qualities to reduce stress.
Ashwagandha reduces stress and cortisol and significantly improved sleep quality.
Dose: 600mg daily (1 X 300mg AM and 1 x 300mg 1 hour before bed)
Found in green tea, a non protein amino acid which promotes relaxation with proven research in reducing stress and anxiety. Theanine also improves sleep quality by promoting a more relaxed state.
Dose: 200mg daily with caffeine
PMID:16930802 PMID: 31623400
In summary, stress is unavoidable in life today but being chronically stressed for extended periods of time has serious impacts on our health.
Reducing stress is the key to maximising those gains or fat loss.
Yours in health,
Shift Work Health & Wellbeing Coach
A Healthy Shift