When I started out in the fitness industry nearly 20 years ago I saw dramatic results with basic programs and simple dietary advice, the majority of clients seemed to respond very quickly to new habits and behaviours. Today the same advice simply doesn’t go far enough towards getting clients what they want. The big difference is stress.
Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death — heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory disease, and accidents. An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues.
Stress can be defined as ‘what you feel when life’s demands exceed your perceived ability to meet those demands’. With each passing year, it seems we are exposed to more and more demands on our time and energy until inevitably we suffer the consequences.
We are biologically programmed to cope with short sharp bouts of stress yet today our exposure to stress is much more chronic and this is when problems occur.
- Chronic stress will inhibit weight loss and increase belly fat
- Chronic stress inhibits sleep and mental wellbeing
- Chronic stress damages the cardiovascular system
Now that we are suitably stressed out about the above, let’s explore a little deeper into why chronic stress is so bad and more importantly what we can do about it!
Cortisol – the master stress hormone
When we experience stress our body releases the adrenal hormone cortisol. The main job of cortisol is to trigger the release of energy from cells in the liver, fat and muscle tissue to help us to deal with the threatening situation.
In short term, acute situations like running from a mugger this is great as the burst of adrenalin, the increase in blood pressure and the release of fuel for energy allows us to get away. If we are healthy then we quickly recover and get on with life.
The problems occur when we experience long duration chronic stress, the type we all experience when we’ve got too many demands on our time and energy.
Why chronic stress leads to excess belly fat
One of first responses to stress and the release of cortisol is it shuts off the responsiveness of cells to insulin, this results in higher levels of energy in the blood. This is fine if the body then uses this energy to deal with stress. However, often the stress is just psychological so the body has no need for all the excess energy that is released, it therefore stores it within the fat cells, especially those around the umbilical region.
The umbilical region or belly is especially vulnerable to excess fat storage as the fat storing enzyme ‘11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-1’ or HSD is found in high concentrations here.
We crave the wrong foods and over eat
If you’ve had a big argument with your boss and then just got home after being stuck in traffic for 3 hours it’s unlikely you’re going to crave a big salad or some steamed fish and broccoli. Instead you’re probably going to open a bottle of wine and order a takeaway!
High carbohydrate foods lead to the release of insulin which helps to lower the cortisol and ease your feelings of stress. The problem is ‘as we’ve just mentioned’ cortisol blunts your insulin sensitivity so all the excess energy you consume doesn’t get used as it should and instead likely gets stored as fat.
Furthermore, the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin which help regulate our appetite are also thrown out of whack by the widely fluctuating blood sugars, this then leads to insatiable hunger and over eating.
Inflammation is often at the very route of modern diseases. Being chronically stressed drives the release of fatty acids from around the body and if not burned as energy get deposited in the abdominal region as belly fat. This belly fat is metabolically active tissue that releases inflammatory compounds which the brain detects and subsequently releases more cortisol. This causes a viscous cycle of stress leading to belly fat leading to more stress!
Chronic stress inhibits sleep and mental wellbeing
As we all know sleep is vitally important when it comes to staying healthy. When cortisol is elevated we can’t produce melatonin to fall asleep. If you don’t fall asleep early then your bodies normal circadian rhythm and cortisol rhythm is messed up. Cortisol should be lowest at 2 am then slowly rise to peak at 11 am before gradually dropping again, with chronic stress cortisol stays elevated. A bad night’s sleep will then cause worse blood sugar management the following day as we crave energy dense foods. The big fluctuations in blood sugar will ultimately lead to more cortisol and the whole cycle starts again.
Chronic stress directly effects the brain, it can lead to forgetfulness, memory loss and accelerate Alzheimer’s disease. The increased exposure to excess cortisol has a toxic effect on body and actually destroys brain cells. The body then tries to protect itself from this over exposure by becoming resistant to cortisol, however this leads to under exposure resulting in memory problems and ultimately mental health issues.
Chronic stress damages our cardiovascular system
When we are in a state of stress we experience increase heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac output. If this continues for long periods then blood vessels will damage leaving perfect docking points for circulating particles of sugar, cholesterol and fat. This can potentially lead to blockages and heart disease. Overall heart disease is 3-5 x higher in those experiencing more anger, anxiety and worry.
How to best manage stress
Given the above it’s clear that we need to take stress seriously, however here in the 21st century there’s no way we can avoid it completely. We can however put strategies in place to better deal with it.
The basics are the best place to start – eat a balanced healthy diet, sleep 8 hours a night and perform regular exercise.
A great place to start is to cut out inflammatory foods such as wheat, gluten, soy and dairy. Eat loads of colourful veg, wild meat, healthy fats and drink lots of water. It’s important you don’t starve yourself and leave too long between meals as this can be stressful on the body, aim to eat at least every 4 hours. You can find out more information in a previous article Clean up modified elimination diet.
Prioritise sleep in that you make to time to properly wind down with no screens an hour before bed, stick to a regular bed time and practice good sleep hygiene. You can learn more about sleep in our article Back to basics – Sleep.
Exercise is a great way to ‘blow off steam’ however it is also another stress so must be managed correctly. It is important you only do what you can recover from, fundamentally exercise is a form of acute stress and if you are already under a great deal of stress then sometimes it can do more harm than good. This is especially valid if you do a lot of high intensity metabolic training. Sometimes a simple 20 min walk in the fresh air is the best option.
In general strength and resistance training is less taxing on our adrenals yet gives us all the great benefits of exercise such as increased metabolism, better physique and better function. To get the best fit for your current situation we recommend you seek out a qualified coach for your training.
It sounds obvious but now that we appreciate just how devastating stress can be on our health and well being, then it makes sense to put strategies in place to avoid un necessary stress.
- Avoid traffic jams where possible. If like me you hate traffic make sure you plan to avoid it. Plan journeys or simply don’t travel in rush hour.
- Avoid rushing. Slow down and give yourself more breathing space. We can all be guilty of trying to fit too much into our day, prioritise your time and make sure you’re not forced into rushing.
- Avoid negative people. It’s a fact of life that some people radiate energy and positivity where as others drain energy and are predominantly negative. Your time and energy is precious so try to save it for the positive people in your life and avoid the bad.
Take home stress tips
Once we’ve got the basics in place and are making a concerted effort to avoid stress then applying some of the following should help keep your stress levels in check!
- Take regular holidays. You won’t realise how much you need a holiday until your there, you can never truly switch off and relax until your away from your home environment.
- Have at least 1 day a week where you don’t work – I’ve always kept Sundays free from work, this has enabled me to stay motivated the rest of the time.
- Meditate or power nap. This has become far more mainstream in recent years as people have experienced the physical and mental benefits.
- Take a proper lunch break. Not only will you digest your food better but you’ll also be mentally refreshed when you return to work making you far more productive.
- Don’t over use social media. This is becoming more of an issue as people are becoming more immersed in the digital world.
- Practice gratitude. Studies consistently show that those of us that regularly practice gratitude score highest on health and happiness surveys.
It’s clear we can’t completely avoid stress but if we can apply some of the above then we are giving ourselves every chance of preventing its many pitfalls. In the next part of this series we will be exploring the recovery process and how best to maximise it.
If you’d like to find out more on the above or any other health and fitness related issues then please get in touch.