Stress: its impact on our health, performance, and ways to manage it.
A topic that has been coming up regularly in chats with my athletes recently is stress. Stress both internally and externally.
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While we all know stress isn’t good for us, unfortunately the current world we live in seems to keep pushing the boundaries of just how far we can go. Work stress, family stress, training stress, emotional stress and mental stress.
Stress is one of the biggest drivers of our health. Our hypothalamus, which is like the gatekeeper of our body, is continually assessing internal and external stressors and adjusting for them. It sends signals to the pituitary gland and onto the thyroid gland and others to secrete certain hormones in response to what is going on. This then impacts our metabolism, immune system, sex hormones, and many other physiological processes, like the ability to build lean muscle and recover well from training.
When we experience stress, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which plays a key role in our "fight or flight" response.
Cortisol helps to regulate a number of bodily functions, including blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and immune function. However, chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which can have negative effects on the body, impacting insulin and glucagon which in return can lead to insulin resistance (and high blood glucose levels, like pre-diabetes and type two diabetes). This can then lead to increased fat, increased risk of heart disease, and impaired immunity..
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is another hormone that is released in response to stress. Adrenaline helps to prepare the body for "fight or flight" by increasing heart rate, dilating airways, and mobilizing glucose for energy. While adrenaline can be helpful in the short-term, chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated adrenaline levels, which can contribute to anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms.
Sex hormones: Chronic stress can also have an impact on sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone. For example, chronic stress can lead to decreased levels of testosterone in men, which can contribute to low libido, erectile dysfunction, and other symptoms. In women, chronic stress can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, increased risk of infertility, and other symptoms. This is due to the hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid-axis I mentioned above. That’s because thyroid hormones play a key role in metabolism and the reproductive system. And chronic stress can lead to imbalances in thyroid hormones, which can contribute to symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
So you can start to see how this is all linked. Hormones and our body don’t work singularly - they’re all interconnected!
While small bouts of stress (like training stimulus and cold therapy) is actually helpful and healthy for us, like everything - if we have too much of it, or for too long, it’s not good for us. Chronic stress or long term high stress levels can lead to further health impacts, such as:
High blood pressure
Sleep disruption and insomnia
Infertility - for men and women of all ages
Anxiety and or depression
Heartburn, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation
Sensitive gut during exercise
Muscular pains and aches (headaches, back pain, neck pain) or impaired recovery
So, it’s important not just for you short-term, but for your overall health to get on top of your stress, prioritise you and look after your body.
WAYS TO MANAGE STRESS
There are many ways you can work on managing your stress; and you might find at different times, different things work for you.
Here’s some of the strategies I’ve found useful for my athletes, depending where their stress is coming from and what else is going on in their lives.
Taking a break from structured training. Sometimes when life is busy or you’ve got other things you need to prioritise, trying to following a structured program can be one extra stress that’s not needed. You want to enjoy training, and if it’s becoming a big stressor, talk to your coach and support network to see what might be best for you at this point in time.
Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings is a great way to get them off your chest, out of your head, and acknowledge them or work through them. It can give you that big shoulder dropping relief of getting it out and not bottling it up. Try either writing whatever comes to mind each morning when you wake up with a cup of tea or coffee; or at night before bed. If you think this might be challenging, try affirmation cards and manifestation work instead.
Affirmation and manifestation work: using affirmation cards is a nice way to set up your mind for the day or to help you get to sleep a little easier. There are so many cards out there, and a lot of self-love ones are helpful to guide healthy and positive thoughts and your relationship with yourself. You can read these each day or once a week and set intentions around them- for your life, work, sport, or a new adventure.
Yoga or meditation: a great way to make some scheduled time for you, to breathe and to relax (plus do your stretching!)
Breath work, such as Wim Hof Breathing: this style of breathing has been found to be really useful in reducing inflammation and stress in the body, improving sleep and sports performance, enhancing recovery, improving mental clarity and focus, and enhancing creativity. Try it out here: https://www.wimhofmethod.com/breathing-exercises
Cold showers and ice baths: helpful for mental clarity, immunity, reducing inflammation and increasing brown fat which uses more energy at rest.
I know it’s easier said than done. And parents reading are probably going to laugh.. But, doing the best you can will really set you up for day to day and life. And that might mean sometimes prioritising sleep or rest instead of training. But trust me, you and your body will thank you later!
You probably don’t need me to tell you that sleep is the time we make gains and recover. Many coaches and elite athletes preach this, and they're not wrong! When we sleep, growth hormone is secreted. And increased growth hormone supports muscle building and favourable body composition through converting to insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). This also supports testosterone production and muscle recovery + growth (that’s why morning erections are healthy for men - and we look at having 5 or more each week as a marker of healthy energy balance!).
Interestingly, a study found that when men got 5 hours of sleep each night for a week, their testosterone levels dropped 15%. 15% in one week!
CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK
Another interesting study done in Australia recently looked at the impact of people’s thoughts during their weight loss journey. They found that when people were obsessed with thinness, their stress levels increased (which was suppressing their metabolism and therefore making it harder to lose weight). But, when they stopped thinking about it, stress dropped, and they actually lost weight. This can be a hard thing to do if you really want to lose fat or change your body composition… but using some of the strategies above and shifting the focus from fat loss to something else like increasing energy, building muscle, improving mood, or other health markers, can make a big difference!
This is where journalling and manifestation work can be really useful too!
So, what are you going to try this week to start reducing or managing your stress? Try a few different things over the coming weeks and see what speaks to you and what works for you best.
Happy training, eating, and sleeping!
Dr Nicky Keay. Hormones, Health and Human Potential. First edition. 2022. Sequoia Books, United Kingdom.
Jurov I, Keay N, Hadzic V et al. Relationship between energy availability, energy conservation and cognitive restraint with performance measures in male endurance athletes. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2021; 18 (24). http://doi.or/10.1186/s12970-021-00419-3
Ikegami K, Refetoff S, Van Cauter E et al. Interconnection between circadian clocks and thyroid function. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2019; 15: 590-600. http://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-019-0237-z
Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men. JAMA. 2011; 305 (21): 2173-2174. http://doi.org/10.1001/JAMA.2011.710