Stress, all of us know it, and all of us deal with it some form of another. Stress, in my opinion, is the one variable that my clients over the years are struggling to control. In fact, most of my clients feel they are "just fine" or "not stressed at all." But then it comes time to lose weight and get healthy, well that is when things get tricky. The reason? Stress stimulates your Sympathetic Nervous System, best known to many as your "fight or flight" response. This state is embedded in us as a way to keep us alive. Think of it in terms of this, you are walking down the street and around the corner, next thing you know a Lion is 50 feet away from you and spots you. Your heart begins pounding, your stomach drops, and you have this inexplicable amount of energy you suddenly feel. This is your fight or flight response, and it is designed to help keep you alive by being able to fight the lion or flee the lion. If you are me, no matter how ungifted you are athletically, you are running from the lion. This response is typical in these conditions, but as our society has grown to a point where there is no direct threat such as a lion chasing you for its next meal, the response has turned into something worse, something that does not shut off. This kind of stress is found in our daily living, from our mortgages to our children, our job, our partners, and a host of other things that are not an immediate threat, but still, stimulate our fight or flight response.
Before I delve further into how this exactly happens, it is best to understand how stress is understood and defined by the smart science people.
According to the science community and those who do research along with write many types of leather-bound books, summarize that stress has 3 stages: The alarm stage, the resistance stage, and the exhaustion stage. For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on when you arrive at the exhaustion stage, which is a state of chronic stress. Sadly, this is where most people are in terms of their stress management, a state of chronic stress. I have quite a few clients who have sworn to me they are not stressed, only to find out upon monitoring their stress found out that was a lie. Later on, I am going to get into ways you can lower stress along with a cool way to understand your body's response to stress that has helped clients and me along the way, but I want to go back to chronic stress.
Chronic stress can be thought of as a burden you are not being alleviated from that is draining your body's recovery abilities. Once you arrive in this state, your body is in a state of constant alert and releasing hormones named, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones are not a bad thing in small doses (think running from a Lion again), but they are not very good when they are released all the time from stressing over your Tinder dates ghosting you to if you are going to pass a test in school, or paying your bills. For example, cortisol helps lower inflammation and gives glucose for energy. That's fine here and there, but when it is all the time, well, things begin to go downhill hormonally. Women suffer the most from chronic stress, hormonally that is, and the reason is known as "the progesterone steal."
Being overweight (fat stores lovemaking estrogen), birth control, chronic stress, and environmental exposure to things such as Xenoestrogens all can contribute to the progesterone steal. How this happens is through a hormone pathway that starts with cholesterol and translates down to pregnenolone, which is a critical hormone in the production of sex hormones such as DHEA, Progesterone, Androstenedione, Testosterone, and Estrogen.
If you are on birth control, you naturally will be in an estrogen dominant state. To help keep the balance between progesterone and estrogen, you need to manage and lower cortisol as when stress is chronic, it will steal from the hormone progesterone to continue creating cortisol, which ultimately will result in progesterone becoming tanked. This scenario leads to estrogen dominant symptoms. If you are not on birth control, you have more options to keep the balance, but for most women, lowering stress and preventing cortisol robbing from progesterone, which is creating your estrogen-dominant situation, should be your focus.
Things like reduction in HIIT based classes, lowering maximum exertion based workouts, meditation, restorative yoga, and more low-intensity steady-state cardio can help you manage your cortisol levels and the potential for sympathetic nervous system dominance which often arises from chronic stress. But wait…there's more!
So more boring science stuff ahead, but stress management is crucial in another area as well, and that area is your gut health.
If you are always stressed, you can cause chronic inflammation through elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Through chronic stress, your gut can become permeable. Your gut wall is made of tight junctions of the mucosal lining that is not meant to become permeable but can and will from stress. This is a condition known as "leaky gut," and it affects both men and women. Since the gut is the root of most issues, managing your stress is a necessary focus along with this protocol. When cortisol is high, and your gut is leaky, your thyroid is impacted. Conversion of T4 into T3, the two essential thyroid hormones in the body, T4 instead converts to Reverse T3 (RT3), which is useless. What this means is because your body is stuck in an SNS dominant state, it is downregulating your metabolism (T3) while cortisol does its job of pumping glucose into your bloodstream for energy. This translates to hypothyroidism over time, aka sluggish thyroid along with hyperinsulinemia, a state where your body is becoming insulin resistant, which means you are inflamed, storing fat, and your body is sick.
Now how can we monitor our stress? One easy way is through Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is a measurement of how well your body is handling stress. HRV is measured by "RR beats," which are known as the time between each heartbeat. Think of this time between each heartbeat as a computer code. Those heartbeats are telling your body if you are in a sympathetic nervous system state, aka "fight or flight," or a parasympathetic state, aka "rest and digest." These are two branches of your autonomous nervous system which control things like your metabolism, heart rate, sexual arousal, etc. If you are in a constant sympathetic nervous system (SNS) state, you are experiencing the 3 hormones that make up the SNS response; epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. When in this state, your body is not recovering. This means you are under some form of stress and need to correct it. Things such as pulling back on training, diet breaks, meditation, yoga, and advanced supplement protocols might be necessary to exit this state. When you are in this state, your adrenals are kaput. In this state, we need supplements to help bring your adrenals back up online. The product I have had the most success with is: https://nuethix.com/product/adrena-health/
In summary, as a client, you need to take away the understanding that this is a journey and stress, along with the management of it, play a MAJOR role in your success and results. Not everyone drops 20lbs magically in 20 days. Some of us need more work to get our bodies back in working order, and to achieve that, you have to work the process of something else other than lowering calories and upping output. If you are at a plateau or just starting your health and fitness journey, I hope you understand that through HRV monitoring, you will be able to understand your body better in terms of recovery and how it handles stress. Through understanding this variable, you will be able to work towards the goals you have more smartly, rather than just adding more gasoline to a fire.