Ru Anderson is an expert nutritionist, owner of Exceed Nutrition, author of High Performance Living, podcaster and SFN Expo 2015 seminar speaker. Here’s his in depth take on the silent physique killer – stress!
I get stressed just thinking about the topic of stress. I’ve decided to rename stress the ‘Silent Physique Killer’ when explaining it to my clients. Let me explain.
A common theme I see amongst those with high stress levels is a lack of results when trying to change their body. Stress holds them back from being the best that they can be, and they never quite achieve their best results. In a very similar way to poor sleep, it can put the brakes on progress, even if training and nutrition are spot-on.
Of course, we all suffer stress at some point in our lives. We are involved in regular stressful life situations, including exhausting training schedules.
Stress is a burden on the body, and if it becomes chronically elevated and prolonged, we can end up massively fatigued and run down. That’s when it can put a halt to any body composition changes.
What we don’t always realise is the potential damage stress is doing to the inside of our bodies and how it affects our health.
To show exactly what happens internally during a typical ‘stressful’ situation, let’s look at an example:
Imagine you are walking on the pavement and start to cross the road after checking it’s clear in both directions. Suddenly a car appears out of nowhere and is forced to swerve out of the way to avoid a collision with you.
What happens to you? Your heart is racing, you are breathing heavily, sweating and shaking. You are in a state of shock.
Here’s what happened internally:
- Above the kidneys you will find a pair of triangular shaped glands known as the adrenals. Their main role is to help your body cope and survive during stressful situations.
- At the time of noticing the car hurtling towards you, the brain sent a nerve impulse directly to your adrenals, causing them to secrete adrenaline.
- Adrenaline is the reason for the heightened state you felt after the event, as its role is to ensure you have the focus and energy you need to survive a life threatening situation. This results in high blood pressure, respiration and heart rate.
- The brain requires more glucose during this stressful time, so that the body and brain have more energy to survive. This causes the release of a number of hormones, which tell the adrenals to produce cortisol.
- The increased blood glucose levels we see associated with stressful events are due to the increased cortisol levels. Our bodies have actually adapted well to these sudden stressful events and can therefore effectively manage our near-death experience. That’s good news for you… in the short term.
- We also see cortisol being released during other stressful situations such as intense training sessions. Under normal conditions, cortisol rises rhythmically throughout the night, and peaks first thing in the morning.
These natural ‘one off’ releases of cortisol can actually be a good thing for the body, as they help regulate immune function, repair tendons/ligaments and may even accelerate fat loss.
The problems we see with cortisol is when the hormone is elevated for long periods of time. This chronic, low level stress that never quite goes away leads to physical problems.
So let’s look at this process again, but in a little more detail.
What is Stress?
One of the most common medical issues seen by the health care industry is stress related illness.
Whether we recognise them or not, there are a number of stresses that we will come into contact with daily. It is the intensity, frequency, and duration of each stress that combine to form our total stress load.
There are four major categories of stress:
- Physical Stress – such as overworking, poor nutrition, lack of sleep or athletic over training
- Chemical Stress – from environmental pollutants, food intolerances or IBS, poor diet and endocrine gland intolerances
- Thermal Stress – from over heating or over chilling of the body
- Emotional and Mental Stress – from family, friends, money, work etc
It’s the combination of these stresses on the body over time that can cause stress related illnesses.
You’ll likely never experience full blown adrenal fatigue, but you could experience a number of other negative symptoms during high stress times:
• Increased blood sugar levels (store more body fat)
• Suppressed pituitary function (low testosterone)
• Suppression of the immune function
• Reduced liver detoxification
• Increased inflammation
• Learning and memory issues
This is what occurs on the inside, but spotting the issues on the outside can be difficult.
Common symptoms are:
• Difficulty falling asleep
• Feeling lethargic most of the day
• Suffering from allergies or falling ill frequently
• Suffering from mood swings or feeling emotional
• Excessive perspiration, dizziness or blurred vision
See why getting on top of our stress levels are a must?
The Adrenal Glands
Our two adrenal glands, situated just above the kidneys, are the ‘command centres’ for certain hormonal operations.
They have a significant effect on the functioning and operation of every tissue, organ and gland in the body. We cannot live without them, and how well they function has a drastic impact on how we think and feel. The adrenal glands largely determine the energy of our responses to every change in our internal and external environment.
From a nutritional stance, the adrenal glands closely affect the utilisation of carbohydrates and fats, the conversion of fats and protein into energy, the distribution of stored fat, normal blood sugar regulation, and proper cardiovascular and gastrointestinal function. The protective activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant hormones secreted by the adrenals helps to minimise negative and allergic reactions to alcohol, drugs, foods and environmental
As we age, the adrenal glands become the major source of sex hormones in both men and women. These are strong and powerful hormones responsible for a range of emotional and psychological effects, including sex drive and the tendency to gain weight.
The adrenals are also linked to our disposition to develop certain diseases and our ability to overcome them. Essentially, the stronger the illness, the more critical the adrenal response becomes. This is why those with hyper- and hypo-adrenia will likely experience more frequent illness and longer lasting symptoms.
The Stress Hormone
Many consider cortisol to be a ‘bad’ hormone that should be always suppressed – but this isn’t correct. Cortisol is responsible for many life sustaining functions attributed to the adrenal glands. Many of the symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue actually occur from decreased levels of cortisol in the blood or inadequate levels during times of high stress.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because the body releases cortisol in order to help cope with stressful situations. Are you starting to see why we do actually need it? The immediate effects of cortisol are increased levels of fatty acids, proteins and glucose in the blood.
It is a catabolic hormone, that’s true. It takes protein from muscles, fatty acids from fatty tissues, increases gluconeogenesis (the process of making glucose), and decreases the body’s uses of glucose.
We see peaks and troughs of cortisol levels naturally throughout the day, with highest levels typically seen at 8am and the lowest between midnight and 4am.
Don’t underestimate the power of cortisol in your body, it has a number of important functions to play:
Cortisol is necessary for maintaining blood sugar levels; when levels are low, the adrenals produce more cortisol. Cortisol up-regulates gluconeogenesis which converts fats and protein into energy for the body.
Cortisol is anti-inflammatory and works effectively at reducing and preventing responses to allergies in nearly all tissues.
In reaction to an autoimmune response or inflammatory reaction in the body, blood cells are sent to defend the body and attack the invaders. Cortisol plays an important role here as it reduces irritation such as swelling or redness caused by the attacking white blood cells.
Cortisol can help regulate blood pressure through the contraction of the walls of the arteries. The higher the levels of cortisol in the body, the more contracted the mid sized arteries be- come. This increase in blood pressure directly affects the heart, and can increase the strength of contractions.
Central Nervous System
Cortisol influences behaviour, mood, excitability – behavioural changes which are a result of excessive or deficient cortisol levels.
We find ourselves back at the topic of stress and how to manage it. The body signals the adrenals to produce cortisol in times of stress. During stress, cortisol must simultaneously provide more blood glucose, mobilising fats and proteins for reserved energy, and modifying immune reactions, heartbeat, blood pressure, brain alertness and nervous system responsive- ness.
Without cortisol, these processes will not occur quickly enough to help us deal with the stress.
When we over-exhaust our system with too much chronic stress, the body responds by dampening down its response, resulting in low cortisol levels.
This is also known as adrenal fatigue, or hypoadrenia.
It’s fair to assume you currently have some stress in your life. It’s important to know what we can do nutritionally to support our health and reduce negative impacts from stress. I’ll out- line some of the key points I use with my HPL clients. The more stressed they are, the more these factors are applied in greater detail.
Eat small and often
You’ve learnt that in times of stress your body is burning through more carbohydrates for energy. It’s therefore common for those under stress to experience low blood sugar levels, as demand for glucose is higher.
This can result in hypoglycaemia, or at the very least, to increased cravings for sugar. Those with high stress levels are typically on a constant blood sugar rollercoaster and always looking for their next sugar fix. On top of this, they rely on stimulants such as coffee and sodas to see them throughout the day.
These uncontrollable food urges are likely to cause overeating, as the body constantly strives for homeostasis to balance blood sugar levels. And that overeating generally leads to weight gain.
It is important for those with a sweet tooth to eat regularly throughout the day, with consistent meal timings. The goal should be to never go hypoglycaemic.
Meals should be nutritionally balanced with adequate protein, fats and carbs from high quality food sources. Sugary food, caffeine and alcohol should be limited as these have a negative effect on blood sugar levels.
Intermittent fasting (IF) has become one of the most debated modern nutrition protocols, and rightfully so because it breaks a lot of rules. For decades we have been told to eat every 2-3 hours and to eat breakfast upon waking to ‘kick-start’ our metabolism for optimal body composition and health.
IF goes against this by reducing meal frequency and delaying breakfast. Many fasting proto- cols suggest eating less during the day and feasting at night.
Fasting isn’t a tool I’d recommend for those with high stress levels as it puts even more pressure on the adrenals to maintain a level of blood glucose.
When recommending IF protocols it’s important for the user to be in a good state of health, already eating whole unprocessed foods, getting sufficient sleep, managing stress and exercising well. It should therefore be used as an addition to an already effective and consistent training and nutrition strategy.
Eat Your Carbs
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy, and this becomes more apparent during times of stress.
To provide the energy to support recovery from the stress, follow a higher carbohydrate diet.
A low calorie intake during stressful times or recovery from high stress will only heighten the depletion of glycogen, breakdown of muscle tissue and put more demand on the adrenals.
Therefore you should look to eat at calorie maintenance level or a slight surplus during stressful times. We will be working out these levels for you in Part Two.
Family, friends, career and money issues can all be stressful issues at times, and it’s important to manage these as much as possible. Find the root cause(s) of stress and then put procedures into place to reduce, manage or eliminate them.
Remember to relax, laugh, sleep and have sex as much as possible, as these reduce stress levels in the body. Reduce the main stressors in your lifestyle and remember not to take life too seriously all the time.
One of the best things I ever did to reduce my own stress levels is taking more time out for myself. Each day I start with an activity that I really enjoy doing. That’s currently going for a brisk walk around the park while listening to a podcast on my phone. It means I start the day with exercise and learning, before I do anything else. So if I have to work late or if a change of plans happen, I’m cool with that because I’ve already had some ‘me’ time. But I always try to do something similar on the evening too, as it’s the perfect way to unwind from a busy day. Give it a go and see for yourself.
About The Author
— SFN Expo 2015 (@SFNExpo) February 11, 2015
Ru Anderson BSc (HONS) Performance Nutritionist, Writer, Speaker, Competitive Athlete, Owner of Exceed Nutrition Ru is a ‘performance’ focused nutritionist. He helps motivated and driven people to be at their best, to look, feel and perform better, all day every day. Ru is the founder and owner of Exceed Nutrition which has become the industry’s ‘go-to’ online nutrition coaching website in just a few short years. Using this platform, Ru personally coaches his clients through the fundamentals of achieving the body and health they’ve always wanted, with nutrition being the cornerstone. He also created the Exceed Nutrition Certification for elite and ambitious personal trainers to excel their coaching business and get better results with their clients using the power of nutrition. Ru has also toured the UK to deliver his invaluable ‘HPL’ nutrition seminar, and has been a guest speaker at some of the biggest fitness events. He’s a former ‘fat guy’ turned nutritionist, and has also competed at national level in drug- free bodybuilding. Ru’s ‘HPL’ podcast is where he interviews some of the industry’s most successful and knowledgeable people. It has recently been top rated by iTunes. Website: www.ExceedNutrition.com Book Website: www.HighPerformanceLiving.co.uk Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AndersonNutrition1 iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/ru-andersons-high-performance/id811103169?mt=2