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Stress, The Autonomic Nervous System, and a Gremlins Reference

It’s like they always say, stressed is desserts spelled backwards.

How convenient that, at this very moment, Mom and I are talking about “stress management 101” and she has used the word “wine” three times in the same sentence. Oh, and she also mentioned yoga.

Stress is a natural part of being human. Almost everything we do as trainers/coaches is manipulate stressors so that our bodies adapt and (by our definitions) improve.

We eat healthier, relax, and (try) to get lots of sleep in order to reduce stress on our bodies. Then, we go to the gym and induce just enough stress so that our body rebuilds itself stronger and more prepared for the next occurrence.

If you’ve never heard of the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, it’s pretty cool. This test lists 43 different life events and matches them with a corresponding impact score. You simply figure out which things have happened to you in the past year and then add up all of the scores together.

The theory behind the scale is that illness can be linked to stress. Depending on your total score, you could have anywhere from a 30% to 80% likelihood of illness in the near future.

The most stressful event is the death of a spouse with a corresponding impact score of 100. It is followed by divorce, marital separation, jail term, and death of a close family member. Other stressful events include gain of a new family member (like a kitten), outstanding personal achievement (like getting a fresh haircut, which I did today), and Christmas approaching.

The conclusion here is that stress is not only a part of fitness and nutrition, but life in general. And what better time to address stress than during the holiday season?

Stress and Hormones

Let’s just cover hormones realllllll quick. First, and most obvious, is cortisol. Known to many as the stress hormone, cortisol is released in response to stress and serves to spare glucose by promoting gluconeogenesis (breakdown of amino and fatty acids for glucose production). Cortisol prioritizes your body’s processes during stressful times by diverting energy away from processes that it deems less important (e.g. the immune system). For this reason, prolonged elevated cortisol levels can, at the very least, hurt your recovery from gym sessions or make you prone to getting sick.

Cortisol acts against insulin by inhibiting the use of glucose in the body, instead promoting the breakdown of proteins and fatty acids. For this reason, prolonged elevated cortisol levels can promote the breakdown of muscle tissue. It also inhibits the uptake of amino acids by cells, decreasing protein synthesis.

The next hormone I’ll touch on is epinephrine. As one of the fight-or-flight hormones, epinephrine increases the heart and respiratory rate, stimulates the breakdown of glycogen and lipids, and promotes muscle contraction. In simplest terms, epinephrine literally prepares you to either fight something or run away from it quickly.

Diet systems that include intermittent fasting or a similar “under-eating” period take advantage of this fight-or-flight mode to get stuff done. But I’ll mention that again later in this post.

The third hormone I’ll hit is ghrelin. Not to be confused with gremlins (which you can’t expose to sunlight, get wet, or feed after midnight), ghrelin induces hunger and helps regulate bodyweight. Also, as an interesting fact, ghrelin levels seems to decrease moreso after meals of protein and carbs than fats. There is also evidence that ghrelin levels increase with higher stress levels.

When your ghrelin levels increase, you might look like a gremlin after midnight (not like this one, which is undeniably cute).

The Stress Response And How It Affects Us

The fight-or-flight response, at it’s highest intensity, is characterized by things like a rapid heart beat, dry mouth, shaking, and tunnel vision.

But just because we aren’t quite there all the time doesn’t mean that our sympathetic nervous system isn’t constantly in the “On” position. (Sidenote: our sympathetic nervous system is technically always active to maintain balance in the body.) But what happens when our sympathetic nervous system begins to win the tug-of-war against it’s brother, the parasympathetic nervous system?

Blood is shunted away from our torso and toward the skeletal muscles of our body in order to prepare us for action. Rest and digestion take a backseat to this mini fight-or-flight mode. The SNS controls hormones like epinephrine and, therefore, we end up with increased blood pressure,  a quicker heartbeat, fast, shallow breathing, and muscles that are constantly in the “On” position as well.

And when the body perceives stress, cortisol and ghrelin begin to dominate the hormone scene and make you hungry and, eventually, fatter.

When we can’t turn our SNS off (or at least turn the volume down), things like glycogenesis can’t happen and our recovery from things like weightlifting is inhibited.

Additionally, if our PNS can’t ever get a word in, how are we supposed to digest our food completely? The sympathetic nervous system is too busy commanding blood away from the digestive system. Have digestive issues? It could be stress.

And lastly, the PNS plays a huge role in sexual activity. Although it might seem counterintuitive, your sexual escapades probably aren’t going to go too well if you really can’t shut off that SNS. You can Google it yourself if you’re interested.

For all good questions.

What Can We Do About It

For many people, the go-to response to a stressful day is to take it out on the treadmill or to hit the iron. But not so fast! To correctly combat stress, we must first recognize that exercise is stress! It’s just carefully programmed stress that we self-induce in order to build our tolerance toward it. To showcase this, cortisol is highly elevated after exercise!

When life gets very stressful, it’s important to reign it in a bit when it comes to workouts. Workouts are meant to stimulate a response, not annihilate your body.

The first and important step to reducing stress is to realize that you can’t mitigate all stress, all the time. There are many events on the Holmes and Rahe scale that cannot be undone or fixed and your body is going to respond to them.

The second step is to recognize that the sympathetic nervous system shouldn’t be placed in the “Off” position permanently. You’ll thank me during the zombie apocalypse.

Guess I’ll be heading to New Hampshire then!

But we can do things to shut down our sympathetic nervous system when the time is appropriate!

My favorite ways to destress and get that PNS working overtime are to practice diaphragmatic breathing (which is what all breathing should be, LOL), to get to bed with 7-9 hours ahead of me before I need to be awake, and to consume my largest meal (mostly of protein and carbs to reduce those ghrelin levels) at dinner.

So here’s the summary again:

  1. Breath. However you want to do this is fine. I’m a fan of PRI-style breathing, but yoga and meditation work too. Whatever piques your interest. When we focus on breathing, we draw some blood back to that diaphragm and avoid quick, shallow breaths.
  2. Sleep. Turn off your phone, computer, and TV 30-60 minutes before you go to bed and make sure your bedroom is cool and dark. Couple these things with a little rebound hypoglycemia from #3 and we have a recipe for a good night’s sleep!
  3. Eat a large meal (and most of your carbs) at the end of the day. This will help your body transition into a PNS-dominant state where the focus is on digestion and relaxtion. And no, it won’t make you fat while you sleep.
  4. Cater your workouts to your current stress levels. Make sure that during extremely stressful times, you reduce your frequency and/or intensity accordingly. That way, you make consistent progress (or at least maintain) while not overdoing it.

Speaking to my last point, it’s important to remember that moderation is okay. You don’t need to win the workout Olympics every time you step inside the gym, or even every day for that matter. With the holiday season in full-swing (and knowing that “Christmas approaching” receives a score of 12 on the Holmes and Rahe scale), destressing becomes more important than ever.

That sympathetic nervous system might be helpful at work or while trying to knock out some of that last-minute gift shopping, but not knowing how to turn if off is a recipe for everything from overtraining to digestive issues to perpetually tight muscles (like the upper traps, for instance).

I think destressing is often thought of as this broad term for this thing that we should all do, but that nobody has time for. But that isn’t true. We can do simple things like 5 minute breathing drills or turning off the TV before bed. You don’t need to hit up the newest yoga studio and participate in a 90 minute class every day. Just make small changes.

Remember: moderation is okay. Whatever your goal is (aesthetic or performance), training is a marathon and not a sprint. Unless of course you’re training to sprint. In that case, I’d advise against running too many marathons.

This is exactly the third time I’ve used this photo. Have I convinced you yet?

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