You have been training hard, eating nothing but high quality foods, and staying as active as possible, and yet, your body isn’t changing quite as much as you hoped. Sound familiar? This is the case for many people. So, what could be keeping you from losing that last five pounds of bodyfat? The answer is probably stress.
The world we live in today is incredibly stressful. We work long hours, have endless bills to pay, and have excessive noise levels in cities assault that our ears. Pretty much everything in modern life causes our stress levels to raise and in turn raise our levels of cortisol.
Cortisol is not a problem in itself, in fact it can be highly beneficial. This hormone is a big player in the ‘fight or flight’ response in the human body, but I will get to that later. It is the excess amounts of cortisol we produce that are the issue. Cortisol is the body’s primary catabolic hormone, which means it’s a hormone that breaks down tissue. It is released under conditions of high physical or mental stress and also under high temperature – conditions that are everywhere we go.
When our levels of cortisol become excessive we increase our risk of:
- Reduced glucose utilization
- Impaired immunity
- Reduced muscle mass
- Increased abdominal fat
With two of the effects of cortisol being a reduction in muscle mass and an increase in the storage of abdominal fat, controlling the level of cortisol in your system should play an important role in your lifestyle if you wish to get the long sought after six-pack or even just health in general.
As mentioned earlier, cortisol is part of the fight or flight response that we experience under stress. When our body is faced with a life or death situation, cortisol kicks in, increasing the flow of glucose to the tissues and bloodstream, giving a short-term energy boost and a natural aid to surviving physical danger.
There are few actual life or death situations encountered in modern life, but this does not mean the body reacts any differently. Whenever we get stressed, the same response that could have once saved our lives kicks in, but as we are not burning this energy off by fighting a sabre-toothed tiger, the additional energy is simply stored as fat. This is the same whether the stress was emotional (an argument) or physical (when that argument escalates). Another effect is a spike in appetite, leading to cravings for foods that are high in sugar, fat, or both.
The good news is that reducing the amount of this hormone is a thoroughly enjoyable, relaxing process. The first two tools for reduction you most likely are already using: exercise and nutrition. Exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic, releases endorphins, which will offset any cortisol released during your workouts, provided that your nutritional needs are met. If those needs are not being met, your body will not be able to process the cortisol as efficiently. Having carbohydrates combined with protein post-workout will help replenish your glucose and nitrate levels, bringing cortisol back under control much faster than usual.
Stress management will be next on your list of tools for managing cortisol. As cortisol is released in response to mentally and physically stressful events, it makes sense to try to reduce these. This is the enjoyable part: just do things that make you happy. It is as simple as that. Get a massage, go for an easy swim, or play with your children. Yoga, Primal Move, meditation, and things of this nature will all help you to stay active while simultaneously relaxing your body and mind.
Rest and relaxation – these are two things that the vast majority of us are simply not getting enough of. Sleep is especially important for cortisol management. When sleep-deprived, the nervous system remains in a constant state of alertness, requiring much higher levels of cortisol, therefore, getting a good night’s sleep (eight hours) will naturally reduce the cortisol in the body while simultaneously replenishing and restoring the muscles, organs, and tissues.
Perhaps you will not be able to make all of these changes in one go, that is fine. Just add one little change at a time and gradually your cortisol will drop, you will be much more relaxed, your energy levels will elevate, and so will your mood. A good way to begin is to pick just one of the ideas mentioned above and start fitting it into your lifestyle. Spend a week, maybe two just on this modification, until it becomes routine, at which point it is time to add another. Gradually changing in this way will prevent your body from any additional stress that big changes can create.
As a society we are obsessed with health, beauty, and fitness (whatever your definition of fitness is) yet, ironically, it may be our obsession that is holding us back from achieving those goals. We must learn to relax, enjoy our diet, and take pleasure in our training to really get the most out of it. Life is too short to stress, after all.
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