Cut the fat

The effect of stress on body composition

February 28, 2018

The effect of stress on body composition

February 28, 2018

There’s more to changing your body composition than calorie counting and cardio. People often make the mistake of focusing so intensely on these two factors that they overlook the profound impact that stress has on the human body. While it may be true that you can’t “out-train” a bad diet, it’s near impossible to lose body fat and maintain muscle mass if you’re in a state of stress.

The problem with mainstream society is that we want to understand stress in a way that enables us to take on more, aiming to manage it rather than reduce it. We congratulate and make heroes of those who can burn the candle at both ends without breaking down. But burnout is inevitable. And although we may show a calm exterior, our internal state never lies.

Physical and emotional stress manifest internally in the same way—they both release hormones, adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This combination of hormones has been vital for human survival since the caveman days, triggering the “flight or fight” response which helps us react quickly and think clearly when we are in danger. The problem is that the body cannot tell the difference between being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger and having an inbox overflowing with emails, the stress response is the same. In either situation, adrenaline works to increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure and boost energy supplies while cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases blood sugars and the supply of glucose to the brain.

While this may be a life-saving acute response, elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol over time result in chronic stress which has become a huge health problem in western culture. In a culture taught to manage stress rather than reduce it, people often overlook stress as a factor contributing to their health. Low-calorie diets, excessive supplements and detox diets all seem to be applied before addressing the true problem of chronic stress and the resultant poor sleep.

So how is it that stress affects your body composition?

If you’re someone committed to changing your body composition studies show that even if you eat well and exercise regularly, chronic high stress can prevent fat loss and muscle gain. This is due to:

1. Hormones

The human body locks down fat stores when stress hormones are present in the blood stream. This is a long standing survival reaction and the major mechanism that inhibits fat loss.

2. Poor sleep

Stress is shown to keep 40% of the American population up at night and, in fact, worrying has been identified as the main cause of insomnia. This affects weight loss in two ways. Firstly, poor sleep often leads to the use of caffeine or alcohol to feel better which further exacerbates the cycle resulting in extreme energy highs and lows. Secondly, a lack of sleep affects the regulation of hormones ghrelin and leptin that control appetite. You know when you’re tired, feeling hungry but nothing seems to satisfy the cravings? Your body needs a good night’s sleep.

3. Cravings

When we are stressed we crave pick-me-up foods for biological and psychological reasons. Sugary foods give us a quick fix of carbohydrates releasing ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin. Foods high in both fat and sugar provide both an energy boost and can have a temporary calming effect.

The good news? Altering stress will have a profound impact on your health. The only catch is that it takes a certain amount of reflection and critical analysis of your life. Often it’s a collection of small shifts that make a big difference to your overall stress levels.

Try these 5 strategies to reduces stress today:

    1. Meditation – as little as 10 minutes a day is shown to control stress, reduce anxiety, improve cardiovascular health and relation.
    2. Reach out – speaking to friends, family or health professionals is helpful in working through stressful situations.
    3. Prioritise – reduce your load. Saying ‘no’ to events, extra work or extra activities is very powerful. Spend time doing those things that light you up and cut out activities that ‘leak’ energy.
    4. Unplug – nominate one day per week to disconnect from technology completely.
    5. Tune in – listen to your body and take preventative action before you burnout.

If you take anything away from this, just understand that stress is not something you can simply cover up without paying the price later. Want to cut the fat? Then it’s time to listen to your body. Make the most of your clean eating and physical training by first reducing chronic stress and focusing on quality sleep – these simple changes will not only help you shift your body composition, but also have a profound ripple effect on your long-term health.


Image by Africa Studio/Shutterstock

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