How does stress affect hormones and weight loss or muscle gain

Managing stress is a challenge in itself and It’s not realistic to say “avoid stress”; how does one do that? 

Stress is everywhere and part of our daily lives. What we must focus on is building up resilience, maintaining nutritional needs of the endocrine system and taking part in daily relaxation practices to make resilient our coping mechanisms.  

One of the most stress inducing factors is trying to do too much. We may expect too much of ourselves with little time to do it in. Organising your daily schedule sensibly and try not to overwhelm your day is a skill in itself – we must learn to see the word no more often.

It is true that the basic mechanism of weight gain or fat gain is an in-balance between caloric intake and energy expenditure. But that is not the total story behind why people gain weight or fat and then have trouble losing it. Increasing physiological, biochemical and genetic evidence suggests that being overweight/carrying excess fat is a complex disorder of appetite regulation, energy metabolism and immune neuroendocrine miscommunication; involving imbalances in the secretion of regulatory hormones. These hormones are regulated by the endocrine glands; the thyroid, pituitary and adrenals. 

We must not overlook genetic disposition either. Some individuals will need to be more patient with the genetic hand we are dealt.  This is not to say you can influence change at a genetic level ; this is totally possible but one must realise doing this is  basically trying to rewrite your genetic blueprint. So  for some people this task will require much more discipline and effort in the long term.  

“Genetic changes can alter which protein is made, epigenetic changes affect gene expression to turn genes “on” and “off.” Since your environment and behaviours, such as diet and exercise, can result in epigenetic changes, it is easy to see the connection between your genes and your behaviours and environment

Exercise can change the way your genes are regulated, scientists have shown. These changes led to an increase in enzymes that are involved in energy production. These proteins control the expression of a number of other genes in the cell”.

With this in mind it is of worthy note that all exercise is not made equal. We want to take part in more strength based type exercise which is shown to boost anabolic hormone production. Anabolic hormone production promotes growth and repair (said genetic change). Strength tatting also stimulates plasticity in the CNS (central nervous system). The CNS is your hardwired programming – so improving CNS strength, speed, learning you are literally reprogramming your internal computer. 

Ok lets move on because I want to discuss the role of the adrenal glands and stress management.

But quickly before I do I want to say about two years ago now I experienced extreme adrenal fatigue. I was overwhelmed at work and in my personal life, I couldn’t sleep more than 5 hours, I couldn’t train. Anytime I tried to do some lifting It was like my muscle where running on 5% battery. I was trying to plug the holes with caffeine and sugar which only made things worse by causing headaches, afternoon energy crashes and a lack of mental focus. it was not fun. its all fixed now with help from a mentor but two years later I am still mindful in keeping my adrenals in top condition. 

The adrenal glands are divided into two parts, the inner medal and the outer cortex. The cortex secrets more than thirty different steroids and hormones (yes your body produces natural steroids). The most important one (corticosteroids) are cortisol, aldosterone and adrenal androgens(sex hormones). Cortisol is the most powerful hormone secreted in response to stress and is actually very necessary for many bodily functions. We need cortisol to do is job at certain times of the day but if it is not regulated properly by the body it can cause havoc due to its power of influence. 

Exercise is a form of stress and during exercise cortisol is released and it very much needed to train at a high level. Cortisol via the sympathetic nervous system (we have no conscious control over this) will respond to threat or perceived danger (or within training environment the physical challenge) by increasing heat rate and contraction force, dilation of blood vessels, dilation of airways, increase the conversion of glycogen(stored energy) to glucose(blood sugar) and increase metabolism (burning energy and energy production for cells). Your body is an awesome bio-mechanical machine. It does all of this without your conscious control and of course how well these process operate rests heavily on the nutrients you provide your body

Stress can also be expressed as nutritional, emotional, mental, psychological and spiritual stress. All these stresses will elevate cortisol production ; remember involuntarily. Stimulants like pre-workouts and caffeine can exhaust the adrenals by stimulating them to produce huge amounts of cortisol and epinephrine/norepinephrine (adrenaline). This leads to fatigue, lethargy, brain sluggishness and a slowing down of the metabolism. This process can be years in thee making so logically can take time to improve. 

Cortisol serves two functions; energy  production and anti-inflammation. It will signal glucose metabolism by burning fat and protein for fuel(metabolism). Even releasing proteins from muscle and fatty acids from adipose tissue. Glucose is the nervous systems main source of fuel. In a training environment this is positive ; we have energy for lifting, running whatever it is. However we need this elevation of function to switch off or else we will be in a metabolic hole. 

If cortisol is constantly elevated due to daily pressure it will cause unwanted effects. Cortisol helps produce glucose from proteins, which causes an increase in blood sugar(glucose).  If this extra glucose is not needed like in normal daily activities then it will be stared as fat. Over secretion of cortisol has been proven to increase abdominal fat. Remember cortisol beaks down muscle tissue so if it’s just flowing around the blood stream and not being used its going to eat away at precious muscle tissue. Lean muscle tissue is much more metabolically active than adipose tissue ; the more muscle tissue you have the higher your metabolic rate will be at rest and during exercise. Literally more muscle equals more calorie burn, always and forever. 

Increase in cortisol levels also cause food cravings for high fat, high sugar, high carbohydrate foods. These foods may act as a temporary mood boosters but they add to the amount of glucose flowing around the blood stream not being used ; so therefore we would get more storage of fat. Too much glucose in the bloodstream also send signals to the endocrine system to release more cortisol and insulin to encourage the cells to absorb the glucose for energy production. Can you now see the beginnings of a viscous cycle occurring. 

Because the cells are not being required to produce energy for danger/perceived threat or physical activity (you’re just inactively being stressed) – becoming insulin resistant (not being able to absorb the glucose insulin is encouraging them to absorb). Even if we begin exercising to counterbalance this what type of exercise and stimulus you put the body under will either encourage more stress/catabolic/breakdown hormones or more anabolic/repair/growth hormones. This is why what type of exercise we do is also very important and how we do it. But thats a whole other in depth discussion to be had. Different types and modalities of training will either elevate stress hormones or elevate muscle building hormones.

It may all seem doom and gloom but awareness and recognising a problem, understanding exactly what’s going on can lead us to a path of enlightenment. 

There are many things we can do actively to improve our hormonal balance by productively reducing stress.  

Reducing stress will improve your body ability to burn fat, grow muscle and improve brain function – performance.

Here are 6 tips to reduce stress.

  1. Spend time outdoors in nature and take daily walks.
  2. Practice daily mediation and mindfulness.
  3. Practice yin yoga.
  4. Swap training schedule to mostly strength/power/speed training. Ditch the HIIT and overly lengthy cardio sessions.
  5. Read more books and spend less times on screens.
  6. Eat a high protein, high vegetable and low glycemic index carbs diet.
  7. Organise your environment into a more relaxing atmosphere. 

One last thing before we wrap up this blog. The Dilts pyramid is a model of personal change. I recently posted this on my Instagram but I want to include it in this blog because it is extremely relevant. 

The Dilts pyramid It consists of a series of levels, each of which is constituted from, while also following a particular course of action from the element below. This model conceptualises the metaphysical nature of creating your own reality.

I find the model useful in two main ways. Firstly, it offers a structure to diagnose what it is holding someone back. Secondly real change wont happen unless it is manifested in behaviour and most importantly environment. Doing things differently is both the route to and the result of higher-level change.

This model is a powerful tool in reverse engineering a vision we have for ourselves. Each lower base has to be in alignment with the level above. For example if there is a vision you want to create for yourself ie Improve adrenal function/reduce stress so we can burn more fat grow more muscle and one of the lower bases is not in alignment with the vision; then we have a problem. 

The three bottom bases are structures I work on developing with clients. Environment, behaviour and  capabilities form an important part of the coaching process which then allows them to travel towards better beliefs, identity and the overall vision. 

No one said its going to be easy but it will be worth it. 

PS.  Preparatory to creating a coaching strategy for each client I first ask them to complete the newly designed “PMF health and metabolism assessment questionnaire” – which give’s me a considerable insight into the physiological health of the client – it’s 11 pages long. 

This insight allows me to focus on creating daily and long term goals, mindset habits and creating a healthy lifestyle. We also assess metabolism and then proceed to create a training plan, diet and supplementation support. 

Please click the link below for further details and to book a consultation:

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