So you’re stressed out, like to the max. On top of that, you’re up at 5 am every day to do your “HIIT” workout after getting maybe a solid 5 hours of sleep total. You’re also eating on average 1,200-1,300 calories per day, energy is low, and you’re on your third cup of coffee. Work deadlines, your kids, your relationship… it’s weighing you down and stressing you out, and you have ZERO coping mechanisms.
Here’s what you need to know about stress, it comes in two forms: acute and chronic.
Chronic stress is where we see a downfall! Chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, which is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and is known as a “stress hormone.” When our bodies experience a “threat” or stressor, we produce a “fight or flight” response in which cortisol is released. Acute stressors may be factors such as environmental stress (family, work, relationships), exercising, and injury. Once a stressor has passed, cortisol levels tend to return to normal. But with our ever-stressful lives and environments, our bodies may feel like we are constantly “under attack”, causing a constant release of cortisol within the body… no Bueno.
Cortisol plays a large role in immune health, inflammation, regulating blood sugar, and energy usage. Although acute elevation of cortisol is normal, chronically elevated levels can take an extremely negative toll on us. This can affect overall health AND fat loss progress. It can create hormonal imbalances, body fat gain, insulin resistance, decreased blood glucose regulation, muscle breakdown, poor sleep, weakened immune system, digestive issues, feeling “wired/tired”, sugar/salt cravings…. you get it. Cortisol is needed for the proper functioning of our bodies and our health, but we want to ensure we’re taking steps to reduce levels if we’re aware that we are under constant stress.
My top tips for combatting chronic cortisol elevation:
- Reduce overall stress. I know, I know – everyone tells you to reduce stress. But this is going to be the main driver in bringing those cortisol levels down. Let go of negative relationships, set boundaries at work, carve out 30 minutes of your day to practice stress-reducing activities (journal, meditate, watch a favorite show, go for a walk), and leave the “constantly grinding” mentality behind – you can’t pour from an empty cup.
- Prioritize sleep. Create a bed-time routine and stick to it. Meditate, light a candle, read a book, and put your phone on Do Not Disturb one hour before you close your eyes. Aim for at least 7-9 hours per night. For all my people who are running off 5-6 hours and saying “I’m fine!!” …. you’re not fine.
- Reduce workout frequency / intensity + prioritize recovery. Are you constantly overdoing cardio? Are you constantly pushing your body’s limits with little recovery? Training is a stressor on our bodies, and too much for too long can increase cortisol levels. You have to give yourself a proper amount of rest days from the gym.
- EAT ENOUGH. Yes, constantly dieting and undereating is a stressor on our bodies. Start fueling properly and understand how many calories your body truly needs to function optimally.
- Focus on anti-inflammatory foods. Reduce the overall intake of processed foods and added sugars. Focus on foods that you digest well and that can help to reduce inflammation (omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, fibrous vegetables, whole grains, lean protein).
- Reduce the extra caffeine. Despite popular belief, coffee is not a meal. Do you really need that extra cup of coffee or energy drink? Too much caffeine can actually have the opposite effect on us and start to make us feel more tired.
- Create meals and snacks that help to balance blood sugars. Ensure that you are always pairing two macronutrients together and consuming full meals. Aim to pair a carb with a fat or protein during snacks. At mealtime, aim to fill your plate with fibrous veggies, a lean source of protein, a complex carb, and some healthy fats. Focus on consuming meals that your body responds well to, help you to feel satiated, and provide an adequate amount of fiber as well.
- Consider taking adaptogens. These are herbs that help to support the body’s natural stress response. Some to consider – Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Maca. Understand that no amount of adaptogen or supplement will “fix” your problems if you do not address the root cause(s) of your overall stress, though.
I suggest choosing one or two of these strategies to begin with, building up habits with them, and implementing more from there. If you’re not managing you’re stress, it can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, and fitness progress!
Do you have coping mechanisms to handle chronic stress and accomplish your fat loss goals? If not, take a deep breath, I got you!