Coach Courtney wrote a comprehensive article (https://locomotionfit.com/what-is-stress) on everything you need to know about stress. Today we’re going to focus on the effects nutrition and exercise can have on stress levels.
Anything that knocks your body out of homeostasis (your individual equilibrium or balance) is considered a stressor. When you eat a poor diet that is high in processed foods, sodium, saturated fats and sugar, you can overload your organ systems that work to filter out things you don’t need (like your liver and kidney). All of your organ systems work together, so if the liver and kidney cannot efficiently do their job, everything else struggles too. You cannot achieve homeostasis and your body starts to sound the alarm to stay alive.
It is also important to understand that everything you eat sends your body information. Each molecule of food contributes to a unique set of instructions about which hormones to make and release, what proteins are expressed and if we need genes to turn on or off. If your diet is unbalanced the messages your body receives may be confusing.
At homeostasis, hormonal signaling in your brain and body should be tightly regulated. But if you consistently experience huge swings in your hormone levels in response to the foods you eat that regulation is thrown off balance. This type of stress is like a leaky faucet dripping into your bucket. At first, the slow drops aren’t much of a concern and might be easy to ignore, but after a while if the facet hasn’t been fixed, the accumulation of water can cause significant damage.
Additionally, chronically under-eating, especially restricting calories below your basal metabolic rate will also elevate cortisol levels5. When you are not eating enough, your body may not have enough resources to carry on basic functions. This puts your body in “crisis-mode”, but humans are extremely resilient, so your brain activates a stress response to downregulate metabolism and to keep your body going on adrenaline and cortisol.
Your diet can be your worst enemy or your biggest ally. Again, this is all about awareness. Remember that cortisol causes changes to your appetite by making you more intensely crave carbs and sugar (to quickly replenish energy). But if you don’t really need that energy (because you aren’t fighting a predator), those foods will lead to huge blood sugar spikes and crashes, perpetuating your stressed state.
You can, however, acknowledge that your body is trying to protect you and instead provide it with the nutrients to support your organs, gut and brain. Do this by eating balanced meals of healthy fats, complex carbs and high quality protein. Stress creates greater physiological demands, increasing your need for specific nutrients like vitamin B, vitamin C, selenium and mageniusm6.
Include lots of vegetables and think about building meals that include three to five different colors. The different nutrients in vegetables give them their characteristic color, so this strategy helps to ensure you are providing your body with lots of resources.
In general, you should feel energized from your workout. Sure, immediately after you finish something tough you may need 10-20 minutes to recover but if you are regularly hitting a wall mid-workout or leaving the gym feeling like you need a nap to go on, you are overloading your system.
This one is a hard pill to swallow, especially if you use exercise as a form of stress relief. It is important to understand that exercise in itself elicits a large stress response from the body. We experience a lot of benefits from the acute adaptive changes in response to that stress (a boost in energy, mood, metabolism) and a healthy body can easily return to normal functioning afterwards. However, if your bucket is getting full, a high intensity workout is enough to push you over the edge.
If you are struggling with stress, think about taking more rest days between your workouts and opt for lower intensity movements like strength training, yoga, walking or hiking. You can still enjoy your CrossFit workout but consider taking the intensity down several notches- scale the rep scheme, lower the weight, think about just moving your body instead of pushing your limits. This might require you to LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR (which also will help empty your bucket) but your body will thank you in the long run.
Written by Coach Courtney