Chronic, long-term stress is like poison to your body. As grim as that sounds, it couldn’t be more true. Hypothyroidism. Low testosterone. Reduced insulin sensitivity. Poor digestion. Fat gain. Poor sleep. Brain fog. Low energy. All of these can be traced back to stress at some level.
Now What Are The Facts About Stress?
We all know what it feels like to be under pressure at work or at home, and this is often what most people think of when they hear the word stress. In reality, stress comes in many forms from emotional to physical, mental and even social.
But the really important point here is that all stresses cause the same “stress response” in your body. Adrenaline goes up. Cortisol rises. Blood is diverted to your muscles and away from your digestive tract and organs. Normally, this only lasts a short time in order for you to overcome the stress, allowing your body to recover and even adapt to the stress after the fact (think of exercise, for example). But when stress is chronic and persistent, there’s no chance for your body to recover, and the stress slowly and continually eats away at your health.
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This is why preventing chronic stress needs to be a priority for anyone looking to improve their hormonal health and live a higher quality of life.
Chronic Stress Shuts Down Health
The hormones that rise during short-term stress — primarily adrenaline and cortisol — are important for mobilizing energy to help you overcome whatever stressor you’re facing. Think of when you’re lifting weights in the gym. Lifting weights requires more energy than you normally produce, so your body releases adrenaline and cortisol to help produce more energy. However, creating this extra energy is taxing on your body and wears it down. Over the next few days following the workout, your body recovers, and even adapts further, helping you become more resistant to that stress.
But what happens if the stress is long-lasting? What if you’re dealing with something that leaves your adrenaline and cortisol raises for weeks, months, or even years at a time? When this happens, these hormones start to suppress healthy hormones like active thyroid hormone, testosterone, progesterone, pregnenolone and DHEA, while raising other stressful hormones like estrogen and prolactin.
The end result is lowered overall energy production, meaning less energy for your body to perform all of the high-level health functions it needs to. Since your body prioritizes survival above all else, this means that the more “expendable” functions like immune system function, sexual health, skin quality, expansive thinking and recovery are all reduced, in order to keep your heart beating and your organs working enough to keep you alive. This also makes sense evolutionarily since we would want to conserve energy during prolonged periods of stress (like a long famine), but this hurts our quality of life in the modern world where famine isn’t a common reality.
The 4 Most Common Stressors
So since all stressors cause this reaction in the body, we want to do our best to limit common stressors and help bring our bodies’ back into the recovered state, where chronic stress is low. And with that, let’s look at four of the most common causes of stress.
1. Low Carb Diets
While carbs aren’t technically essential, since our bodies can create them from certain amino acids and fats, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a benefit to consuming an adequate amount. It’s best to think of carbs as the high octane fuel in the body. When your cells are burning carbs using the oxidative metabolism, they’re creating lots of energy in a very healthy way. When carbs in the diet are too low, however, your body will use adrenaline and cortisol to release more fat for fuel and convert protein to the carbs it does need.
In fact, the very basic action of the stress response, at its core, is to release and create more glucose (carbohydrate). When glucose is too low, this same stress response will be activated to increase the amount of glucose in your blood. This is fine in the short-term, but if you continue to follow a low carb diet, that elevated adrenaline and cortisol will start to have a negative effect on your cellular energy production, leading to a chronically stressed state.
And while it might sound appealing to burn more fat, you’re actually more likely to store fat in the long-term once your body has fallen into that chronically stressed state. On top of that, carbs trigger the release of insulin, which decreases cortisol and adrenaline in the blood. Carbs actively shut down the stress response. It’s no wonder, then, that low carb diets are associated with lower testosterone levels: the stress hormones become chronically high, causing testosterone to dip. The same would be true for women and the protective hormone progesterone (which is analogous to the female version of testosterone).
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So what is an adequate amount of carbs to keep stress at bay? Typically, one gram per pound of bodyweight per day is a good minimum, but you can eat even more — up to two to three grams per pound of bodyweight — as long as you’re also getting adequate protein and fat without consuming too many overall calories. If you’re doing lots of physical activity, you should go a bit higher in carbs, since exercise tends to deplete carb stores. Many athletes doing intense training will go up to five to eight grams per pound of bodyweight.
2. Poor Gut Health
Hippocrates once said, “All disease starts in the gut”. Given that chronic stress also has such wide-reaching, negative effects in the body, it makes sense that there is a connection between your gut health and stress levels. Specifically, your gut’s purpose is to absorb nutrients from the food you eat while preventing the stuff you don’t want from being absorbed. When your gut becomes unhealthy (which can be caused by stress itself), the cells have a harder time keeping out what you don’t want in your body.
One of the biggest offenders here is something called endotoxin, or lipopolysaccharide, or to make things much simpler, LPS. LPS is created by the bacteria in your large intestine and usually is not absorbed into the bloodstream. But when the gut cells are weakened, LPS can get in, burdening your liver and leading to a high stress response. This is of course an ongoing spiral, since that increased stress will cause an even weaker gut, which causes even more stress and so on.
The most beneficial thing you can do, today, to improve your gut health, is to drink warm bone broth with a little coconut oil in it. Bone broth has nutrients and amino acids that are very healing, specifically for the gut cells, and coconut oil contains medium chain fatty acids, which provide quick energy for your liver and help to kill the bad bacteria in your large intestines. Drinking this on an empty stomach makes it even more effective, since your gut cells aren’t actively working to digest food. Since they’re resting, and since bone broth is very easily digested, it gives them a nice shot of recovery, helping to strengthen your gut and lower your overall stress levels.
3. Too Little Or Too Much Exercise
It’s true, exercise is one of the healthiest habits you can adopt — but the benefits lie in the type and the dosage.
Exercise is an adaptive stress. This means that the act of exercising is a stress and will increase the stress hormones. But then your body will adapt to that stress during the recovery time afterward and become even stronger and even more resistant to stress. In fact, this study showed that resistance training leads to a 24 percent reduction in resting cortisol levels, along with a 40 percent boost in testosterone. This means that if you don’t exercise at all, you’ll naturally be more susceptible to stress in everyday life, and likely this will mean higher stress hormones than someone who exercises the right amount.
But the other side of the spectrum is just as bad, if not worse. Too much exercise leads to a chronically activated stress response because there’s not enough recovery time for your body to adapt and get stronger. Too much exercise activates the stress response so often that your body accumulates all of that stress, leading to a poor state of health. In fact, many top-level strength coaches use the athlete’s cortisol to testosterone ratio to know when they’re starting to become overtrained. Once testosterone starts to drop and cortisol starts to rise, they’ll know to back off the exercise sessions to allow the athlete to recover and stay out of the stress state.
As a starting point, three to four high-intensity workouts per week with lower intensity cardio (like walking) on most days is a good amount to aim for. The high intensity workouts should be harder exercises that you have to break into sets, each lasting no more than 30 seconds to two minutes, tops. Think of a set in weightlifting, but these can also be sprints or bodyweight exercises. The high intensity workouts trigger strength increases1 that occur during the recovery between sessions, and the low intensity cardio gets your blood flowing without activating a stress response. In fact, walking outdoors in nature will actually lower stress levels.
The one type of exercise to avoid is longer-distance, medium-intensity cardio, like running for 45 to 60 minutes. The reason is that this type of exercise will elevate the stress hormones throughout the entire session without also raising the protective hormones like resistance training will. A good sign that you’re not overdoing the exercise is that you will continue to improve in each session over time. This means you’re recovering enough while also getting the stress resistance benefits of exercising.
4. Stressed Mindset
Finally, mindset (mental health) has a very important role in stress, since your mind has power over your entire physical state. If you allow your mind to run wild and take over, it can leave you living in negative emotions like fear, worry, guilt, shame, anger and all of the others. These emotions are not harmless. They activate the stress response in your body, and if you’re living with these emotions all the time, you’ll be chronically activating your stress response.
The way to get out of this is to evolve your mindset by taking control of your thoughts, and the only way to do this is to get separation from them. Realize that your thoughts are a tool that your brain uses, just like you use your hands to pick things up. You can control what your hands do, and you can control what thoughts you experience and use. By practicing this ability to separate from your thoughts and actively choose what you want to think, you can grow out of these negative emotions and begin living in a positive state all the time. This doesn’t mean that nothing will ever stress you out, but it means you’ll be able to let it go and recover from the stress, rather than holding onto it and turning it into a chronic problem. This point alone can be massively helpful for your health, but more importantly, it can help you live a far more enriched life.
So how do you practice separating from your thoughts?
There are two steps:
1) Recognizing your thoughts
2) Actively choosing new thoughts.
For the first part, becoming more aware is crucial. If you can catch yourself when you start thinking a negative thought, then you have the power to change them. The best way to practice this is simply to sit with your eyes closed for five minutes and focus on watching your breath — in and then out. As soon as you notice that you’re thinking a thought instead of paying attention to your breath only, recognize it, and then practice dropping it and moving back to your breath. This type of training will give you the practice you need, so that when you’re out living your life and you experience stress, you’ll recognize which thoughts you react with, drop the negative ones and choose how you want to think. It’s also been shown to reduce cortisol at rest2.
It’s really that simple, but it isn’t always easy. Training in this way for just five minutes a day will help massively. Of course, you can go for longer if you want, as it’s relaxing all on its own.
Defeat Stress Before It Defeats You
Lowering stress levels in your everyday life will have a massive impact on your overall health. Four of the most common sources of stress in these modern times are low carb diets, poor gut health, too much or too little exercise and having a stressed mindset. Luckily, these can be easily corrected by:
- Consuming adequate carbohydrates (at least one gram per pound of bodyweight per day)
- Drinking warm bone broth with coconut oil
- Doing an appropriate amount of exercise (three to four high-intensity workouts per week with low intensity walking on most days)
- Becoming aware of your thoughts and keeping them positive
Start doing these things everyday, and watch as your mood and wellbeing lift, and your health begins to skyrocket.