Stress Sucks! How Stressed Are You… And What Is It Really Doing to Your Body?

When we think about stress, we mostly think about external stressors like being fired, a death in the family, moving, getting married, breaking up, or bumper to bumper traffic in 101-degree heat with no working air conditioning. While these are valid stressors that do affect us a great deal they tend to be short term. If these were the only stressors we had to deal with in life, we would be very healthy people. However, the stressors that most affect us are not something we tend to think about every day.

It now seems ridiculous that I never realized how full of stress my lifestyle was. I used to be a very active fighter. One year I fought eight times, this was in addition to running my personal training business, having something resembling a social life and struggling to pay the bills (unfortunately professional Muay Thai fighting is not very lucrative). I felt a tremendous pressure to do it all and get to the top. I often trained twice a day 5-6 days a week often sleeping only 6 hours a night and I dieted hard and often to maintain a certain weight. The thing is I felt okay during this time. I felt pretty darn good. I was doing it all and winning fights, but stress is a sneaky bastard. You can only last so long going that hard, and soon I started to feel the effects of chronic stress: fatigue, lack of ability to perform in my training, digestive troubles, insomnia, anemia, irregular cycles, etc.

I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to stop the pace I was going at on my own because thankfully my racing path was halted for me. One day during fight team training I tore my knee grappling, and everything came to a screeching halt. After a week or so of sulking at home, feeling sorry for myself, drinking bourbon and watching Netflix I began to re-evaluate my lifestyle.

I mean sure I appeared healthy (minus the occasional self-indulgence post-fight or post-injury week of gluttony and sloth, but let’s excuse that). I exercised, I ate well, I went to my regular dentist and doctors’ appointments, I had a low body fat percentage. I coached people to improve their fitness and health, and I was a professional athlete for God’s sake. Okay, so why did I not feel the part? To answer this question, I began getting interested in alternative health methods and holistic nutrition. Okay, interested is not exactly right; became fascinated.

I had always been on the quest for the perfect diet, and that was how I got exposed to the system I use today when counseling clients, Functional Diagnostic Nutrition®. Through my education, I realized that my drive to succeed had interfered with two of the most important things needed for health: rest/recovery and truly listening to your body. I’ve learned that stress is not only external it is also internal and the damage that stress does to our bodies is extremely detrimental to our complete health.

Let’s take a closer look at how stress can affect us. First is important to note that the term “stress,” was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” That’s a pretty broad range of things that can be stressors.

Many aspects and events of modern life create stress. Everything from twisting your ankle to breathing the air in Los Angeles is stress. Stressors in our lives can add up pretty quickly. When you think about everything, your body comes in contact with from the routine vanilla-sugar free latte you sip while staring at a computer screen to your evening meal at a restaurant drinking chemical-laden city tap water while inhaling the smoke of someone dining on the outdoor patio next to you. Our body has to process and adapt to every unnatural substance we expose it to throughout the day. While our levels of exposure to stressful modern elements vary, no one is exempt.

How Stressed are You and What is it Doing to Your Body?

Picture your stress measured in a glass. Everyone’s glass is half full already just from being alive today in this modern world. Then factor in pressure at work, lack of sleep, irregular meal times and your personal vices: beer, coffee, ice cream, smoking, road-rage, Twinkies, self-deprecation, etc. Kudos to you if you don’t have any vices, but when honest with themselves most people do.

Okay, now your glass is two-thirds full. The average Joe stress level equals two-thirds of the way to a meltdown.  Now add rigorous physical training (yes exercise is stress on the body)  or any other major stressor into the mix and ask yourself, “How full is my glass?” If you are anything like I was, you will find your glass is overflowing.

How does this chronic elevation of stress affect health and athletic performance?  Okay, allow me to nerd out for a minute. Let’s talk about cortisol and adrenal function. When your body is exposed to any stressor, it responds by excreting cortisol from the adrenal glands to cope with the stress. Our body producing helping hormones is a good thing, in small doses. We need cortisol to act in stressful times. Cortisol increases blood sugar, thereby helping to mobilize energy. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect and is a natural painkiller. Should we have to run from a wild boar in the jungle or if you cut your finger off chopping vegetables this process is very handy. However, the long-term effects of high cortisol due to chronic daily stress are not so nifty. Cortisol also slows digestion, inhibits sex hormone effects, increases sodium retention leading to high blood pressure, suppresses immune function, alters thyroid function, and depletes the body of precious minerals. Um, yeah not cool.

The part that gets us in trouble is chronic high cortisol may feel good. So while our poor bodies are stressed, we have energy and are dealing just fine, juggling multiple life tasks with relative ease thanks to our friendly foe high cortisol. As you probably guessed this couldn’t last forever. Some people’s adrenal glands fatigue quickly, for others it may take years for cortisol production to slow, but when it does slow, it leaves a path of destruction behind. Fatigue, low sex drive, poor digestion, anxiety, depression, weakened immune system – sound familiar?  These are just a few of the symptoms that can arise from adrenal fatigue and which happen to be some of the most common health complaints in the world.

I knew I had some of these symptoms, but I didn’t start to put the big picture together until I began learning how much of health is interconnected and how health is a responsibility, not a right. I did this to myself. Part of the course work involved running labs on myself. I became my first client, and I was shocked to find out that my lab results were pretty crummy. Numbers don’t lie, and I was forced to confront that fact that my poor adrenal glands were exhausted and I had some serious work to do that went a little beyond chicken soup and a good nap.

What can you do to support your adrenal glands? Well, today I work with clients to help them identify and eliminate hidden stressors and rebuild many aspects of health. Individuals need individual counseling so I can’t tell you exactly, but there are some basic things you can do to reduce your stress load. I’ve learned them from my experience and from working with others.

  1. Sleep. The optimal sleep hours are 10pm-6am. The more nights you can get to bed before 12 am and get 7-9 hours of sleep the better. Quality sleep is restorative and necessary.
  2. Balance your training. There is no need to go hard five to six days a week. Workouts are most effective when balanced between technical and intense, cardio and strength, light and hard. Push hard, but know your limits. Often a day off is better for you than getting in that extra training session you think you need, but won’t make you that much stronger in the long run. Enjoy your down time. Rest for a couple of weeks after a big fight or event, easing back into hard training gradually.
  3. Mobility and flexibility are not optional. Foam rolling, trigger point therapy, massage, chiropractors, dynamic warm up and stretching are a crucial part of everyone’s routine athlete or not.
  4. Detoxification is not a fad. You can’t shove processed, chemical food in your mouth the majority of the time then “eat clean” for a couple of weeks and undo the damage done. Health is a lifestyle. You have to eat for detoxification every day. Think again about how many chemicals we are exposed to in modern life, we cannot afford to keep filling the “stress glass.”
  5. Relax. That thing you keep stressing over is probably not as important as you imagine. Take a deep breath and remember that the small things don’t matter much and the bigger issues will pass with time. You’ll figure it out. The worst case scenario is often not nearly as bad as we imagine.
  6. Do what you love. If you love your work that’s great. When times get tough, focus on why you love it so much. If you don’t like your job, devise a five-year plan to get to a place where you can be doing what you love. There is nothing more stressful and damaging to our health than spending 40 plus hours a week on something that at least gives us a scene of purpose and fulfillment.
  7. Just Eat Real Food. Search my blogs on nutrition for more on this.

It’s been two years since I tore my knee and took a good hard look at my life. I am happier, healthier and more productive than I have ever been as a result of a new education in health and making small daily changes over time in the way I live. I still fight in the ring (my knee healed up great), I even own my own business today, I still enjoy the occasional bourbon, but I know the meaning of real balance. It’s funny how the events that seem to shatter our world when they first occur are the things hold the most potential to make us stronger, healthier people.