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Can Stress Cause You to Lose Muscle Size and Gain Body Fat?

Struggling with weight even though you’re doing all the ‘right’ things?

Training and not getting the results that you expected? Fatigued?

Could it be STRESS preventing you from building muscle and loosing body fat?

The term stress is defined as any demand on the body to adjust. Stress on the body in small doses in fantastic. This is how we change, grow and get stronger in every aspect.

It is when the body is dis – stressed that it begins to have detrimental effect on our body. Stress on the body can come in many forms:

  • Fear

  • Anxiety around a situation

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Training past your bodies threshold to adjust (over-training)

  • Prolonged calorie deficit

  • Food intolerances

  • Sickness

  • Injuries

What happens when we are stressed?

When our body is stressed, hormones are produced to help the body cope and adapt. We’ve all experienced short-term stress – that quick bolt of adrenaline when we are given a fright or we feel threatened.

This is our primal fight or flight response; blood is quickly shunted to our extremities in preparation to run or fight, sugar is dumped into our blood stream to fuel our muscles, our breath becomes shallow and fast, our heart beats faster – we are primed and ready for action!

This response triggers the release of cortisol into the blood stream; cortisol’s role here is longer sustained. The role of cortisol in this situation is to dampen any inflammatory response, increase the pain threshold (in case your injured in your fight) and provide long-standing immediate energy availability to the muscles by blocking insulin and keeping the glucose within the blood, preparing your body for action.

To ensure quick energy to the cells, cortisol will inhibit the uptake of protein as fuel into the muscle cells. All of these actions are to promote survival in a dangerous situation.

From a primal view, stress tells our body to prepare for war or famine, to adjust or perish.

These systems work fantastic for our primal body to ensure survival…However what happens when our body is stuck in this response long-term?

In stressful times, sugars are constantly being dumped into the blood stream to fuel the muscles for action – however, with no action, the cells have no requirement for extra energy, therefore, where do these sugars end up? They are shuttled off to be stored as fat for safe keeping (in preparation for the ‘war or famine’ that your body feels imminent).

Interestingly, stressful events not only affect us, but the trillions of microbes that live in gut – a stressful situation can lead to altered gut bacteria for up to 24 hours post event.

This situation long-term throws a ton of punches in terms of our metabolism and our ability to shift body fat and gain lean muscle mass. Not only are we building extra fat stores through our inability to use the energy that was released during the stressful event, but by having less muscular tissue in our body, it will also hinder our longer-term ability to burn fat. VERY counterproductive when your goal is to change your body composition! To top this off, altered gut bacteria will affect the way we absorb and metabolism the intake of our nutrients, inhibiting our ability to fuel efficiently.

From a weight loss perspective, the most common method of trying to ‘lose weight’ is to restrict calories and up training. From the body’s perspective, this reiterates the communication that there is a war or a famine on the horizon. There is absolutely no way that the body is going shed its ‘energy storage’ (aka fat) when it feels it may need it for survival.

Today’s lifestyle is a far cry from the primal stress of our ancestors. Life is now a constant bombardment of activities – deadlines, work responsibilities, finances – so many places to be….so many people to see….so much responsibility….so little time…

Our primal body does not know the difference between being chased by a lion or chasing a deadline; it only knows the feelings and thoughts that are fed to the body.

Although moderate amounts of stress in the body are positive, our body needs to feel safe to be able to illicit positive change in terms of a shift in body composition and promote the changes that we want to see.

Whilst many stressors in our life are unavoidable, we have the ability to support our body through these times to ensure our body feels ‘safe’ and therefore it is able to adapt to the stressors we throw at it, not only promoting the changes that we want to see, but helping us feel energised, vital and on track.

A few simple things I have my clients work on to nourish their bodies and maximise their gains are:

  • Ensuring quality nutrition – it is the things that we do often, not sometimes that make a huge difference.

  • Scheduling rest days into training. Rest and recovery is just as important as your training days to promote muscular growth.

  • If all your training involves high intensity training, why not try to switch it up by incorporating yoga or stretching.

  • Walk outside – walking outside in nature has the ability to reduce cortisol levels for up to 24 hours!

  • Sleep! Sleep is the bodies time to regenerate and restore. Aim for 7-8 hours per night.

  • Schedule fun!!! Anything that lights you up! Rough housing with the kids? Time with your mates? Playful training sessions? Something new – rock climbing/ Obstacle Course / Paddleboarding?

What more can I do to support your journey?

As a Naturopath I can:

  • Ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to function efficiently and support nutrient absorption

  • Help to reduce the effects of stress on your body.

  • Offer individualised Herbal Prescription to support and nourish your body through stressful times, helping to bring your body back into balance

  • Offer simple lifestyle strategies that work for you and your life.

Stress in small doses is fabulous – dis-stress for long periods is disastrous.


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