Stress has a significant effect on our nervous system. You will have heard sayings before that link stress and your nerves: ‘my nerves are frayed’ or ‘you’re getting on my nerves’. The amount and type of stress determines which branch of the ANS (autonomic nervous system) is activated. Too much stress, whatever the cause, can activate the sympathetic fight or flight branch of the autonomic nervous system, causing a release of catabolic (breakdown) hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body. These elevate the heart rate and blood pressure, diverting blood toward the muscles but away from the digestive organs and, if the effects are prolonged, they can cause disturbances in metabolism leading to a reduction in the uptake of dietary protein and an increased breakdown of protein in muscle.
To counterbalance these negative effects on metabolism we must activate the parasympathetic growth and repair branch of the autonomic nervous system which increases the production and release of anabolic (building) hormones such as growth hormones, insulin and sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, all of which increase the formation of muscle protein and enhance muscle growth which in turn leads to an increased metabolism, less body fat, improved body shape etc. It works like a see-saw; if there’s too much overall stress, we activate the SNS and catabolic hormones are released, causing breakdown of muscle and a slower metabolism. This suppresses the PNS and the release of anabolic hormones, limiting growth and repair. Conversely, by reducing stress, the PNS is activated and anabolic hormones are released, promoting growth and repair, increasing metabolism and suppressing the SNS and consequently suppressing the release of catabolic hormones.
Stress is caused by a mixture of external and internal stressors. External stressors are things that stress the body from the outside such as sunlight, movement, injury, emotional trauma, chemicals and toxins. Internal stressors come from within the body and are most often the reaction to external stressors. They include fatigue, disease, nutrient deficiency, depressed immune system and hormonal imbalance.
What we must recognise is that not all types of stress are bad and that some stress is actually good. In fact, we need some stress to achieve. For example: by setting ourselves goals or objectives we create a stress which drives us to achieve our dreams and ultimately makes us happy. This sort of stress could be categorised as a good ‘mental/emotional’ stress. Sometimes we need a little adrenaline or cortisol to increase our chances of survival. It’s when we have too much overall stress that our hormonal levels go out of balance (too much SNS activation), desired results are no longer achieved and health problems start to occur. Stress isn’t just falling out with your partner or an over-demanding boss. There’s all sorts of different forms of stress. For example: physical stress is often the result of movement. Under or overtraining, repetitive movement, injury, demanding sports, physical jobs and bad posture can contribute to an excessive overall level of stress. Similarly, mental or emotional stress can be caused by trauma or adversity, pressure at work, family problems, relationship issues, depression, loneliness etc. Nutritional stress can be a result of eating incorrect macronutrient proportions, too much or too little food, dehydration, processed food, pesticides, sweeteners, trans fats, preservatives and colourings. Furthermore, stress can be placed on the body from chemical, electromagnetic and thermal sources such as synthetic drugs, smoking and drinking, X-rays, radiation, mobile phones, televisions, computers, microwaves and even the sun.
Many of the stressors which we might experience in life cannot be changed or reduced easily, such as relationship problems, workloads, emotional trauma, pollution, and the weather. However, there is plenty we can do to find that balance which will counteract the ill effects of stressors.
Diet: Identify your individual, genetically based nutrition and dietary requirements. There is no one diet that is correct for everyone and therefore to achieve optimal health you must determine what is right for you. We are all different, so why should there be a single diet that works for all of us? If such a diet existed, then it would have been discovered a long time ago! Nutritionally we should ensure that we eat the correct proportions of macronutrients and that our digestion and metabolism should be optimised and the amount of food ingested should be appropriate. You need to know which foods improve how you feel, and which ones make you feel worse. This can be done by a technique called metabolic typing, by which you can discover your metabolic type and ideal macronutrient proportions (i.e. amounts of fat, carbohydrate and protein). The health benefits of any food are dependent upon the stimulatory or inhibitory effects on the biochemistry of any individual or ‘metabolic type’.
Sleep patterns: More anabolic (growth + repair) hormones are released once the sun has gone down but if we stimulate our bodies by eating late, or eating the wrong foods, drinking caffeine, watching TV until midnight or sleeping in brightly lit rooms we don’t allow these hormones to be released. Consequently, we stimulate further release of catabolic hormones.
Hydration: Needless to say water is the source of life. Our bodies are made up of somewhere in the region of 80% water. Not enough water can lead to all sorts of health problems. Ideally we should drink 0.033 litres of pure water per kg of body weight per day.
Exercise: More often than not people train with a vigour and intensity that is simply too much for our bodies to handle what with all the other stresses in our lives. Unless we reduce the other sources of stress it’s often more beneficial to do more varied and less intense forms of exercise like plenty of walking, yoga, Swiss ball training and stretching. Work in instead of work out.
Rest and recovery techniques: All work and no play can be hugely detrimental to several aspects of our health. Finding time to relax allows our bodies to repair and improve. If we don’t recover, all the exercise we do is pretty much pointless and we won’t achieve the results we’re after. Injuries and illness cause a significant stress to the body by sapping our energy and vitality. Without a balanced lifestyle, rehabilitation can be prolonged, limiting our capabilities in the gym and therefore our ability to achieve our desired results. An intelligently planned rehabilitative programme can break the vicious circle and allow us to get back on track.