Science-backed reasons to stop ignoring stress

With over-packed schedules, career demands, busy family lives, and even fitting in important healthy habits like meal prep and exercise, there’s little time for rest and recovery. It’s the American Way. We’re inundated with stimuli all day long, from the moment we wake up until our head hits the pillow. What’s more, we pride ourselves in being busy and productive. Many of my clients tell me they thrive off of the stress and even label self-care as lazy, self-indulgent, or just flat-out unnecessary. I, too, am guilty of powering through and ignoring the warning signs of too much stress. When I take a deeper look at metabolic biomarkers for those very same clients, I find they are impacted by stress the most. Even if they are emotionally withstanding the pressures of life, their blood work tells a different story.  

Redefine Stress

Our bodies are designed to handle stress. If fact, stress is what allows our bodies to adapt and survive.  We’re constantly responding to stressors with the goal of re-establishing homoeostasis. Think of it as your body’s happy place. During times of stress, our adrenal glands release essential hormones like adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. Cortisol is our primary “fight-or-flight” hormone and functions to quickly supply the energy we need to respond to the perceived threat by signaling the break down glycogen (stored glucose) and muscle. It’s released in the morning to help us wake up and feel alert and should naturally decline by evening to allow for restful sleep.  It’s also released throughout the day to respond to acute stressors and quickly comes back down as the body returns to a state of homeostasis. 

So what’s the issue?  With the way we live today, we don’t often make it back to baseline. Think of your ability to handle stress like a cup with a finite capacity to hold all of our stressors.  Emotional and physical stressors like lack of sleep, work, relationships, poor nutrition, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, and environmental toxins all take up space in our cup.  Good stress, like exercise or positive life changes such as promotion, buying a house, or having a child, also take up space.  When your cup overflows, you’ve surpassed your tolerance for stress—a concept known as allostatic load.1  Each time you take action to recover from stress, like self-care activities, sleep, play, or recovery exercise, it’s like pouring a little water out.  The issue is that we tend to have more factors filling our cup than ones creating space at any given time.

When we leave minimal margin, even positive stressors like exercise can send us over the edge. I’ve had countless clients come to me because they’re seemingly doing everything right when it comes to nutrition and exercise but it’s still not yielding results. They often respond by restricting food intake further or training even hard, only to have their symptoms worsen. Think of it as good stress gone bad. When we investigate further and evaluate their daily routines and lab work, we’re able to reveal the impact of stress and create a more customized strategy.

We’re all stressed. So what?

I’ve reviewed thousands of lab assessments and have seen the metabolic consequences of chronic stress firsthand. Here are a few barriers I commonly see:

  • Weight gain & belly fat: Chronically elevated cortisol leads to weight gain.  Cortisol mobilizes fat from storage and relocates it to that stubborn belly fat and visceral fat (deeper in the abdomen), which elevates risk for chronic disease.2 Plus, stress disrupts our appetite hormones while increasing cravings for high-calorie or high-carbohydrate foods. Then we’re fighting a losing battle and willpower never wins.
  • Digestion: When our body is in “fight-or-flight” sympathetic mode, it suppresses the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic system. This decreases the production of gastric juices essential to nutrient absorption. Over time, it can also disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut and contributes to leaky gut and food sensitivities, further driving inflammation and weight gain.3
  • Blood glucose dysregulation: Cortisol not only elevates blood glucose levels, it suppresses insulin release while also making cells resistant to insulin. This keeps glucose available for energy in the blood stream. However, when the body remains in this insulin-resistant state for too long, it impacts body composition, energy levels, and risk for chronic disease.4
  • Hormone balance: Chronic stress impacts the production and availability of sex hormones for both men and women. Think of it this way—stress before sex; the body de-prioritizes sex hormone production in favor of producing stress hormones necessary for survival. It also throws off the production of thyroid hormones and impairs the conversion of inactive to active thyroid hormones. These hormones are essential to the function of every cell and dictate our metabolic rate (i.e. how many calories we burn).

Of course, the list doesn’t stop there—stress can also impact mood, brain health, and risk for diseases like cardiovascular disease and dementia.

Build a Routine for Resiliency 

Even after seeing the effects of stress in their objective data and recognizing the related symptoms, many of my clients still respond, “I get it… but I can’t change my STRESS.” While there are many stressors outside of our control, we can reduce the physical stress on our body by finding the right nutrition and exercise plan for our unique metabolic blueprint. If you think stress might be stalling your efforts, seek out testing to evaluate HPA axis dysfunction and hormone health. By assessing your unique hormonal rhythm, we’re able to take out the guesswork and fine tune the type of exercise, workout timing, macronutrient balance, stress management strategies, and specialized supplementation. 

While testing is essential for a more customized approach, everyone can benefit from simple strategies to add space in their cup and build resiliency. Of course, I don’t want stress management to be just another task so I like to keep it simple with shifts to our daily routines.

Morning. Wake up with gratitude. What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Perhaps you open your email, check out the latest news headlines, or scroll through social media. These automatic tendencies may actually be eliciting a stress response. Choose gratitude instead. Keep a gratitude journal in a notebook, on your phone, or even gratitude apps and take just a few minutes each morning to jot down at least three things you’re grateful for.  Need a little convincing that it’s worth your time? Research shows that keeping a gratitude journal positively impacts sleep and mood, reduces anxiety, and supports immune health.5,6

Throughout the day. We all know meditation is a good idea but I often hear that the idea of meditating for 30 minutes feels like another chore. I find that I personally do better focusing on small breathing pit stops throughout the day. Stop and take 5 deep belly breaths during transitions throughout the day—before getting out of your car, going to your next meeting, eating each meal, etc. Put your hand on your lower belly and focus on the rise and fall as you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Think of it as pumping the breaks on your nervous system throughout the day to activate a parasympathetic response. Breathing before and after workouts can also have a positive impact on recovery.   

Of course, nutrition plays a key role in building resiliency too. Start by including at least a palm-size portion of protein at regular intervals throughout the day, which is especially important during times of stress to protect lean body mass. Balance protein with at least half of your plate from colorful non-starchy vegetables with a source of health fats to help stabilize appetite, reduce inflammation, and provide key nutrients. Carbohydrates should be based on activity level and lab testing helps determine that right strategy for each individual. However, a high-quality multivitamin and fish oil are critical as well. 

Go to bed with intention. Create a routine that reduces stimuli and supports restful sleep. Many of us spend our day in “fight-or-flight” mode and expect to flip a switch as soon as we succumb to sleep. However, we need to create a routine that signals our body to transition to rest mode. Start by powering down all electronics 1-2 hours before bed. Screens emit blue light that can increase cortisol and suppress our natural melatonin production.7 Instead, spend that time connecting with loved ones. Social connection has major impacts on health and may even influence cortisol production. I also recommend magnesium before bed for most of my clients to help support restful sleep.8 Stress and exercise can deplete magnesium and it’s one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the United States.9 


Ready to take action? If you have questions about which lab assessment is right for you or would like to get connected with a coach, email to reach our team of dietitians.

– Mandy Rother RD, LD, IFMNT Nutritionist, NASM-CPT – Life Time Assistant Program Manager, Lab Testing

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 




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