What Happens When You Don't Manage Stress

Let me throw a hypothetical scenario out there for you.

In this scenario, we have a subject who has goals to stay relatively lean and get stronger.  These are not overly lofty goals but how do you take a person who isn't a newbie and slowly add muscle mass and strength without putting on much body fat? 

The Plan

  1. Find maintenance calories and eat at maintenance or a very slight surplus, such as 200 additional calories per day

  2. Consume an optimal amount of protein, anywhere in between 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight, possibly a tad more for satiety purposes and a higher thermic effect of food

  3. Consume most fats from unsaturated sources, primarily almonds, avocado and salmon, with a moderate amount of saturated fat from animal proteins
  4. Consume a large portion of carbohydrates from fibrous sources like sweet potatoes, quinoa, fruit and oats
  5. Eat vegetables and/or fruit at almost all meals for both soluble and insoluble fiber
  6. Hydrate well, minimum of 1/2 ounce per pound of bodyweight
  7. Get a minimum of 10,000 steps per day, often time double that
  8. Train three days per week, full body (as that is all time allows) and take most sets within 1-2 reps from failure, adding weight or reps as recovery allows

Above, we have a plan that I would give pretty much any client looking to optimize their health and manage body fat.  For someone looking to lean out we'd simply adjust the calories down and for someone needing to gain a lot of muscle mass (like a new lifter) we'd adjust the calories up. Otherwise, we have a pretty sensible plan for achieving our goals and it would be pretty hard to fail if you were executing this list really well.

Except, this list didn't really work.  And I know it didn't work because for the past 6 months this was me.

The two caveats I left out were sleep and stress management.  In all transparency, my sleep is usually pretty good, I will get on average of 7 hours a night and a little more on days I have off.  Not the best but certainly not terrible.

This leaves stress management; how could simply being stressed impede your results in gaining muscle and strength when you have so many other boxes checked?

The Impact of Stress AKA How It Will Mess Your Sh* Up

While the above title is tongue in cheek, when we fail to manage stress it can truly limit the goals we are trying to accomplish with our strength and body composition.  When you take into account how much work goes into shopping, prepping, cooking, packing meals, training, hydrating well, getting daily steps and managing your protein and calories, do you REALLY want to dampen the positive effects of all that work by failing to manage your stress?

In my mind, it's simply too much effort for very little reward and that is very demotivating and disheartening to feel like you are checking off so many boxes only to see very little return on that investment. If you still struggle to see the issue, think of this scenario in terms of money.  Lets say the entire checklist above is me working 60 hours a week to get extra cash to save and invest in my future.  I go to work early, bust my butt all day and go above and beyond as often as possible.  Except, the money going to my account isn't accruing because I have too many ancillary expenses. Multiple streaming services like Netflix, too many coffees at Starbucks, paying through the nose on my car loan even though I could refinance.

Essentially, I have the ability to control and manage my expenses so that I COULD save money, but I am simply not doing it.  So all the extra cash from working over-time goes right out the window.  Maybe you save a few bucks here and there but is it worth all the effort?

Now that we have a general idea of how stress can be the limiter on your efforts, lets take a brief look at how that plays out by goal.

Physiological Impacts of Chronically Elevated Stress

Muscle Recovery and Repair

Chronic stress means chronically elevated cortisol.  While cortisol is necessary for function and life, it can have major deleterious effects when it is elevated all the time. One major way this impacts us is that we rely on our immune system to repair damaged muscle tissue. While your immune cells have to deal with pathogens, viruses, bacteria and cleaning up old/dead cells, they also have to repair muscles damaged from training stress. High cortisol levels actually turn off immune cells which leaves you more susceptible to becoming sick and impedes the recovery of your muscle tissue.

Body Composition

Calorie balance has the greatest impact on whether you gain or lose weight, true.  However, we need to think of stored calories (energy) not just as fat tissue but also muscle tissue. Body composition is about more than just weight, it's about where energy is stored.  When we store more as muscle tissue we get big and jacked and look good naked.  When we store more as body fat we look soft and jiggly and the body fat itself impacts our health negatively.

Higher levels of body fat increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, high cholesterol and quite a few more. So while we can balance our calories to keep our weight relatively stable it does not mean that at the same weight we can't have less muscle and more body fat than before.

If we already know that high levels of stress and cortisol can impact the amount of muscle we have, then stored energy is going to preferentially go to fat tissue, and this can happen without your overall weight changing much.  It's simply where the weight (stored energy) is located i.e muscle vs fat.

​​​​​​​Cortisol is crucial for providing the system energy to function.  Cortisol stimulates your liver to go through gluconeogenesis, creating new glucose from glycerol from fat tissue and amino acids from muscle tissue.

It also limits glucose uptake into muscle tissue as a way of preserving  total body glucose while the muscle tissue will use the fatty acids released from fat break down as energy. While this sounds all well and good (we're burning fat!) it doesn't mean that the excess glucose created or released into the bloodstream won't simply be re-stored as fat.

In normal fasting, the small amounts of glucose released by the liver don't need insulin to get into the muscle cell membrane to be used for energy.  That's a good thing.  But chroncially high blood glucose levels from chronically high cortisol will raise insulin and that chronically elevated insulin will make it harder to store energy in muscle but easier to store energy as fat. You can see the opposite of this in something like Addison's Disease, where cortisol is deficient.  Chronically deficient cortisol actually increases insulin sensitivity, increased glucose utilization and decreases glucose production.

Central Fatigue

When you are chronically stressed, your central fatigue will rise.  Local muscular fatigue is when you experience tiredness aka fatigue in a particular muscle group or groups such as after training legs your hamstrings, quads and glutes are tired or your biceps after lots of curls.

Central fatigue is the result of too much stressed placed on the system without adequate recovery and instead of simply be fatigue in the muscles, it results in a global fatigue on the system.  While some of this is theoretical and science doesn't have a hard answer on everything that central fatigue "is", we do know that there is a negative impact on neurotransmitters and this results in reduced drive to the muscles.  In one major imoact, this means you won't be able to train as hard in the gym.  Not being able to express your strength and limiting the stress you can impose on the muscles will certainly decrease your ability to get stronger and grow muscle.

Your Personality

Without getting too much into it, we can all relate to how being stressed out all the time makes us a lot less fun to be around.  I know I am more easily irritated, I have less patience, I react in ways I normally wouldn't and my overall motivation and outlook on life is decreased.

In essence it makes you a lot less fun to be around and impacts how you feel about life. It's one thing experiencing a lot of stress, it's another experiencing it so much that your personality changes and decreases your quality of life and your relationships with others.

The Checklist of "man I need to get this under control or I'm screwed"

High Stress and Chronically Elevated Cortisol....

  • Makes it harder to gain muscle
  • Makes it harder to utilize glucose and can decrease insulin sensitivity
  • Can chronically raise insulin levels
  • Makes it easier to store body fat
  • Makes you more susceptible to getting sick as it suppresses immune cell function
  • Central fatigue will impact your ability to train hard and display fitness
  • Can slowly turn you into an A-hole

I know most of this has been doom and gloom.

It's important to realize how much your (and my) unchecked stress is impacting your muscle mass, fat loss, recovery and quality of life, even when it seems like you are doing everything else right.

In Part II we'll talk about how we can look at managing stress and some of the things I am doing now to turn things around for myself after months of unchecked stress and a poor job of managing it.  Hopefully you can get a practical sense of what to do and can remind yourself of how truly important it is after seeing the major negative impact it has above.

​​​​​​​Check yourself before you wreck yourself.