Stress. It’s a topic and an issue that’s constantly brought up when it comes to mental health and happiness, and for good reason. It can put a serious damper on your relationships, dreams, and mindset if it lasts too long.
However, a lesser-discussed reason you should consider lowering your stress levels is a very physical reason: stress can significantly impair your performance, motivation levels, and even limit strength gains.
How Stress Can Limit Your Gains
Not all stress is negative. Back before modern civilization, the fight-or-flight hormones that were released during stressful situations, such as running from a wild animal, saved humanity from going extinct.
Today, however, our bodies are unable to distinguish between the stress of being chased down for our lives … and having an argument or bad day at work. Unfortunately, stresses like these are usually present every day, leaving many of us in a constant state of “fight-or-flight,” and the hormones that come with it.
A specific hormone released during stress of any kind, be it mental or physical, is cortisol. In normal, temporary situations, cortisol is beneficial, helping us to rise in the morning. However, when cortisol stays elevated in our system, a cascade of negative effects begins to occur. It is here that stress becomes “chronic,” aka: long term. And it is also here that our physical bodies (and gains) begin to take a hit.
Let’s break down why you should limit stress if you want to perform well, as well as how you can reduce your levels naturally.
Causes Fatigue and Reduces Motivation
It’s hard enough to get motivated to get in a good session after one long day at work. If you’re chronically stressed, it can begin to feel like every day is just as draining, which puts a serious cap on your energy levels. In fact, studies have even been done showing a significant link between perceived stress, especially psychological or mental stress, and fatigue. [*]
Of course, we all know what it’s like to try and drag ourselves out of bed and into the gym when we feel physically exhausted. And, even when we manage to, the workout we’re using might be a great one. So if you’re wanting to improve performance, stress can be a real downer because the last thing you’ll feel like doing is pushing yourself.
Stifles Muscle Growth
Perhaps one of the most direct links between stress and reduced performance is its effect on your muscles. Cortisol has a catabolic affect on muscle, meaning it causes them to break down. Normally, we would experience stress for a short amount of time, and other hormones that are anabolic (muscle-building) like testosterone would counteract cortisol’s effect. However, when stress becomes chronic and cortisol is continuously elevated, anabolic hormones are suppressed … while cortisol continues to promote muscle breakdown. [*]
As you can see, chronic stress could also limit muscle gain, seeing as you’re essentially working against your hormones. Interestingly, even the anticipation of stress (yeah, stress that hasn’t even occurred yet!) has been shown to reduce testosterone, the muscle-building hormone, in men. [*]
Could Cause Weight Gain
Another annoying effect of stress is that it can easily cause weight gain, especially around your belly region. Research shows high cortisol levels not only set the stage for your body to hold on to fat but also increase your appetite and cravings for “comfort foods” like sweets and high-calorie foods.
The reason for this is because high-calorie foods cause a release of pleasure hormones that provide a temporary feeling of relief from stress. However, this temporary relief is quick, and in the meantime you have probably consumed a higher amount of calories, which can lead to weight gain. [*] Obviously, if you combine this with a lack of muscle gain, this can seriously work against your performance goals.
Strategies to Reduce Stress
Now that we know why we definitely shouldn’t be stressed 24/7 if we want to optimize gains and performance, let’s dive into natural ways you can mitigate in the long and short term.
There are several herbs you can try out to lower stress levels, but we’re breaking them into two categories: adaptogens, which help your body deal with stress better long-term, and herbs that relax your nervous system in the short term.
Long-term stress management: try adaptogens. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help your body “adapt” to the effects of stress. They work holistically with your nervous system to help you be more resilient to the negative effects of stress, provide energy and stamina, and can even help mitigate long-term side effects of too much stress, such as premature aging. Research also shows they can increase attention and help you avoid mental fatigue [*] All of these positive effects combine to help boost performance and motivation, helping you get back on your game. Keep in mind, however, that adaptogens are a longer-term solution, helping your body become more resilient over time.
Adaptogens to try:
• Rhodiola Rosea
• Licorice root
“Emergency” stress management: sedative herbs. If the stress and anxiety are hitting you particularly hard, and you need something that’s going to work more rapidly, your best bet is to reach for faster-acting “sedative” herbs. By sedative, I don’t mean they’re going to knock you out or make you drowsy but instead will help soothe and calm your nervous system to help you relax. Research shows these types of herbs, like chamomile and lavender, actually interact with receptors in your brain and intestines that create a relaxant effect. [*]
Other herbs that help ease stress:
• Lemon balm
• Valerian root
Specifically, get outside in nature (even if it’s just your local park) for at least 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. Multiple studies have found that just 20 minutes of walking or sitting in nature significantly reduces cortisol levels. [*]
Get Enough Magnesium
Magnesium is an extremely important mineral, playing a role in over 300 biochemical reactions in our bodies, from regulating our heart rate and muscle contractions to creating ATP, our main source of energy.
Unfortunately, roughly 70 percent of us here in the States are also deficient in it. And also, unfortunately, a few of the main symptoms of the deficiency are increased anxiety, irritability, and stress. In essence, this means 70 percent of us could be on edge simply due to … lack of magnesium!
When we’re getting enough magnesium, it helps regulate our psychoneuroendocrine system in a way that can reduce depression, and has also been shown to help reduce all parameters of stress, including anxiety. [*]
You can supplement magnesium in pill or powder form (magnesium citrate is considered the best for absorption), bathe in Epsom salts, use a topical magnesium spray, and make sure to eat magnesium-rich foods like nuts, cacao, and leafy greens.
CBD, a non-psychoactive (meaning it won’t get you high) compound extracted from the cannabis plant, is rising in popularity due to its positive effect on stress. Research is still new, but several studies show it may be able to reduce anxiety and stress symptoms by interacting with our own endocannabinoid system. Researchers also believe it can either encourage or block certain neurotransmitters in our brains in a way that promotes relaxation. [*]
To avoid any “high” effects, be sure to grab a CBD isolate that doesn’t contain THC. Green Helix has an awesome line with blends and isolates which are sourced from pristine farms, so check them out if you’re looking for someone reputable.
You’ve probably seen meditation mentioned in every stress reduction piece, but it’s for good reason and is backed by plenty of research. Studies show that people who start meditation programs (even those with full-blown anxiety disorders that deal with extra-high stress levels) experience a reduction in stress and anxiety. [*]
The great thing about starting a meditation practice is that it actually doesn’t have to be that long. Even a 10-to-15 minute daily meditation can work wonders. You can search for simple guided meditations online, or sit and focus solely on your breath, thinking “Rising” and “Falling” with each inhales and exhales. Your mind will want to jump around at first, but if you keep returning to this and the breath, you’ll notice the practice will get easier over time.
Another alternative is to grab a supplement specifically formulated for stress, like New Mood over at Onnit. You’ll see it contains some of the herbs we discussed earlier, as well as a carefully formulated blend of vitamins and minerals that help ease stress.
By grabbing this, you also won’t have to take multiple pills (which can get stressful in and of itself!). Try it out here.