cortisol

Strategies to manage chronic stress

Earlier this week I wrote a post on what stress really looks like, and specifically, how chronic stress can play a major role in your fat loss progress.  

You can check out part one here.

You know what chronic stress looks like. You wake up worried and struggle to fall asleep because you’re still worried. You’re distracted and scattered when trying to get things done. You constantly walk into a room and wonder why you're there.

Snuggling with Rooney is scientifically proven to reduce stress. Science people. 

Snuggling with Rooney is scientifically proven to reduce stress. Science people. 

But what do you do about it?

1. Put the emphasis on sleep

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 40 million people in the United States suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year and an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems. So I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that at least a few of you reading this struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested when you wake up.

So what can you do about it?

Start by tracking your sleep. For those of you wearing a Fitbit, the device is already doing that for you, and chances are it's telling you what you already know. But figure out how much sleep you average in a week. Seven to nine hours is ideal. I know, I know. That's fantasy land for a lot of folks. But it's true. 

Reduce your screen time two hours before bed. By now you've heard that staring at a screen reduces your melatonin levels which will impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you have the kindle app on your iPad and that's where your book is, at least turn on the night shift feature, which reduces the blue light that can affect your brain. Or consider using Audible and have someone with a sultry voice read your book to you :)

Make the room completely dark. The biggest improvement I've made to my sleep routine was the simplest. I cover my eyes with a mask. I never appreciated how much light I was sleeping with, even when the lights were off. 

2. Find ways to kick in your parasympathetic nerve system

Have you ever been laying in bed, trying to tell yourself to stop thinking? It’s a practice in futility. 

You have a thought.

Then a reaction.

“Kim, stop thinking about that."

Another thought.

“Ok I’m going to just stop thinking about that.”

I think about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in less than a week, but it's only seconds before I'm back to the original thought.

And on it goes until you’re in a full-fledged fight with yourself. That your losing.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the part of our nervous system that is responsible for slowing down, relaxing and recuperating - which in turn reduces the stress response and increases positive emotional feelings. But we can’t talk ourselves into switching on the PNS. We have to be in our bodies and practice it.

Snuggle with your pet

My favorite way to relax is snuggling with Rooney. It was only recently that I realized that getting a good snuggle with him on the couch is relaxing because it does kick on my PNS.

Deep breathing

The first time I tried this practice in my 20’s I almost hyperventilated. As an already anxious person, thinking about breathing was for me, ironically, stressful. But if you can teach yourself to take long, full, slow deep breaths through your nose - hold those for 1-2 seconds, and then release the breath through your mouth, you can breathe your way into a relaxing state. 

Deep breathing works best for me when I snuggle with Rooney, because he naturally isn't phased by anything, and therefore breathes very deeply.  

Massage

Yes we’re still under ways to kick on the PNS. Have you ever had a massage, then walked out to your car feeling like you shouldn’t drive? You’re massage drunk. It means it was a good massage and your PNS has kicked on. Do more of that.

Meditation

Meditation is the most difficult on this list. Who would think that sitting still and breathing could be such a challenge? We live in a high-stress, noisy world. But research has shown that meditating, even if it's only five minutes a day, can help boost your immune system, lower blood pressure, your heart rate, and stress hormones (back to cortisol and adrenaline) and keep you from losing your mind on a co-worker later that day. 

Rather than just tell you to go sit on the floor and be quiet though, I encourage folks to start with a short guided meditation. I often use talks from Tara Brach, which you can find for free here. If it's your first time meditating, look for one that is less than 10 minutes. 

3. Build your support network

Last week I wrote a post about finding the strength to be vulnerable. About needing other people to help me out while I spend a month in a sling after major shoulder surgery. 

I'm grateful for the partner, friends, and co-workers that I can lean on to help out while I recover. Learning how to allow yourself to need others in times of high stress is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, and to other people who want to help out. Maybe it's taking your kids to a movie so you can have two hours to yourself or with your spouse. Maybe it's meeting a friend for lunch so you can vent. Whatever it is, learning to build and need your support network can be a very useful way to manage stress.

4. Practice self-compassion

Yes, I saved the hardest one for last. Be nice to yourself. My tag line of be strong and be kind applies not only to others, but to yourself as well. I know this is a struggle for many of us. It's second-nature to self-flagellate and bury ourselves under the mountain of shoulds. 

Stop. 

Be kind to yourself. You are a good person doing good things.

Trust that. 

This is what stress looks like

It was a typical Wednesday in February of 2014. I was working as the Assistant Athletic Director at a small Maine college, our women’s basketball team was winning their way through the playoffs, and I was settling into what I thought was going to be a long career in college athletics. 

Until the dean of students pulled me into her office for a conversation.

“We've done the budget for next year,” she said “And your job isn’t in it.”

She talked for a few more minutes, trying to soften the blow, but all I heard was the murmur of Charlie Brown adults as the news sunk in.

Finally, I interrupted her.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to go have a meltdown in my car.”

And that’s exactly what I did.

I chased that with a further meltdown into a draft of Miller Lite, trying to figure out exactly how, after years of searching for meaningful work in Coastal Maine, I was going to find not just a job, but a career-focused job.

A few days after the news, in preparation for both additional time on my hands and the impending depression that was sure to follow, I decided to hire a coach, not just for strength training, but for nutrition as well. I wanted something to focus on besides my unemployment, and despite the expense of a coach (200 bucks a month), I felt that I couldn’t afford to not have some guidance and accountability. And quite frankly, structure to my days.

One of his requirements was that I take a “before” picture. 

Here’s that picture, which I swore that I’d never ever share. 

 
You KNEW I had a Steelers sports bra.

You KNEW I had a Steelers sports bra.

 

I was about 158lbs here, and somewhere around 28% body fat.

For the most part, my diet was 70% compliant, and I was working out three to five days a week in the months before this photo was taken.

Below is a photo from last November. 

 
klfstress2.jpg
 

 

I weighed in at 135lbs and 23.5% body fat. My workout regimen is about the same as it was three years ago and now I’d say I’m closer to 80% compliant with my diet.*

The biggest difference between then and now?

Stress.

My stress level in the months leading up to the time the first photo was taken three years ago was as high as I can ever remember. I’d been married a few months prior, had finally gotten around to coming out to my family, and had just lost my job. 

Basically, I’d just checked off three of the top five life stressors in a matter of eight months. And my body showed it.

Now, I’m happily employed in a career, and while I still have the day to day stresses we all have, I’m managing them a little better. I’m meditating, putting more emphasis on quality of sleep and yes, I have a therapist I see who helps me keep things in perspective. 

When clients come into our gym and fret over their lack of results, we first talk nutrition, and then fitness, and then we go right to sleep and stress. Because if your diet and exercise are on point, but you're still carrying that little extra around the middle, then it might be time to look at other lifestyle factors.

There are a lot of different pieces in play when it comes to understanding stress. But for now, let's talk about cortisol. 

Cortisol - the stress hormone

I think about what my life looked like during the days and months when I was unemployed. The first thing I noticed every day when I woke up was that vague sense of worry and anxiety that was percolating in my body. I was chronically worried.

I was chronically stressed. 

Cortisol is good in small doses. Produced by the adrenal glands, which are right atop the kidneys, cortisol is designed to help us handle certain situations. You may have heard cortisol referred to as the fight or flight response. 

If you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger (I'd speak to the zoo manager first of all), your adrenal glands cover your body by releasing both cortisol and adrenaline into the body. These hormones provide extra physical energy and strength from stored carbohydrates and fats. (And if you watched the "Incredible Hulk" back in the day, they help you pull cars off of people).

But that's small doses. 

When we spend our days worrying, about money, our kids, relationships, jobs, whether or not the Steelers' secondary will improve next season; our adrenal glands are still kicking in like we're being chased by that saber toothed tiger. And now our body is all out of whack. (As I've said before, we want to be in whack. Whack is where it's at).

Those chronically elevated cortisol levels can also trick bodies into believing we've burned more calories than we've actually burned, and so we're hungry. We look for ways to relieve our stress, so we turn to comfort foods that are high in sugar and fat and alcohol to wind down at night. These high levels of cortisol also cause our blood sugar to rise, so insulin is produced to control this by turning the sugar to fat - and it's the high levels of insulin that cause the build up of belly fat (also known as visceral fat) 

Aside from what your body craves, your defenses are down. In other words, when I’m tired, stressed and sleep deprived, I’m much less likely to reach for a banana, quite frankly because I just flat out don’t give a sh**. I want a comfort food. I’ve suffered, I’m suffering, and I want what I want because I want it.

Check back later this week for part two on ways to manage chronic stress. 

*I do spend more time on my feet now than I did when this photo was taken, and I’m sure that’s a factor in my current build.

 

 

 

 

 

Can not sleeping make you fat? (Part two)

Sunday morning I tossed up a post about not sleeping

Specifically, I wrote about whether or not ignoring your sleep habits could be one of the key missing components in your effort to lose weight and get yourself and your body back in whack. (It stands to reason that if you're out of whack, then whack is where you'd like to be.) 

The short answer is yes, sleep is crucial for health and fitness. But it's one thing to know you have trouble sleeping and another thing to figure out what to do about it. 

I often have trouble falling asleep at night. Knowing this, I put off getting into bed. Because my first two hours in bed are usually a party for one on the hamster wheel of life. But the cycle continues, as I go to bed later and later because I hope that by getting in bed later, I'll fall asleep sooner.  

And also I want to poke people who just fall asleep when their heads hit the pillow. Or who nap on airplanes.

There's a good chance these are morning people. In theory, sleep should be pretty straight forward. When it gets dark outside, we observe the rules of our circadian rhythm, and go to bed. Then we wake up when it's light out. 

But that's only theory. 

The reality is that most of us get in bed when it's dark out and then spend another 30 minutes or more on our phones or other electronic device. 

If nothing else, you've learned about my spectacular decisions regarding my hair while reading this blog. 

If nothing else, you've learned about my spectacular decisions regarding my hair while reading this blog. 

Replacing my books with the kindle app on my iPad was likely the worst decision I made since frosting my hair.  

And I think we can all agree, looking at the picture off to the right, that was a bad idea. Because, you know, blonde on me is actually orange.

1. Put the screen away two hours before you go to bed. 

Do yourself a favor, and as hard as this is, try to eliminate screen time for an actual two hours before you go to bed. Because I currently spend a lot of time in the car, I have an Audible subscription and listen to a lot of books on tape (because I can't stop calling them books on tape even though we passed tape in 1994.) 

The small amounts of light from these devices pass through the retina into a part of the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls several sleep activities, and delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. 

And let's face it, sending work emails or worse yet, reading work emails in the last few minutes before bed does little to soothe the mind. A stressful email read can elevate your cortisol levels at the exact time when you need them to be lower.

2. Make the room as dark as possible.

And speaking of melatonin levels, one sure-fire way to suppress them is to let a bunch of artificial light in. Aside from the occasional hotel room, I don't ever remember sleeping in total darkness. Whether it was from a street light outside or a digital clock, there was always some type of light in my room. 

Since I've started sleeping with a mask over my eyes, I've slept a little bit better. Not a lot, but a little. 

3. Kick the cats off the bed. Seriously. Do it.

We have two cats. I don't really talk about it because dogs. Specifically, Rooney. But Rooney sleeps in his own bed in his own room downstairs, because he would take up the entire bed and also dog fur.

The cats however, are a different story. And I don't know about you, but like any ridiculous pet owner, I don't feel like I can disturb the cats when they take up all of my foot space and I end up chewing on my knee caps to sleep around them. 

Do yourself a favor and kick them off. They will move, and if you're lucky, they will re-locate to their own beds. 

BECAUSE THEY HAVE SEVENTEEN OF THEM.

4. Get nine hours of sleep

Hahahahaha...oh wait, you're not kidding?

That's about how I feel when someone suggests nine hours of sleep to me. And I don't even have kids. On days when I have to be at the facility by 5:30 a.m. and I'm an hour away, I'm getting up before 4:00 in the morning. Nine hours of sleep would require me getting into bed at 7:00 p.m. 

And on those nights, even if I did get in bed at something reasonable like 9:00, I still wouldn't fall asleep. So I know that at least twice a week, I can't get nine hours of sleep. But I can work towards that average on the other days. 

5. Limit caffeine intake

Hahahahaha! Oh wait, this one too?

Part of my current cycle is lacking sleep and using caffeine to fuel myself throughout the morning, and sometimes into the afternoon. The reality is you should cut off the caffeine in the morning, and worst case scenario, nine hours before you go to sleep. 

Swap that 2:00 diet coke out for a nap. 

Oh right, you probably can't do that at your desk. Instead, swap the mid-afternoon caffeine out for a short walk, outside, around the hallways, or what-have you.

I realize that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of dealing with the maddening struggles of sleep quantity and quality. For a more in depth look at sleep, check out this article by the maker of Athletic Greens on sleep and cortisol levels.

Can sleep really help with fat loss?

I don't fall into the category of people who rise and grind. Unless we're talking about coffee beans. I rise and grind my coffee beans. 

Actually, I program the coffee maker the night before, because it’s a bad idea for me to operate machinery first thing in the morning, heavy or otherwise. A Starbucks barista once advised me, when I I arrived at 6:00 a.m. for my coffee, to drink it before driving my car.

I’ve never slept particularly well and I’ve NEVER been a morning person.

You'll notice my cleverness with headlines has not improved. This article was about, yes, you guessed it; morning people. So witty.

You'll notice my cleverness with headlines has not improved. This article was about, yes, you guessed it; morning people. So witty.

On the first day of a new job a few years ago a co-worker said, "One of your references said your only weakness was mornings."

In fact, in that picture off to the right, I wrote a newspaper column (Job no. 4) about how much I disliked morning people. Those perky, chipper, "the day's a-wasting" folks who can get up at 5:00 a.m. and not only remember to use shampoo and soap in the shower, but actually do things like...I don't know...write books and work out.

These people often say things like "I do more before you get out of bed then you'll do all day." And, "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Good for you for not punching these people.

In the article, I rail against these people (this was 15 years ago), but what I was also saying was...I can't sleep. I can't fall asleep, I can't stay asleep and so when morning comes around I've got nothing in the tank to start the day.

At 23 years old, I could get away with not sleeping. Now? Well, not so much.

Because I struggle so much with sleep, I’m drawn to most any kind of article that provides insight into my struggles with Mr. Sandman. This post, from the CEO of Athletic Greens, really got my attention. Because in it, he links a lack of sleep to belly fat.

Wha???

Yes, there is a scientific link to a lack of sleep AND chronically elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and fat around your mid-section.

So many of us go through great care to eat well and exercise often, and find ourselves unable to drop inches from our middle. As it turns out, sleep, and specifically quality sleep, might be the missing element. If you’re burning both ends of the candle it won’t matter if your diet and exercise are on point. 

You'll still carry excess abdominal fat.

According to a Nurses’ Health Study, researchers followed roughly 60,000 women for 16 years, asking them about their weight, sleep habits, diet, and other aspects of their lifestyle. At the start of the study, all of the women were healthy, and none were obese; 16 years later, women who slept 5 hours or less per night had a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese, compared to women who slept 7 hours per night. Short sleepers also had 30 percent higher risk of gaining 30 pounds over the course of the study, compared to women who got 7 hours of sleep per night.

So now, when someone comes to me and says that they are working out six times a week, and watching everything they eat, my first question is how is your sleep? How much do you sleep?

Sleep and hormones

When we don’t get enough sleep, our hormones are thrown completely off kilter. And we all know we need to be on kilter. Kilter is where it’s at.

The hormones ghrelin and leptin both influence your appetite. Ghrelin, know as the hunger hormone, stimulates appetite; the higher the ghrelin level, the hungrier you feel. I call this the gremlin hormone because I’m terrible with pronunciation. 

Leptin affects your appetite in the opposite way, letting you know when your stomach is full. So normal leptin levels regulates those gremlins, keeping your hunger in check. But a lack of sleep can cause your leptin levels to lower and your gremlin levels to rise. 

I would also offer that on those nights when I sleep three hours, and those have been happening a lot lately, I’m too tired to actually care what I’m eating. That lack of sleep impacts my decision making process when it’s time to feed the inner gremlin. 

I don’t want a hard boiled egg when I’m tired. I want Doritoes. All of them. In my face. 

Studies have shown that just a week of sleep deprivation can cause significant alterations in glucose tolerance (i.e. how readily your body's cells can recognize glucose floating around in your blood and pull it into the cells of the body where it will fuel activity.) Impaired glucose tolerance can make you more likely to develop diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

There's also evidence that a lack of sleep can turn you into a raging b**ch. True story. 

Probably half of the clients I work with will point to a couple of areas in particular where they want to lose weight, (though there is no such thing as spot removal when it comes to fat.*) But for many people, abdominal fat is a target area. 

Sleep and cortisol levels

As a side note, in doing my research I discovered that elephants only require three hours of sleep. In case that comes up in trivia next week.

Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. So way back in the day when you were being chased by a saber toothed tiger, you had mad levels of cortisol going on. And it helped you survive. Cortisol also cues your body to hold on to fat. So what we're getting at here is lack of sleep = increased cortisol levels = increased abdominal fat.

During a typical day, you want your cortisol levels to be higher in the morning, so you can brush your teeth with toothpaste and not hemorrhoid cream, and lower at night, so you can fall asleep. Have you ever tried to shut your racing mind off at night? You're mind is going in all different directions and so you try to not think about this, and then not think about that. 

And all of these things are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Check in for the next post on strategies to maybe, just maybe, help you sleep better and longer. 

 

 

* I alluded to the thigh master in one of my recent posts - if you recall there was a photo of Suzanne Somers; but you can't actually spot remove fat.