Stress is often a topic that comes up in regard to its impact on relationships, work-life balance and mental health. However, a lesser-discussed negative impact of stress is the effect it can have on your performance, motivation levels and strength gains.
The impact of stress on strength and performance.
Stress wasn’t always bad; before modern civilization, our Palaeolithic ancestors required the fight-or-flight hormones that are released during stressful situations to help them run away from wild animals, see better in the dark when necessary, survive intense climates and save humanity from going extinct.
Today, however, our bodies are unable to distinguish between the stress of being chased by a predator and having a fight with our partner. We were designed to thrive in random stressful occurrences, that was/ is the beauty of the cortisol hormone, we aren’t, however designed to live in a constant stressful, anxious and worried state which, unfortunately is most people’s reality due to work, financial, relationship and family stress.
The 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, be alert if there is an actual threat or predator and so on. However, when cortisol stays elevated in our system, a cascade of negative effects begins to occur.
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.
Stress, the underlying cause of fatigue and reduced motivation!
Studies are now showing a significant link between perceived stress, especially psychological or mental stress, and fatigue. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard enough to get motivated to train after a long day of work without that constant feeling of being “drained”. If you’re chronically stressed, it can begin to feel like every day is increasingly draining, which can severely impact your energy levels and mood, making it that much harder to put your all in to your training. If you are looking to improve your training output, strength gains, energy and motivation, reducing stress will help you greatly.
Supresses muscle growth.
Cortisol has a catabolic effect on muscle, meaning that it causes them to break down. Normally, we would experience stress for a short amount of time, and other hormones that are anabolic or “muscle building” such as testosterone would actually jump in to counteract cortisol’s effect. However, when stress becomes chronic and cortisol is consistently elevated, our anabolic hormones are suppressed, whilst cortisol continues to promote muscle breakdown. This essentially means less muscle growth for you despite your best efforts in the gym as you’re effectively working against your hormones. Did you know that even the anticipation of stress has been shown to reduce testosterone? Crazy!
Water weight, estrogen and insulin.
Unfortunately, to add insult to injury, not only does cortisol compete against the presence of anabolic hormones, it brings increased levels of estrogen and insulin to the mix. Meaning you are more likely to hold water, be moody, experience insomnia (which is a whole other issue on its own), store body fat around your midsection, experience cravings and have an appetite second to none. Obviously, if you combine all of these factors with the inability to grow and maintain your muscle mass, it can seriously work against your performance and aesthetic goals.
What can we do to reduce stress?
I know, this sounds bad, the good news is there are a multitude of natural ways in which we can mitigate the effects of stress and improve performance and strength.
There are several herbs you can try to lower your stress levels, and I am going to break them down 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.
Adaptogens – management long term. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that help your body “adapt” to the effects of stress and balance hormones in general. They work holistically with your nervous system to help you be more resilient to the negative effects of stress, provide increased energy, cognitive function and stamina, and can help mitigate long-term side effects of too much stress, such as premature aging. All of these positive effects combine to help boost performance and motivation, whilst keeping cortisol down. It is important to note that adaptogens are a longer-term strategy, helping your body become more resilient over time. Our favourite cortisol reducing, energy boosting adaptogens are: Ashwaghanda, Ginseng, Rhodiola Rosea, Licorice root, Maca, Reishi and Cordyceps.
Sedative herbs – fast stress management. If you are hit by a bout of stress and anxiety that seems too much and you require 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 like a Valium or even make you drowsy, but instead they will help soothe and calm your nervous system which helps you feel relaxed. Research shows these types of herbs, like chamomile and lavender, actually interact with receptors in your brain and intestines that create a relaxant effect. Besides lavender and chamomile some other great herbs are Lemon balm, Valerian root and Passionflower.
Nature is the best medicine.
Movement and presence outside in the fresh air, surrounded by nature and sunlight has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, improve mood, immunity and overall wellness. If possible, try and enjoy nature for 20 minutes a day or at the very least 3 times a week.
Increase your Magnesium and Vitamin B.
Both of these vitamin aid in energy and support hormones. 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, a few of the main symptoms of the deficiency are increased anxiety, irritability, and stress. 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’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 experience a reduction in stress and anxiety.
To conclude, stress unfortunately isn’t going anywhere so it is important that you are conscious and aware as to how much you, as a unique individual are impacted by stress. Some people barely feel the effects of stress, whereas for others it is nothing short of crippling. Implement some of the tools given above in to your daily regime when cortisol hits you, it doesn’t have to be complicated, simply a few deep breaths can help. If stress or anxiety is something you experience to a point where you believe it is affecting your mental health or overall wellness, please seek professional help.