Stress can have many effects on our body (physiology). The most important thing to know, is that we NEED stress. Not every day, all the time, day in and day out. But we cannot grow and become stronger without stress. An example of this can be seen when we do weight bearing exercises - we grow muscle and strengthen our bones. But stress can be too much sometimes. Let’s explore this deeper through a real patients story.
A 43-year-old female comes into my office with complaints of weight gain through her midsection, irritability, and insomnia. She had a near perfect diet, eating organic foods and exercising regularly (both strength and cardio). Basic lab tests (morning fasting) reveal no abnormalities except a borderline high fasting blood sugar. However, when I looked at her cortisol levels (the body’s stress hormone), it was slightly elevated. This prompted me to order a 24 hour cortisol test (salivary). The results showed clear adrenal fatigue.
As I began to ask her about her stress levels, she said, “I don’t really have a lot of stress.” I wake up, work-out, get the kids off to school….I asked, “Do you have breakfast?”. She responded that she didn’t really have time and she is not that hungry anyway. I proceeded to find out that she is going non-stop all day, drinking coffee in the morning, snacking on carbohydrate rich foods, eating a big dinner with her family, proceeding to put the kids to bed and staying up past midnight most nights. Her sleep is disrupted and she only gets 2-3 hours of restful sleep before waking and then having trouble falling back to sleep. This goes on daily through the week and she usually tries to sleep in and “catch up” on the weekends.
This lifestyle pattern contains all the ingredients for a chronic stress response giving rise to each symptom she complained of. This stress response is marked by the adrenals over producing cortisol, which creates blood sugar disregulation (insulin resistance) and can lead to hormonal imbalances. Both of which can in turn lead to weight gain and altered body composition.
In her case, I changed her dietary plan to eating 4-6 small meals throughout the day (each containing a protein source) and NEVER skipping breakfast! She also agreed to cut the coffee and try to limit the amount of refined carbohydrates in her diet. But one of the most important factors was taking 5 min. of each hour for herself to just breath and relax. Just twelve 5 minute breathing breaks can do wonder for your body and mind.
In the end, her sleep improved and she lost 12 pounds of fat and gained 3 pounds of muscle mass in 4 short weeks – all without adding any exercise. In fact, the only thing she added was a little protein throughout the day and some down time to breath, relax, and reset. Needless to say she was happy and so was her family.