Most weight loss programs focus on diet, exercise and sleep. Unfortunately all three of these things can be thrown off by your mind. What many people do not realize is that stress is the most important part of the weight loss equation.
Stress has been shown to cause many negative effects within the body. In particular, stress can increase blood pressure, decrease insulin sensitivity and increase cortisol and adrenaline. When these hormones are released, the body begins to have trouble processing the food that you eat.
Stress can also affect your ability to stay on a diet, train and get enough sleep. In fact, even without the additional negative effects of stress on the body, stress’s effects on diet, exercise and sleep are enough to derail any progress you many be having with your weight loss program.
Therefore you need to first figure out a practical way you can reduce stress before you worry about strictly following any diet or training protocol. In fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say that stress reduction is even more important then sleep. When you are stressed you are much more likely to suffer from poor quality sleep or find yourself unable to follow a good sleep hygiene program.
In this article I am going to first outline why stress reduction is the absolute most important part of the weight loss equation. I am then going to outline what types of training and lifestyle habits have been shown to reduce stress. Finally I am going to give general guidelines for anyone trying to lose body fat or body weight.
How Stress Is Linked To Metabolism
Stress has been shown to be linked to metabolism in a number of studies. Most of these studies loo at the relationship between the neuroendocrine system. The most thoroughly studied interaction between the nervous and endocrine systems involves the variation in hormone levels when the nervous system is in a state of sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic dominance are defined as an over activation of one side of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the sympathetic (Fight or Flight) and parasympathetic (Rest and Digest) branches of the nervous system.
When either one of these two sides of the nervous system is overactive, it can cause a derangement in a host of bodily processes. Robb Wolff’s blog does a good job of exploring the basis for either of these two conditions. His blog lists the following as primary disruptions that can occur when nervous system activity becomes unbalanced.
Sympathetic Dominance or Parasympathetic dominance can cause the following:
- Low/high testosterone
- Low/high estrogen
- Poor sleep patterns
- Decreasing or low athletic performance
- Joint pain
- Low metabolism
- Poor mood
- Poor physical fitness
- Loss of muscle mass
- Vericose veins
If you are reading this, the highlighted issues are the most important. As mentioned in the introduction, stress can affect your training, sleep and ability to stay on a diet. The highlighted issues can give you some insight into why that is. When you loose muscle mass you are going to have a hard time performing in the gym. Disruption in endocrine function, shown above as high/low testosterone and estrogen is also going to make your weight loss and performance in the gym much less consistent.
One thing you may have noticed is that the above chart can apply to either sympathetic or parasympathetic dominance. However, for 99% of people reading this their problems are going to be related to sympathetic dominance. This is directly related to the number of stressors you might face during the course of your normal day.
How Everyday Stress Contributes To Sympathetic Dominance
Sympathetic dominance is characterized as an overuse or over activation of the “fight or flight’ side of the nervous system. according to Dr. Wilson’s health blog, sympathetic dominance is defined as:
Sympathetic dominance indicates a person who is over-utilizing his or her sympathetic nervous system. In simple terms, the person is pushing himself or herself, or worrying too much.
Dr. Wilson goes onto explain that sympathetic dominance is found in people that push themselves physically or mentally. If you are experiencing sympathetic dominance because you are pushing yourself too hard physically, you are probably doing too much volume, too much intensity, or spending too many days per week in the gym. This can include training for endurance activities or strength training. Also, of note is the fact that endurance training is much more likely to cause you to go into sympathetic dominance.
Endurance training is likely to cause sympathetic dominance because of the large metabolic component to successful endurance training. Long distance running for example requires a large energy expenditure. While your body is mobilizing the vast amounts of energy it needs to make it through protracted training sessions, it senses that it is burning through its energy stores. this sends a strong stress signal to your body. Additionally, cortisol (the stress hormone) is required to liberate stored fat for the use of energy. This makes chronic endurance activity one of most likely stressors to send your body into a state of sympathetic dominance.
If you are experiencing sympathetic domianance from thinking, you are most likely ruminating or otherwise caught in a train of repetitive thinking. Researchers have studied the affects of repetitive thinking by exploring its affects on the cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems. This following quote elegantly demonstrates researchers findings in studying rumination:
“Functional neuroimaging studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex normally exerts tonic inhibitory control on sympathoexcitatory neural circuits; apparently, rumination takes the prefrontal cortex temporarily “off-line,” leading to the disinhibition of these circuits (Brosschot, Van Dijk, & Thayer, 2007). The present study showed the consequences of these processes, parasympathetic withdrawal and relative sympathetic dominance during rumination, thus confirming and extending previous findings of ours (Ottaviani et al., 2008) and others (Key et al., 2008; Ray, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2008; Verkuil et al., 2009).”
While there are many other causes of sympathetic dominance, overtraining and overthinking are the two most likely culprits. Honorable mention goes to nutrient deficiencies. There are a host of nutrient deficiencies that, left unchecked, can lead to alterations in nervous system balance. The most common are the pro parasympathetic supplements such as calcium magnesium and zinc. while these are traditionally used to aid recovery from conditioning or strength training, they can be ued quite effectively to help shift the nervous system’s activity toward parasympathetic activation.
How To Balance Your Nervous System
Given that the most common causes of sympathetic dominance are overtraining and overthinking, you need to first decide which one is causing you the most issues. Overtraining is going to be realtive to the individual and the sport or activity you are training for. If you are an in season athlete you most likely cannot cut down on the volume or intensity of training. If you are someone who is a recreational athlete, the ost common method to prevent overtraining is to simply cut a day or two per week out of your program.
As a general guideline I would suggest spending no more then 4 days per week in the gym total if you are concerned about sympathetic dominance. While you might be able to get away with more, this should be considered the absolute maximum if you are concerned about sympathetic dominance. While i realize this might be counter intuitive for you if you want to lose weight as fast as possible, realize that you are going to be working against yourself if you are already experiencing sympathetic dominance.
When you are stressed out, your hormonal profile while make it harder to lose weight, harder to sleep, and more difficult to maintain a reduced calorie diet. When your body is relaxed, it is easier to eat less, sleep more and most importantly, maintain your mood.
If your issues are primarily caused by thinking too much, you better served by trying to get in the habit of doing some type of meditation practice. The specific type of practice is not as important as making sure you are doing one.
As discussed about repetitive thinking is the enemy of anyone who might be suffering from sympathetic dominance. Various types of meditative training including heart rate variability training have been shown to reduce rumination and its’s destructive effects.
As Dr. Wilson points out in his sympathetic dominance recovery guide, mental training is The most important aspect of recovery. His guide even goes as far as including an advanced visualization exercise.
Mental Training To Reduce Or Eliminate Sympathetic Dominance