Stress is everywhere in our lives, hitting us from all directions on a regular basis. Its sources are endless: a demanding job, a troubled relationship, lingering financial concerns … fill in the blank. These are the everyday stresses that, if persistent over time, can cause irreparable bodily harm. Acute, traumatic bouts of stress — witnessing a horrific event or being in a life-threatening situation, for example — can be equally as damaging albeit over a much shorter time frame.
Such psychological stresses are unavoidable. In most cases, you have little control over their occurrence or timing, which makes it all the more important to fight these stresses with, well, more stress, the kind you intentionally bring on yourself: physical stress in the form of exercise.
It used to be purely anecdotal, this notion of fighting fire with fire. “Going to the gym helps me take out my anger on the weights or the punching bag to relieve stress,” says the high-strung, workaholic CEO. But science has weighed in, supporting the claim that regular exercise can help the body counteract the underlying chemical causes of harmful stress. In fact, not only can working out help relieve immediate anxiety, but research suggests it also may help you deal better with psychological stress you have yet to encounter. Think of it as training yourself for the highly unpredictable stressors — a job loss, a death in the family or even more mild stress like sitting in traffic — you’re likely to experience in the future.
It’s really no different from a boxer training for an upcoming fight or a football player preparing for the season by lifting weights and running. In this case, you’re training for the rigors of life, for one of the most formidable opponents known to man: stress.
As if you needed another reason to frequent the gym.
A somewhat outdated definition of stress breaks it down into two different types: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress), based off the work of the late endocrinologist Hans Selye several decades ago. A term used more often today to describe stress is allostatic load, which basically refers to how the body responds physiologically to repeated bouts of stress. When the body adapts to stress favorably, you’re said to be in a state of “allostasis,” which is a good place to be. When stress overwhelms the body, you have “allostatic overload,” a circumstance that can lead to numerous negative health effects, from high blood pressure to unwanted weight gain.
Call it what you want. The point is, stress can be good or it can be bad. Like death and taxes, stress is inevitable, so you can either let it break you down or make it work for you to become stronger and more resilient.
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“When you talk about good stress and bad stress, there would be situations where stress is good, such as moderate to strenuous exercise,” says J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. “But even other types of stressors — psychological stressors — can actually be good for you, acting as challenging circumstances that help you grow in some way as a person. You have adaptations to those stresses that are good. The problem occurs when you have allostatic overload — that is, when you have a stress that doesn’t end or that you don’t recover from or that is excessive and beyond the capacity of your body to deal with.”
The linchpin in all this is the hormone cortisol. In fact, cortisol is so crucial to stress management that it’s been unofficially crowned the body’s “major stress hormone.” Every time stress occurs, whether it be psychological or physical stress, cortisol is released. It’s just that simple: Stress equals cortisol. Problem is, chronically high levels of cortisol in the body lead to some of the most devastating human conditions: hypertension, atherosclerosis, impaired immune system function and impaired metabolism, just to name a few. This is precisely why you hear about people with high-stress jobs having high blood pressure and keeling over with heart attacks. Stress leads directly to high cortisol levels, and chronically high cortisol levels lead directly to multiple risk factors for heart disease.
That said, increasing cortisol in the body is extremely beneficial, provided it doesn’t remain elevated for extended periods. The positive effects of cortisol are essentially the opposite of the maladies just listed: enhanced cardiovascular function, a stronger immune system and improved metabolism that can lead to increased fat burning.
This is where exercise comes into play. It’s a physical stress to the body, so as a result, it raises cortisol levels. But because exercise is much more controllable and predictable than most types of psychological stress — you can plan when and for how long you’re going to work out, but you can’t schedule emotional stress in the same manner — cortisol is easier to keep in check when it’s secreted via physical activity.
“Cortisol is a big key in regulating glucose and lipid metabolism,” Smith says. “It helps release glucose into the blood so that it can be used for fuel. The problem with psychological stress is that all these energy substrates are released into the blood, but there’s no metabolism to use those resources. So you have all this stuff released into the blood that’s ready to be used for fuel so that you can handle some stressful event, but you’re just sitting there doing nothing. Exercise actually involves those same products, but you’re using those products during your activity. They get metabolized, so they function better. That’s the issue with cortisol when you talk about stress management and psychological stress — it’s a bad thing over time because you have too much of it and you’re not using it appropriately.”
“Cortisol is not a universally bad thing,” agrees Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Mercer Island, Wash., and author of the books The Good Mood Diet and Power Eating (drskleiner.com). “Cortisol is what gets you out of the blocks when you’re running a race. It’s an exciting, wonderful hormone that we have. The problem occurs when cortisol hangs around. It’s supposed to do its job and go away.”
When we talk about different types of stress, we’re not comparing apples to oranges. Psychological and physical stress are essentially the same at the hormonal level (as are “good stress” and “bad stress,” if you prefer to think of it in those terms). In both cases, cortisol is released.
“The body doesn’t have a stress hormone specific to running versus when you’re afraid,” Smith says. “It releases the same thing to deal with either response. But the effect it has on the body depends on the context and perception of the person during that threat or stressor. If you’re under the perception that this is uncontrollable and that there’s no escaping it, then that type of stressor can have very damaging effects on the brain and body systems over time, especially if it happens over and over for weeks or months.”
This similarity between different types of stressors is a good thing for one simple reason: It allows us to use physical stress to enhance our ability to deal with psychological stress. Smith researched this very topic in a study published online in mid-2012 and published in early 2013 in the esteemed journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. In the study, 37 subjects completed 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling on one day and 30 minutes of seated rest (i.e., doing nothing) another day. After each 30-minute session, they were shown a variety of photos designed to elicit emotional responses similar to stressful events that occur day to day in the real world. The study results showed that the subjects’ anxiety levels remained reduced while viewing the disturbing photos when they had just exercised but not when they had only rested.
“What we implied,“ Smith says, “is that when you exercise, you probably have a better mood right afterward. But also, when you encounter something stressful or emotional, you’re probably more likely to maintain that enhanced mood in the face of that emotional challenge. But we only looked at this for an hour after exercise, so we don’t really know how long it’s going to last.”
As Smith’s statement suggests, conclusive scientific data linking exercise and stress management is lacking. Strong evidence shows that regular exercise does in fact help counteract the negative effects of psychological stress, but no specific guidelines have come from the research. Is aerobic exercise better for keeping stress and cortisol in check than anaerobic resistance training, or vice versa? This is still not clear, though it’s worth noting that aerobic training has been studied more than lifting weights. How many days per week is best for managing stress, and how long should workouts last? No one knows. We do know that too much exercise (overtraining) can have negative effects on mood, which would seemingly exacerbate high stress levels.
One other thing is certain: When cortisol levels in the body remain elevated for extended periods as a response to stress, bad things happen to the body. Raising cortisol voluntarily through regular exercise, then allowing it to come back down with some help from proper nutrition, is your best defense against the stress that promises to keep coming at you. Question is, Will you fight back?
Exercise is known to help manage stress, but specific training recommendations are still fuzzy. Nutrition, on the other hand, is a bit clearer. Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., RD, offers the following nutritional recommendations for minimizing the harmful effects of stress.
Look at the Big Picture
“One way to avoid stress is to keep your body well-fed,” Kleiner says. “The body needs a wide variety of foods so that all the hundreds of thousands of biochemical reactions that occur moment to moment every day can move along unimpeded. So that’s the foundation of it all. Before you even talk about details and specifics, here’s a question: Do you keep your body anxious and looking for food all the time, or do you put it in a mode where it’s building? I talk about the sports world versus the diet world. The diet world tears your body down, and in the sports world, we build your body up, even though I don’t know an athlete who doesn’t manage his or her weight. You want to build your body up so that it’s functioning at maximum capacity rather than tearing your body down so that it’s barely working at all. We put our bodies through tremendous negative stress when we don’t feed ourselves adequately.”
Healthy Fats Are Nonnegotiable
“Omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acids, are a significant part of what makes up the building blocks of the brain cells’ membranes and our entire nervous system. Sixty percent of the mass of the brain is fat. When we don’t eat the right fats — and these are fish oil and the healthy fats that come from avocados, olives, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds — the body will substitute omega-6 fats instead. Omega-6 fats easily become oxidized, while omega-3 fats fight oxidation. And stress is all about oxidation. Whether you’re stressing your muscles or stressing your brain, those healthy fats will make a huge difference in how your body responds.
“DHA is critically important for every nervous cell and brain cell we have, repairing the oxidative damage that occurs as a side effect of being alive,” Kleiner says. “Most people aren’t getting enough DHA, so you better supplement it. Get 1,000 milligrams of EPA plus DHA every day, unless you’re eating five big fish meals a week, which almost nobody does.”
Whey Protein Is the Way to Go
“Research on people who are stress and anxiety prone has shown that when they supplemented with whey protein, they didn’t have as high of a stress response,” Kleiner says. “Why? Because whey is high in tryptophan, which has been shown to help reduce stress.
“It’s no wonder that whey is recommended after working out. Having whey protein cedes the physical stress response and begins the repair process by stimulating an anabolic hormonal environment that helps the body maximize the physical stress response that we have from exercise. And it probably helps the brain settle down, too. The best dosage is somewhere between 22 to 25 grams of whey after exercise.”
Save Your Yolks
“Choline is very important,” Kleiner explains. “It’s half of our most abundant neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. And the most abundant source of choline in the American diet is egg yolks. Ever since we’ve been dumping egg yolks down the drain in fear of high cholesterol levels, we’re taking in as a nation less than half the recommended amount of choline.
“In an egg yolk, choline is carried as a phospholipid that’s required by the brain-cell membranes that allow toxins out of the cells and nutrients and other factors into the cells. Without adequate amounts of choline, you can’t have a well-fed brain. When your brain isn’t functioning well and you don’t have the neurotransmitter that’s required for thinking and moving optimally available, I’d say that would stimulate some kind of stress in the body. This is one reason why I recommend eating a whole egg a day. For healthy people, there probably isn’t any harm [with regard to cholesterol levels] in eating two egg yolks a day.”
“B vitamins need to be brought up because of the gluten-free/Paleo diet craze. We know that as stress goes up, your B-vitamin requirement goes up,” she says. “B vitamins play an incredibly important role in nervous system and mental function, and the primary source of B vitamins are grains. There are other sources, like dairy products [another anti-Paleo food group], but predominantly we get them from grains. I’m not saying you need to have a grain-based diet; what I’m saying is that we need to be particularly careful about cutting out whole groups of food.”
“Water is probably the most important thing.” Kleiner says. “Dehydration will affect physical and mental performance faster than anything else. Cell function diminishes appreciably when we’re dehydrated, metabolism within the cell slows down, and that leaves us at the risk of not turning over all these stress chemicals quickly; they’ll hang around longer, not to mention they’ll become more concentrated in our bloodstream. Of your nine to 11 cups of fluid minimum a day, make five to six of them water.”