June 25, 2023

The Sneaky Science Of Stress…

The Science of Stress

Last September, Moji Mojdeh came back to Mojo for the first time in years. I was absolutely thrilled to see her, but was taken aback by how sad was. Moji shared that she was profoundly unhappy and stressed about a number of unfortunate, overwhelming issues in her life. The stress was causing weight gain and taking a serious toll on her health.

I wished I could do more to help, but all I could do was cheer her on and pray that she would keep coming and showing up for herself…And she did.

Little by little, Moji’s energy lifted and so did her intensity. I saw her playfully adding color and intensity to her moves. Better yet, her smile returned – and so did her infectious singing! 

Go, Moji, Go!

While Moji’s goal was to lose weight, it wasn’t her primary goal. Moji struggles with an autoimmune disease, ulcerative colitis, which is aggravated by stress. Creating an active, sustainable lifestyle that brings her JOY, rather than additional stress, has been key to her fitness journey. I’m honored that Mojo has been such a positive part of her life! 

When it comes to stress, Moji is certainly not alone. We all experience it from time to time, especially during these highly uncertain times. Stress is a natural and helpful emotion that our body needs to live with in order to be successful in life. But not managing it well, or ignoring it, can lead to precarious consequences.

The Sneaky Science Of Stress…
Our body is basically made up of chemicals and hormones are our body’s chemical messenger. They are produced by a gland in our body, and their job is to travel through our bloodstream communicating to other parts of our body. A few of their many “communication” functions include body development, appetite, metabolism, and mood. 

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by our adrenal glands when we are stressed. It is often called the “stress hormone” because it helps our body respond to stressful situations, by boosting our energy levels, keeping our blood pressure and blood sugar levels in check, and boosting brain chemicals involved in these processes. However, if we are under chronic stress, our body can become over-exposed to cortisol, and it can start to damage our cells and tissues, which can lead to a number of health problems…

Specific examples of what too much cortisol can do:
    • Increases blood sugar levels: Cortisol can increase blood sugar levels by breaking down stored glucose in the liver. This is helpful in the short term, but if cortisol levels stay high for a long time, it can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
    • Suppresses the immune system: Cortisol can suppress the immune system by reducing the production of white blood cells. This can make us more susceptible to infections.
    • Increases appetite: Cortisol can increase appetite by stimulating the release of ghrelin, a hormone that makes us feel hungry. This can lead to overeating and weight gain.
    • Stores fat: Cortisol can promote the storage of fat around the abdomen. This is because cortisol tells the body to store energy in case of a future threat.
 • Metabolism slower: When we are stressed, our metabolism slows down, which means that we burn fewer calories. This can also contribute to weight gain over time.

Should we reduce stress by avoiding challenges and stressful situations? 
No (!!), but we should learn more about managing stress in our lives. Studies have shown that it’s better (and healthier) to understand and embrace the gifts of a cortisol boost, rather than fearing it. Simply being aware of particularly stressful times and making efforts to reduce our cortisol levels can go a long way to creating a life that is successful, rewarding, and healthy. (Click here to see a blog I wrote about the study, “Stress, Friend or Foe?“)

And the best way to reset and flush out high cortisol levels? EXERCISE!!

When it comes to lowering cortisol levels and reducing stress, exercising frequently and consistently is #1.

This is because exercise releases happy hormones, like endorphins, which have mood-boosting effects. Endorphins also help to regulate our sleep-wake cycle, which can further help to reduce stress.

While all exercise is recommended for a healthy mind and body. Not all exercise is created equal in regard to lowering cortisol levels:

Aerobic exercise helps to increase heart rate and blood flow, which helps to flush cortisol out of our body.
 • Strength training helps build muscle, which reduces the amount of cortisol that is released in response to stress.  

Do you dread the elliptical, but you do it anyway because it’s quick and you can knock exercise off for the day? When it comes to reducing stress and fighting depression, this is a no-no. Robert Thayer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, warns that some types of exercise can add more stress to your day…

Tense energy Studies show that some types of exercise create a “tense energy” – an effective state that allows us to get lots of work done, but can quickly move into tense tiredness, a negative state often associated with depression (higher cortisol levels). 

Calm Energy On the other hand, some exercises create “calm energy”, a combination of high physical and mental energy, paired with low physical tension. The “calm state” offers more long-lasting energy and lower cortisol levels, and can be achieved with the right type of exercise (Mojo anyone?). 

Click here to learn more about “Mood Mixology 101” the happiness hormones induced with a dance fitness workout

Help coral cortisol levels with these additional strategies

    • Identify stressors: Knowing what is causing your stress makes it easier to develop strategies for coping with it.
    • Meditation: Find an activity that allows you to climb outside of your head on a regular basis. It can be Yoga, painting, walking a beloved pet…Mojo. If you don’t have an activity that does it for you, work hard to FIND it. 
    • Eat a healthy diet:  Of course, a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet is key to happy brain and body chemicals. On days you’re feeling stressed, avoid alcohol, refined sugar, and over-processed food which contain chemicals that can inflame cortisol levels.
 • Get enough sleep: While this detail can be easier said than done when we are well-rested, we are better able to cope with stress. 

For so many reasons, get OUT of your head and create some happy hormones with us this week! 

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