My body composition has taken a hit recently, and while I don’t want to get hung up on aesthetics and rely on my physical appearance to determine my health and happiness - I do want to accept and acknowledge that how my body looks now is not because I’ve gained healthy/necessary weight or because I've treated my body well.
I want to dedicate some time to explaining how stress affects how we look - because lets face it, if there’s one thing that will scare most of us into positive change, it’s knowing the effect it’s having on something we all admittedly place (too much) importance on.
Current body composition
The way my body looks now doesn’t come down to my ‘clean’ and nutritious diet.
It doesn’t reflect my commitment to the gym and training.
It doesn’t emulate self-care, love or confidence.
Instead? It’s rapidly showing all the signs of a body that has been worn down by chronic stress and mistreatment.
History of stress
I’ve got a pretty bad history of abusing my body with self-destructive behaviours.
I grew up over-eating, eating with no care for nutrition, filling up on ‘junk’ food and being inactive.
I then endured a restrictive eating disorder, experienced malnutrition and basically starved my body from all nutrients, energy and sustenance.
I’ve over-exercised to the point of osteopenia, chest pains, injury and adrenal fatigue….and experienced multiple bouts of burn outs time and time again.
Up until recently, I’d really started to get a grip on my health and treating my body well.
My eating had improved dramatically - I’ve achieved a really amazing balance of eating the right foods, in the right amounts, with very few restrictions or hang-ups over food.
My training had been the best it’s been - still perhaps a little too much, but half of what I used to do and done with exceedingly healthier intentions.
Current experience with stress
So what changed?
Around 2 months ago, my work load and career became more demanding and I started to experience a few personal stressors I’d never had to deal with before. Subconsciously I began to revert to old ‘comforting’ behaviours in a bid to feel more in control and ‘productive’ in the face of all this extra stress.
All of a sudden, my carb macros were becoming lower and lower, I was chasing an excessive calorie burn in the gym, I was favouring cardio over weight-training, I wasn’t sleeping enough, and when I did sleep it was restless and interrupted. I started to de-prioritise my eating, and my meals became inconsistent. I went hours without eating most days, I over-ate and under-ate, I started drinking more coffee and diet coke in a desperate effort to feel energised, and I started internalising a lot of pressure from social media that I ‘had’ to get my period back, to look a certain way, and to maintain some kind of #fitspo ideal.
I was dealing with all these stressors - some I wasn’t even consciously aware of - and I kept trying to push through it and ‘deal with it’. In the process, I endowed even more stress on my body and completely over-worked my nervous system.
Signs of an overly stressed system
Slowly, the initial ‘high’ of all the nervous energy and stress hormones began to wear off.
Unfortunately, I ignored a lot of these signs my body was throwing me, and instead of taking them as an indication that I needed to slow down and rest, I perceived what was happening in my body as a sign of weakness and vowed to push even harder.
I felt like my body was attacking me….when perhaps it was just retaliating because it felt like I was attacking it.
A few weeks on from this tug-of-war between me and my body, and here’s where I’m at.
Mental and physical symptoms aside, I visibly look flat and ‘fluffy’ - and here’s why.
Is stress making me ‘fat'?!
I’ve essentially flooded by body with stress hormones, causing a complete imbalance in my body as it fights to deal with the physical and psychological stress I’ve placed upon it.
My last blood test from December showed extremely high levels of cortisol, low oestrogen, low progesterone and extremely low testosterone. What does all this mean for my body composition?
To keep it really simple, when we’re stressed our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone secreted by the body to provide energy to get through (what it perceives to be) an emergency. The body senses the stress as danger or a threat, and calls for quick energy to fight or flight. To produce quick energy, it calls on cortisol to release and break down stored protein and fat for readily available blood glucose. Chronic stress then causes an ongoing build up of this blood glucose - most of which our bodies don’t ‘burn off’ as we fight our stressors. So we end up with excess sugars in our system - which is eventually stored as fat….all the while our muscles are being broken down and literally wasting away.
To make matters worse, fat cells in our stomach are more sensitive to cortisol - meaning that all this extra fat storage tends to transpire on the one area of our bodies most of us are most self-conscious about and fixated on. I can honestly say that my stomach right now is undeniably flabby - and I’m not just saying that from a place of being overly self-critical. It’s exceedingly evident and wholly uncomfortable. I wish I had the courage to share the ‘before’ photos I took the other day to prove it, but I’ll save that for when I’ve really got a healthy ‘after’ photo to show. For now, take my word - a stressed body isn’t a healthy looking one…especially when it comes to lower belly flab, back fat and depleted muscles.
What can I do to lower cortisol and get my body healthy again?!
So, as my cortisol levels have increased, my body has gained fat and lost muscle - with no increases in my intake or decreases in my expenditure or effort in the gym to justify it. Great.
As someone who has always thrived off being ‘in control’ of my body and chasing a ‘lean’ physique, to all of a sudden ‘lose progress’, observe noticeable increases in fat and scale weight despite all my efforts to maintain my aesthetics…has been f*cking terrifying, frustrating and miserable to say the least.
It’s a lesson well learned for me though - and a very unfriendly reminder that perhaps I’ve never been chasing health for the right reasons or in the right ways.
Which means I need to make some big, scary changes to get this all under control and to truly heal my body and my attitude toward it.
Like I mentioned in my first 'Update' post, my gut instinct has been to slash my calories and increase my cardio to ‘burn off’ the extra fat and weight I’ve gained….but logic reminds me that drastically reducing my calories will just trigger my body to produce more cortisol..and so the cycle continues.
Instead, there’s a few more beneficial and scientically-backed things I’ve already begun implementing, along with a range of other things I’m looking into - lifestyle changes, mental health work, supplementation and diet tweaks. I’ll cover them all in a separate blog post, so leave a comment as to which one you want me to address first!
They’re all equally important, and all equally focused on two main goals:
Let’s just say I've got a lot of work to do…so let’s do this x
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