How Stress Affects Pilates
As commercials blare advertisements for cortisol controlling supplements to help you lose weight, billboards boast a way to remove negative hormones, and doctors on television remind you how bad stress can be for your body, you may find yourself asking some questions: What is cortisol, how is it connected to stress, and how does it affect my body?
Look no further for the answers; read through this guide on stress and the impact it has on your body, specifically through the hormone known as cortisol. You might be surprised to find out that there really is a scientific link between a long day at practice and your subsequent craving for Ben & Jerry’s at 3 AM! (No, really, there is one.)
What Cortisol Is
Simply put, cortisol is a hormone. It gets released when you get stressed out. More precisely, it is a 21 carbon molecule that runs around your body like a busy bee, performing a variety of functions; some of these functions are good, some are not so good.
Cortisol is produced by the zona fasciculate of the adrenal cortex, which itself belongs to the adrenal gland. This is the same place that produces adrenaline, another chemical response your body produces when under stress.
What Causes It to Be Produced
The most basic answer to this question is stress. Stress, defined as any taxing of the body’s natural resources, occurs constantly in all living things and causes your body to work harder, therefore requiring more energy to function properly; stress can include anything from exercise to fighting with your coach to working on a particularly challenging Sudoku puzzle.
Some small amount of stress is not only normal in the body, but actually healthy. A person who is never under any kind of stress will not develop the proper methods for coping with difficult situations (both mentally and physically).
54% of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their daily lives. (American Psychological Association, 2004.)
Identifying a Crisis
When something stressful occurs, such as your teacher correcting your form for the eighty ninth time that night or learning you have three midterms instead of one, your body begins to launch its stress response system. This means you start to produce adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline and cortisol tell your body that there’s a dangerous situation going down, and you’re on the front lines. Therefore all available resources are mobilized to deal with what’s going on at the moment; this includes all the backup energy stores that your body accumulates for emergencies—like fighting for your life. This sudden release forces your body to function at 100%, but leaves few resources for your body to use afterwards.
The Effects of the Response
Adrenaline functions to make your heart rate rise, your concentration super sharp, your senses heightened, and your breathing more rapid and efficient—essentially preparing you for fight or flight.
Cortisol decreases your sensitivity to pain, gives you a short burst of energy, improves your short term memory, and activates your immune system. All of these things are super helpful when you’re confronted with a dangerous situation, such as a physical fight or diving out of the way of a boulder a la Indiana Jones.
However, when dealing with stress on a consistent, long term basis, this over-stimulation can and will tax your body till it’s severely depleted: energy stores disappear, the muscles become overworked, bones weaken, and even our brains fail to function at full capacity as our body continually attempts to function on empty.
How It Affects the Body
Cortisol can have many long term effects on the body:
Since cortisol is a stress hormone designed to be used only in short term, crisis-level situations, it grabs all available resources from your body to give you the best chance for survival. This all-consuming process occurs in any variety of stressful situations, since hormones can’t, in the end, tell the difference between a serious fight with your boyfriend and a chance encounter with a bear.
But when cortisol is released too frequently (due to continuing stress), it can lead to a long-term depletion of things you need.
By decreasing pain sensitivity, cortisol allows your body to work overtime without really feeling the strain. This can be incredibly harmful as it becomes easier to overwork without realizing it, eventually leading to long term muscle damage, stress fractures, and exhaustion.
In the short term, cortisol concentrates all your ability to focus and retain short-term memory so you remember what not to do in the future. In the long term, this process can impair your cognitive performance and hinder long-term memory, as the brain gets stuck in short-term mode and used to blocking out everything but immediate stressors.
This can make it hard for you to remember corrections, combinations, exercises, and even daily things you need to be doing.
Cortisol increases your ability to create short term or “flashbulb” memories during stressful events so that you remember how not to get into them for next time. These brief montages are often what return in flashbacks in those affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)
In the short term, cortisol gives your immune system a boost. However, this high level of performance is impossible to sustain for more than an hour or so (at most). As such, your immune system gets tired from puffing itself up and, over the course of time, becomes taxed and exhausted.
This means it’s harder for your body to fight off colds, injuries, and other attacks on your immune system—all things that can put you out of commission.
Weakened Bones and Muscles
Like the immune system, your body as a whole initially runs on all cylinders when cortisol is first released. As time passes, however, muscle tissue begins to be produced less as resources continue to be channeled towards fighting stress instead of normal day-to-day functions.
Bone formation also decreases, leading to a dangerous combination of more brittle bones and weaker muscles. This depleted production of new tissue causes injuries to heal slower. In the long term, this means more stress fractures, pulled muscles, fatigue, reduced endurance, and conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis.
One of the more commonly known side effects of cortisol is weight gain. However, while cortisol does move fat cells into more visible areas of the body (the stomach, for example), most of the weight gain associated with stress stems from the cravings cortisol causes.
The hormone sends messages to the brain to start chowing down on fats and sugars; the body stores these particular kinds of food as fat to be used as energy the next time crisis hits. However, since modern day stress is most often unrelated to running away from a woolly mammoth, this fatty energy never gets burned and instead sticks to your thighs and abdomen.
Thyroid and Reproductive Function
Long term exposure to cortisol can also inhibit thyroid function. The thyroid regulates growth and metabolism in the body and, if compromised, can lead to weight gain, stunted growth in those still developing, and an end to collagen production, resulting in skin and circulatory issues.
Additionally, the release of cortisol stops the growth and general health/blood flow to the reproductive organs. The body rationalizes this move because if you’re running from a wild bear, having children isn’t going to be your top priority, and the resources usually devoted to that can be better placed elsewhere. (For example, if less blood is being directed towards your ovaries, there will be more left for your hard working legs where it’s needed.)
If too much cortisol is consistently released, it can begin to effect long term fertility, thus making it especially difficult to conceive. (Or even make the attempt.)
Raising Blood Pressure
Finally, cortisol has the highly dangerous effect of raising blood pressure. During a dangerous encounter, this helps you survive, as blood is delivered quickly to the areas of your body that need it most. However, in the long term, this leads to a multitude of health problems, some of which—like heart problems and clogged arteries—can lead to an early death.
How It Affects Performance
For an athlete, cortisol can be debilitating when released in high amounts over a long period of time.
High stress levels impact the body in all the ways mentioned above, but when added on top of the physical stress of an arduous training regime, they can end a career. Athletes depend on their bodies, and even subtle compromises in their performance—via fatigue, injury, or illness—can have severe consequences.
After a long period of time, high stress levels can also cause athletes to become unmotivated and depressed due to the trumping of serotonin in your brain by cortisol. This, of course, can have a big impact on performance as any athletic endeavor depends on the mental and emotional will of the athlete in question.
Hot Tip: Ask for Help
If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed during practices, talk to your teacher or coach. (S)he may have some good pointers on keeping your stress levels low without losing the benefits of intense training.
How to Lower Stress Levels
Keep in mind that some level of stress is good for you. It challenges your brain and body, allowing you to develop a stronger, more competition-ready frame of mind and physical state. However, if you begin to feel overly fatigued and show symptoms of stress related illness, there are ways to take your stress level down a notch.
The best way to deal with stress is to rest. It can be difficult for an active person to sit out one weekend or take it easy, especially when they’re highly motivated and competitive, but sometimes that’s what you need to get back on track. By relaxing, you allow your body to move back into homeostasis, the point at which levels of stress and rest are equal.
Other ways to lower stress and help your body are to stay hydrated and eat healthy. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics that deprive your body of water, which can then lead to cortisol excretions.
Many medications can have an effect on the body’s ability to handle stress. For women, for example, many combined oral contraceptives can cause an additional release of cortisol in the body. If you’re planning on taking a new prescription, make sure to talk to your doctor about its effects on your body.
Find Your Happy Place
While there is no such thing as a stress-free environment, especially in the athletic realm, it is still important that your life maintain some semblance of peace and balance.
Check in with yourself before and during practice—if you feel stressed out, use imagery, deep breathing, and gentle stretches to find relief and stabilize the body. Take the time to warm up before practice and guide yourself to a state of focus and calm, not overly pumped up and stressed out. This will provide a bit of respite, help control your breathing, and give you a clear mind to deal with the anxiety that is sure to seep in later.
Remember, while some level of stress and competition can push you to do your best, too much can have the exact opposite effect. Learn to control cortisol before it takes hold of your body—and your performance!