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Stress, weight gain and overexercising

Stress. We all experience it at some point, some worse than others. Chronic stress can have a serious effect on your mental and physical health, leading you to gain or lose weight rapidly, feel anxious and interfere with your sleep and cognitive functioning. Exercise may seem like the answer, but in some cases, exercise exacerbates stress and should be kept to a minimum.

Mental and emotional stress can cause rapid weight gain or weight loss. Think of the stereotypical stress response in any movie: eating ice cream after a break up, replacing cigarettes for food on a bad day, binging on fast food or forgetting to eat. Whether stress pushes you towards or away from food, it can cause a negative cycle of stress, weight change, low mood, overexercising and exacerbated stress.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of exercise for mental and physical health. It’s widely known as a destresser, by providing a boost of endorphins and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) amongst other positive biochemical changes.

For most people in most situations, exercise makes you feel better. But there are cases in which intensive and frequent exercise should be limited. Some committed exercisers are found at the gym everyday of the week. They do it because they love it, and they need the stress relief from work.

But their stress doesn’t seem to be diminishing, they’re actually starting to feel more tired, more stressed and their mood is suffering. If this applies to you, you might be overtraining and causing severe stress on the body which is preventing you from being able to manage it mentally.

When you feel stressed, you are more likely to gain weight for two key reasons: behavior change and hormonal change. As mentioned, some people have a bigger appetite during periods of stress and use food as an emotional crux. If you are chronically stressed, you may find yourself chronically overeating, resulting in weight gain.

The second reason, hormonal change, is a bit more complex as explored in a study in the journal Obesity. The reason a stressed individual may have a bigger appetite during times of stress is due to hormonal fluctuations of key appetite and satiety hormones like ghrelin, leptin and neuropeptide Y.

Cortisol and adrenaline also spike during times of stress which as a result can shift your body into a fat storing mode, holding onto all calories rather than using them as fuel. It is not unusual for an individual who is chronically stressed to have more visceral abdominal fat, even if they are of a healthy weight, as found in a study conducted by Yale University.

That said, emotional, mental and lifestyle stressors are not the only thing that causes and exacerbates a negative stress response.

Long cardio sessions and a high training frequency can also increase stress. These types of training been shown in research to drastically decrease blood levels of key neurotransmitters like dopamine, glutamine and 5-HTP (serotonin). These neurotransmitters are integral to having a balanced mood and feeling energized. When the body is under physical stress, as it is during an intense workout, blood and muscle concentrations of these neurotransmitters are depleted, which can worsen feelings of stress, low mood and fatigue.

Dopamine is also referred to as a ‘happy hormone’ because it’s responsible for experiencing happiness, but it’s also responsible for controlling mental and emotional responses. Glutamine is an amino acid that acts as a building block of protein and provides fuel to rapidly dividing cells of the immune system.

As per a 2010 study on glutamine metabolism in exercise: strenuous physical activity and high frequency training programs deplete blood glutamine levels, resulting in immunodepression (a weakened immune system). A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience concluded that glutamine deficiency is also a component in depression and chronic fatigue.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is a precursor to serotonin. High 5-HTP levels increases the synthesis of serotonin, whereas depleted levels have been shown in research to result in anxiety, depression, insomnia, aggression and other unpleasant symptoms. A 2000 study also found that depleted serotonin caused decreased muscle mass and muscular tone.

A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2016 examined exercise-induced stress. The researchers found that when participants engaged in exercise that was too regular and too intense, they started experiencing stress behaviors like fatigue, mood disturbances, unexplained weight changes, poor physical performance and gastrointestinal problems.

When we exercise, we are placing physical demands on our bodies that initiates a stress response. This stress response is similar to what happens when we see danger like a car fast approaching, sending signals to the amygdala - the area of the brain responsible for emotional processing.

Once the stress signal is received, another signal is sent to the hypothalamus - the command center of the brain - that initiates a fight or flight response. This activates the adrenomedullary and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axes, resulting in the release of stress and catabolic hormones and inflammatory cytokines.

If you are experiencing stress in other aspects of your life and combine this with excessive physical activity, your stress will become significantly more severe. In these cases, exercise should be kept light and to a minimum, until the body is able to handle the physical demands of more intense exercise.

Severe, chronic stress damages the body and mind. A small amount of stress can be beneficial, as in the case of exercise. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and should be used in the treatment of mental conditions like depression and anxiety.

However, if you’re experiencing chronic stress, the additional physical and hormonal stress created during exercise promotes a cycle of exacerbated stress. Ultimately resulting in low mood, weight changes, fatigue and a weakened immune system.

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