Stress and the athlete: how stress can affect performance and health

We know stress can be detrimental to our health. So what impact does stress have on an athlete – professional or amateur? Let me explain…

Digestion and the stressed athlete

When we are stressed our body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are great when we are running a race or engaging in short bursts of activity. However when these hormones are released at high levels over a long period of time, they impact our health negatively. They signal to our body we are in danger and divert blood away from the digestive tract and towards our arms/legs. Causing digestion to become compromised and nutrients poorly absorbed. Vitamins and minerals are essential for muscle health and athletic performance. When digestion isn’t functioning optimally then muscles no longer receive nutrients they require.

Listen: Dr. Ron Ehrlich interviews Dr. Peter Brukner. Post continues after audio.

Sleep and the stressed athlete

This rise in stress hormones also impact the ability for an athlete to get a consistently good night’s sleep. When we are stressed and cortisol rises, our body interprets the response as being in danger. Think about it, if we are in danger then entering deep sleep is the last thing we want to be doing. Poor sleep is implicated in reduced growth hormone, essential for rebuilding muscle. It is also linked to a rise in ghrelin – the hormone that tells you that you are hungry. Leptin, the hormone involved in telling you are full also begins to drop. For an athlete this means their appetite rises and can be difficult to manage. Insulin is another hormone that becomes out of balance, which is essential for carbohydrate metabolism and fat storage.

Breathing and the stressed athlete

Dysfunctional breathing can also be a significant stress on athletic performance. It affects body chemistry and can greatly influence our ability for a restorative night’s sleep. Breathing can also influence our posture, depending on if you are a mouth or nose breather. Postural stress can lead to a range of complications including impaired muscle function, chronic pain and impact athletic ability.

Listen: Dr. Ron Ehrlich interviews Steph Lowe. Post continues after audio.

How to manage stress for the athlete

Focusing on getting a consistently good night’s sleep is key for any athlete. Getting enough sleep (7-8hrs) and good quality (breathing well and waking refreshed) is the aim. Additionally breathing through your nose throughout the day and night is essential for production of nitric oxide, one of the bodies most important regulators and involved in improved blood flow. The combination of sleeping well and breathing well is essential for any form of exercise. Focusing on a nutrient dense diet with healthy fats and good quality protein is also important for optimal nerve and muscle function. Staying hydrated with adequate amounts of water is also important for proper fluid balance. Finally addressing the biomechanics of movement is essential, this may involve visiting a podiatrist to address any issues with foot function or leg length.

Stress impacts our health a range of ways, something I discuss in greater detail in my book A Life Less Stressed, click here to order your copy.