Stress Impact on Athletes: Digestion, Sleep, and Performance

In the world of sports, athletes strive for peak performance. But have you ever wondered how stress affects them, be it a professional or an amateur? Stress, the universal foe of health, takes a unique toll on athletes, impacting various aspects of their well-being. The consequences of stress are far-reaching, from digestion to sleep quality and even breathing patterns. This article delves into the intricate relationship between stress and athletic performance. Discover how stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can disrupt digestion, how sleep quality is compromised, and how breathing patterns play a role. Let’s unlock the secrets to managing stress for optimal athletic excellence.

Digestion and the stressed athlete

When we are stressed, our body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are significant when running a race or engaging in short bursts of activity. However, when these hormones are released at high levels over a long period, 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. They cause digestion to become compromised and nutrients to be poorly absorbed. Vitamins and minerals are essential for muscle health and athletic performance. Muscles no longer receive the required nutrients when digestion isn’t functioning optimally.

Listen: Dr. Ron Ehrlich interviews Dr. Peter Brukner. The post continues after the audio.

Sleep and the stressed athlete

This rise in stress hormones also impacts an athlete’s ability to sleep consistently well. When stressed and cortisol rises, our body interprets the response as being in danger. Think about it: entering deep sleep is the last thing we want to do if we are in trouble. 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 you are hungry. Leptin, the hormone that tells you you are full, also begins to drop. For an athlete, this means their appetite rises and can be challenging to manage. Insulin is another hormone that becomes out of balance, 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 significantly influence our ability for a refreshing night’s sleep. Breathing can also control our posture, depending on if you are a mouth or nose breather. Postural stress can lead to various complications, including impaired muscle function, chronic pain and an impact on athletic ability.

Listen: Dr Ron Ehrlich interviews Steph Lowe. The post continues after the audio.

How to manage stress for the athlete

Getting a consistently good night’s sleep is vital for any athlete. The aim is to get enough sleep (7-8 hours) and good quality (breathing well and waking refreshed). Additionally, breathing through your nose day and night is essential for producing nitric oxide, one of the body’s 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 necessary for optimal nerve and muscle function. Staying hydrated with adequate water is also vital for proper fluid balance. Finally, addressing the biomechanics of movement may involve visiting a podiatrist to address foot function or leg length issues.

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