How stress derails your best intentions

How high cortisol interferes with lifestyle changes

My mom is the queen of idioms. Which means her voice echoes in my ear in wonderful Spanish refrains:

When I’d have a cold, she’d ask if I had an appetite, because:

Enfermo que come no muere / A sick person who eats will not die

Or I’d get frustrated by something that was just not going to happen:

No se puede pedir peras al olmo / You can’t get blood from a turnip

One of the most common ones was: del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho. Easier said than done.

An area where I think this is especially true is in changing behavior. We say we want to move more. Meditate more. Eat better. We try. We fall off the proverbial bandwagon. Then we get disappointed and frustrated.

We may know something will be beneficial on a cognitive level, but getting it into our bones can be tough.

Furthermore, change can be especially hard if we’re working against our physiology instead of with it.

Imagine having had a hard time sleeping for a few months or a few years. Over that time, extra weight has taken up new real estate in your midsection. The kettle chips in the pantry are quickly becoming your kryptonite and the dark chocolate sea salt almond squares at checkout at Whole Foods always seem to make it in the cart. Your energy is waning mid-afternoon and your memory is starting to feel less trustworthy. Demands from work and family are feeling increasingly overwhelming and you keep thinking, if I could only wake up and make a decent breakfast, things would really turn around.

Yes, agreed a protein heavy breakfast would make a difference, BUT let’s breakdown how the state of chronic stress and elevated cortisol is not helping the cause.

  • Sleep debt sets you up for higher cortisol levels which will affect carb metabolism and increases energy intake.

  • Your cravings will shift towards a reward pattern favoring high fat and sugar foods instead of hummus and celery sticks. This will in turn spur a vicious cycle of blood sugar imbalance and more HPA activity.

  • Chronic exposure to cortisol leads to a loss of self control making it harder to keep up healthy habits

  • Chronic exposure to cortisol will actually affect the structure of the brain, in particular the prefrontal cortex which controls memory and executive function. In other words, making planning and executing tasks more difficult.

This is your brain and body on stress and survival mode. And the way through isn’t to grit and bear it or to try harder. The way through is looking at the whole ecosystem of your life including the interconnectedness of chronic stress activation.

Luckily, there is good news: the brain and body can be healed and worked with. We have the ability to change the environment to favor restoration. As we tend to a whole-foods diet and move our bodies, we must also give equal weight to calming the mind and internal alarm system. Not only is this food for the soul in our modern lives, but it’s also going to create a fertile path for greater and lasting changes.

Some of my favorite ways to support the HPA axis are the following:

In addition, the discussion above is precisely what makes Wildly Nourished a different reset. You’ll get beautiful and delicious meal plans, AND we’ll also spend ample time working with relaxation and learning about the stress response. If you’ve been frustrated with the feeling of not being able to rally motivation, focus, or discipline, this gentle and consistent approach could be the secret sauce.

Together we’ll have frank honest-to-goodness conversations about the life we desire, worthiness, what gets in the way, food and nutrition and how to settle into ourselves with kindness.

I hope you’ll join me. Program starts Jan 22nd!