Stress And Your Skin

stressed out woman

Did you know that stress can do a number on your skin? You are probably familiar with the stress-induced breakout, but prolonged, chronic stress can also prematurely age the skin. Stressful situations trigger the release of cortisol, adrenaline, pro-inflammatory cytokines, and angiotensin, all of which rob your skin of collagen and weaken its cellular repairing capabilities. Circulation is diverted away from the skin during stressful situations, which explains the dull, pale appearance of the skin in people who deal with constant stress.

Cortisol in particular inhibits the growth of fibroblasts which are responsible for making collagen, so they can’t keep up with the constant breakdown of old tissue. The result is skin which is collagen deficient, resulting in thinner, more wrinkled skin. Free radicals are formed in response to stress, which then damages skin cells and adversely affects the condition of the skin.

So how can you fight the effects of stress on the skin? There are three keys:

1. Exercise:

Every cell in the body benefits from exercise, including skin cells The pores of the skin dilate during exercise, and when you work up a sweat, trapped dirt particles are released. In addition, the increased circulation which results from exercise delivers more oxygen and other nutrients to skin cells, as well as carries away waste products and free radicals.

2. Relax:

We all know how frustrating it can be to have a big event looming, only to have an acne breakout right before the big day. The fact is that the stress associated with preparing for the event can trigger excess oil production in the skin, which clogs pores and sets up the perfect environment for an acne flareup. Even other skin issues, like psoriasis, are linked to stress. However, by practicing relaxation techniques, you can increase blood flow to the skin and offset any triggering factors (such as buildup of oil or free radicals) which contribute to skin maladies.

3. Use topicals:

Some of the best friends for your skin are topical agents such as antioxidants and retinoids. I am a big fan of vitamin C, not only because of its general antioxidant benefits, but also because it has a tendency to lighten up brown spots and impart a brighter appearance to the complexion. Retinoids are great for increasing cell turnover, and are potent anti-aging compounds.

Menopausal Weight Gain

spare trunk woman
Menopause can really break a woman’s spirit, for countless reasons. Her ability to reproduce comes to a screeching halt, her nether regions may start to resemble an arid climate, hot flashes may make her feel like she is spontaneously combusting, and she may have mood swings that would make the Tazmanian Devil look like a calm little bugger in comparison. But it’s the weight gain which often upsets menopausal women the most. Menopausal women will notice that if they drop their caloric intake, weight won’t drop at all, even though it may have easily melted off in the past.

That’s because the plummeting levels of progesterone and estrogen also adversely affect a woman’s ability to mobilize fat. Cortisol levels can go unchecked as a result of the low levels of progesterone and estrogen, and any extra calories will end up getting stored as fat. If a menopausal woman is at a caloric deficit, the switch flips in favor of burning muscle instead of turning to the storage fat she so desperately wants to incinerate. This is especially true for the adipose (fat) tissue around the midsection, because cortisol is notorious for padding that area with extra fat, resulting in an ever expanding belly. Another unfortunate consequence of cortisol is that levels will rise dramatically with prolonged intense exercise. The key is to have more abbreviated, yet still intense, exercise sessions so that the cortisol release is also accompanied by a boost in HGH and testosterone, thus conferring a protective effect on muscle.

Basically, the WORST thing you can do if you are in the midst of menopausal hell and struggling with weight gain is to engage in lengthy gym sessions. That might work for a 20 year old, but it can be devastating for a 50 year old. If you are a gym rat like me, you can still train up to six days per week (that’s how frequently I train), but keep your sessions intense but relatively short, between 30 to 60 minutes. If you train beyond that time window, the excess cortisol release will only trigger your body to cling to fat.

Menopausal women also experience an increase in carbohydrate sensitivity, which means that carbohydrate-rich meals which they used to be able to consume in their younger years without much consequence will suddenly wreak havoc on that waistline. The extra carbs settle in for a long and uninvited stay in the midsection and end up making women miserable. Because of this, dietary shifts need to be implemented in which the intake of starches and grains is dramatically reduced, while the consumption of more lean protein and green vegetables is increased. I also strongly recommend supplementing the diet with digestive enzymes and probiotics to optimize gut health and digestion of different foods.

Should You Block Cortisol Production?

Originally published on on Thursday, 01 November 2012
Cortisol’s Functions

Cortisol has gotten a bad rap in recent years due to its nickname, the “stress hormone”. What occurs during times of excessive emotional stress? The adrenal glands respond by producing more cortisol in an effort to provide more energy and a higher pain threshold which is in keeping with the “fight-or-flight” response you may be familiar with. Normally, cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning then decrease progressively throughout the day, but if your body is placed under excessive stress, it may produce abnormally high levels of cortisol which disrupt this natural pattern. The resulting elevation in cortisol stimulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats and also triggers insulin release. These activities can result in an increased appetite and uncomfortable hunger pains. Blood glucose levels also rise as a result of excessive cortisol release, and if that glucose is not used for energy, it will be stored in the body’s fat reserves, particularly in the fat cells of the abdominal region.

An alarming consequence of excess cortisol release as a result of stress is the damage to the hippocampus and potential memory loss which can occur over time. Several studies have discovered that about one fourth of the hippocampus cells in the brain are lost as we age. Since the hippocampus is responsible for giving feedback to the cerebral cortex in order to prevent production of excess cortisol, such feedback is impaired and could lead to memory loss over time.

However, while it is true that cortisol is responsible for responding to stressful situations, it is also essential for a number of important functions in the body, including regulation of blood pressure, glucose metabolism, immune system support, memory support and regulation of blood sugar. Keeping cortisol release at a balanced and normal range is the key to optimizing its beneficial effects.

Catabolism, Anabolism and Cortisol

Cortisol is a potent catabolic agent and has been shown to cause significant loss of muscle mass in sedentary individuals. When cortisol is released into the bloodstream, it binds to receptors on muscle cells and activates the ATP-dependent ubiquitin/proteasome pathway which causes the body to literally consume its own muscle tissue. It’s a disturbing thought, but the upside is that weight training is effective in counteracting some of cortisol’s direct catabolic actions. The strange paradox is that training both reduces cortisol’s direct catabolic effects and increases the body’s secretion of the substance. Cortisol also slows the body’s anabolic drive by inhibiting the release of testosterone, human growth hormone and insulinlike growth factor 1. Thankfully, weight training once again blocks this anti-anabolic action to some extent, but this block only occurs in the trained muscles.

Another bizarre paradox with cortisol is found with protein absorption. Eating any meal will trigger cortisol release, but proteins are the most potent cortisol releasers. Cortisol release can be blocked by administering alpha-1-blockers before a protein meal, but this will also adversely affect protein absorption. What this boils down to is that cortisol must be released in order to properly assimilate proteins. Keep in mind that protein-induced cortisol release is very brief, while cortisol released as a result of stress persists for a much longer period of time.

Controlling Cortisol Release

A certain level of cortisol secretion is normal. However, if you are interested in controlling excessive cortisol release, you may want to consider taking certain supplements. The most prudent manner in which to do this is to get a blood test beforehand which will determine whether you actually have abnormally high cortisol levels.

GlutamineComplex300L-glutamine: Athletes who supplement with L-glutamine are well aware of its mass building and reparative effects, but L-glutamine also halts cravings for simple carbohydrates, thus aiding in stabilizing blood sugar in individuals who have high cortisol levels.

Theanine: Theanine is naturally found in green tea and has been studied for its calming effects on the nervous system. It works by triggering dopamine and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) release, which serve to protect the hippocampus.

L-lysine and L-arginine: Combination oral supplementation of these two amino acids have been proven to reduce anxiety and restore cortisol to basal levels.

B-Complex Vitamins: All of the B vitamins work synergistically in adrenal hormone production, especially vitamin B-6, pantothenic acid and niacin. Not only do they support adrenal hormone production, they also protect against the effects of excess cortisol.

Vitamin C: When the body is placed under stress, free radicals are produced which cause the body to use up vitamin C as a protective mechanism for cells. Since we are unable to produce our own vitamin C, it must be ingested regularly. In fact, vitamin C intake should be increased during stressful times.

Zinc: Stress-related cortisol surges will often trigger sugar cravings which, when indulged, may result in a zinc deficiency due the fact that sugar binds with zinc and is excreted. However, individuals who supplement with zinc and refrain from sugar indulgences benefit from a protective effect which zinc confers. One study in particular, “Zinc Acutely and Temporarily Inhibits Adrenal Cortisol Secretion in Humans” by J. Brandao-Neto et al in the January 1990 issue of the journal “Biological Trace Element Research”, administered zinc to some subjects and placebo to the control group. The group which was given zinc supplementation showed an acute drop in cortisol levels compared with the control group.

Magnesium: Studies by Dr. Hans Selye revealed that when the human body shifts from an acute “fight or flight” reaction to a chronic stress response, the high levels of cortisol and norepinephrine result in magnesium depletion. When the body is deficient in magnesium, one becomes predisposed to panic attacks which lead to more stress and more depletion. Studies have also shown that 80 percent of the American population is deficient in magnesium. By supplementing with magnesium, one can boost serotonin production and provide protection against the harmful effects of excess cortisol.

ZMA: ZMA, which stands for Zinc monomethionine aspartate and Magnesium Aspartate, is a popular sports supplement which is comprised of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. The proportion of ingredients usually seen is 20-30 mg zinc, 400-500 mg magnesium and 10 mg of vitamin B6. This supplement meets the body’s magnesium requirement, and the zinc and vitamin B6 allegedly increase strength levels.

Pregnenalone: Pregnenalone is a precursor to progesterone and DHEA. Since progesterone has a protective effect against the effects of estrogen and cortisol, and since DHEA causes cortisol levels to fall, pregnenalone can be an effective supplement in controlling cortisol excess.

Phosphatidylserine: This phospholipid is an essential building block for cells which is extremely effective in reducing cortisol levels in response to physical stress. Phosphatidylserine can also have a positive effect on one’s mood.

Bodyfuse D-MassTestosterone Boosters: These substances can moderate the release of cortisol in response to exercise.

Growth hormone boosters: These substances also control exercise-induced cortisol release while leaving basal cortisol release unaffected.

Carbohydrate drinks: When a workout is lengthy, blood glucose levels fall, resulting in hypoglycemia which triggers the release of cortisol. Consuming a carbohydrate beverage can prevent this drop in blood glucose while also maintaining insulin at a high level.

To Suppress, Or Not To Suppress…Cortisol, that is:

Many of you are aware that cortisol can simultaneously cause degradation of protein and impair protein synthesis. However, there is a danger in taking supplements to inhibit cortisol release if your basal cortisol levels are already low. When basal cortisol levels are below normal, metabolism is disrupted, blood sugar drops and glycogen stores are diminished. Low cortisol levels also cause blood pressure to plummet along with a decrease in cardiac output. Diminished cortisol also causes hyperactivity in the melanocytes which produce skin pigment, precipitating dark discoloration.

If that isn’t enough, low cortisol results in impaired immune response, weakness and dehydration. When infection, excessive sweating or surgical trauma occur in such an environment, an adrenal crisis can occur. If such a crisis is pronounced, a whole host of symptoms can manifest, a number of which are life threatening. The most severe of these symptoms are loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, seizures, shock and coma.

As stated before, it is a good idea to check your cortisol levels before taking any type of supplement which is designed to control cortisol release.

Oil and Water: Why Crossfit Is Detrimental For Bodybuilders

I will boldly state right now that I cannot stand Crossfit, and will be delighted when its novelty wears off. There are substantial reasons for my argument against the principles of Crossfit, especially when it comes to speaking to NPC and IFBB competitors who believe that Crossfit will enhance their efforts to get into contest shape. Not only will Crossfit widen your waistline as a result of the constant heavy lifting, it will also cause cortisol spikes which make your body hold onto belly fat for dear life.

Here are the nine fundamental exercises which Crossfit is built upon:

Air Squat
Front Squat
Overhead Squat
Shoulder Press
Push Press
Push Jerk
Sumo Deadlift High Pull
Medicine Ball Clean

I can only imagine how many lumbar disc herniations have occurred in weekend athletes as a result of performing most of these movements, not to mention the rotator cuff strains and tears from the stress on the shoulders. I also find it pretty annoying that Crossfit renamed the free squat or bodyweight squat in an effort to be catchy and original. What’s more, I see no point in getting a client to perform 200 or 300 “air” squats in a row, not unless your objective is to drive your client to complete exhaustion and overtraining. Based on what I have witnessed with the design of Crossfit regimens, exhaustion and overtraining is the inevitable outcome.

Crossfit routines also incorporate other exercises such as pullups and pushups. What bothers me is that these movements are performed in a high rep range, to the tune of 100 or more. Then the client may be pushed to do tire flips or some of the asinine Olympic lifts that Crossfit holds so dear to its faddish foundation. I am NOT impressed with the super high intensity workouts that define Crossfit. They tax the central nervous system to an excessive degree. Crossfit fanatics may love the feeling of being pushed to the limit, but this sport is downright DANGEROUS. When the body is fatigued to the extent that it is in a Crossfit routine, the risk for muscle breakdown and frank rhabdomyolysis is considerable. No physical discipline is worth the risk of landing in the hospital.

I understand that Crossfit offers a great social environment and a feeling of camaraderie, but at what price? Every single person I know who is a fan of Crossfit has been injured while doing it. The suggested Crossfit regimen of 3 days on, 1 day off is too rigorous when you consider the fact that Olympic lifts are part of the core of Crossfit training. The body simply cannot repair itself in enough time. To fatigue a Crossfit client by having him/her do a WOD (workout of the day for those of you not familiar with Crossfit) and then stack on deadlifts for reps or 5 foot high box jumps is insane. Benefits drop dramatically when the body is completely depleted like that. The Crossfit mentality of deplete and endure is pure bullshit. Bodybuilders, in contrast, train hard and heavy, and yes, they often train to depletion or failure, but they certainly aren’t going to attempt 100 pullups after destroying a traditional back workout. They understand the law of diminishing returns all too well.

Proponents of Crossfit often state that the training is functional and enhances the day to day activities which people perform. When was the last time you had to do a clean and jerk while on the job? Unless you work as a firefighter, stock room clerk or some other physically demanding work role, I seriously doubt that you are performing movements which mimic what happens while in a Crossfit box. Besides, if you’re injured as a result of Crossfit (or should I say WHEN), you can’t possibly perform any challenging physical movement which strains your injured body part.

Rich Froning World Champion Crossfit Athlete

Rich Froning World Champion Crossfit Athlete

Sadik Hadzovic IFBB Men's Physique Pro

Sadik Hadzovic IFBB Men’s Physique Pro

For those of you who compete in the NPC or IFBB (or INBA, WBFF, etc.), don’t expect to be able to incorporate Crossfit into your contest prep training and sculpt your physique in the manner required for bodybuilding. I actually had a client who begged me repeatedly to let her do Crossfit two days a week despite my recommendation that she abandon it and focus on traditional weight lifting. I finally acquiesced, and allowed her to incorporate Crossfit as part of her training. As I had predicted, she sustained an injury, her waist widened from all the heavy complex movements which made her midsection boxy, and she became soft as a result of the cortisol spikes which the high intensity Crossfit training created. After 3 weeks of seeing all her efforts from pre-Crossfit training unravel, I asked her to reconsider her decision to engage in Crossfit. As soon as she stopped doing Crossfit, her waist began to nip in, and her body began to tighten up again. Amen for old school weightlifting!

If it sounds like I am saying you will have to decide between doing Crossfit and competing in any of the bodybuilding divisions, I am. You simply cannot create the nipped in waist and beautiful taper that defines every single bodybuilding division. If you do Crossfit, you will create a strong body (plus some injuries), but you will also widen your silhouette and carry a layer of fat as a result of all that cortisol you will release from constant high intensity training. Look at a typical Crossfit athlete. Shoulders are broad, quads and hams are thick, and the abdominal region is thick and boxy. That is what happens when compound Olympic lifts are performed on a regular basis. If that is your aesthetic ideal, by all means knock yourself out with Crossfit, but you will be destroyed on a bodybuilding stage.

On the subject of Olympic lifts, even powerlifters have the sense not to rep out on these movements. Yet Crossfitters, blinded by the so-called warrior mentality that leads them to do stupid things that invite injury, will rep out on movements which recruit a tremendous amount of muscle fibers and hence tax the central nervous system. I am willing to bet that the Crossfit nation contends with adrenal burnout, permanent muscle damage, and repetitive tendon and ligament ruptures on a relatively consistent basis, and that such negative aspects will eventually cause the demise of this fad sport.

I will always staunchly defend the focus and the principles behind bodybuilding. I know that NPC and IFBB competitors are true warriors and know how to push through grueling training. I also strongly believe that for the most part, most competitors are smart enough not to overtrain or invite injury by performing movements which are biomechanically unsound. The world of bodybuilding not only rewards strength, but it also recognizes the aesthetic ideal which all bodybuilders aspire to achieve, regardless of division. Bodybuilding is not about flipping a massive tire across a gym, it’s about sculpting and defining muscle.

(Please also check out for a posting of this article there.)