Yes, you read that right. Eat MORE and move LESS! These are often the recommendations that I make to my clients and is one of the ways I helped heal myself from hormone imbalances. But haven’t we been taught that in order to be healthy we must be at our ideal weight? Which means eating less and working out more? I see many clients doing just this without considering other possible root causes of weight loss resistance.
I was guilty of it, too. I restricted what I ate and worked out until I was exhausted in order to look the way I thought that I should. Ultimately this way of life caused my health to decline and put me in a state of HPA Axis Dysfunction, also known as adrenal fatigue.
Our adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol has many important functions in our bodies but two big ones are 1) helping us deal with stress and 2) keeping our blood sugar balanced. Cortisol is released in response to stress as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism and it also raises blood sugar when levels drop. Elevated cortisol is supposed to be a short-term solution, just long enough to deal with the current stressor. However, our modern lives are anything but stress-free and when stress is chronic it can hugely impact our health and become a big problem.
What comes to mind when you think of what contributes to stress? Your high-pressure job, the boss you can’t stand, money problems, fighting with a spouse, driving in traffic, raising kids. These are external stressors but what about the internal stress we can’t always see or feel? Things like food sensitivities, blood sugar imbalances, gut infections, and even over exercising can be sources of internal stress. No matter where your stress is coming from your body perceives it all the same and attempts to deal with it in the same manner: by releasing cortisol.
So yes, exercise is a form of stress and extreme exercise can immediately increase cortisol (1). Not necessarily a problem if you give your body adequate time to rest but spending hours at the gym each week can become a chronic stressor. Continue to push yourself for months or years and now you’re constantly high cortisol gets suppressed and puts you in a state of exhaustive adrenal fatigue.
Over restricting foods or going too low carb to decrease calories is another common mistake. Food is fuel! Eating the right combinations of foods at the right times helps to stabilize cortisol and blood sugars levels which supports energy, fat burning, and metabolism. When we decrease calories by too much (either on purpose or by accident) your metabolism changes in order to keep in balance. The body sees restricting food as a form of stress and can increase cortisol production in response. (2, 3)
The combination of eating less and exercising more may be good advice for those who do not exercise and eat too much, but it will not work for everyone. Continuing to push yourself in the gym or eating too little for months – or even years – will lead to constantly high cortisol being suppressed. This can put you into a state of exhaustive adrenal fatigue. Feeling sick, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and feeling constantly exhausted may be signs that you are over exercising and/or under eating.
Discovering I had adrenal fatigue was the kick in the pants I needed to make a change and start listening to my body. I needed to start giving my body what it needed to function, which included healthy and balanced meals full of quality protein, healthy fats, and nutritious carbohydrates in the right amounts. My workouts included more gentle movement like yoga, walking, and light weight lifting for shorter amounts of time. Once I started resting more, eating more, and reducing all forms of stress, my body was finally able to start the healing process. Do you need to eat more and move less to heal?
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