Stress is not good for our hair. But what about exercise? Is more always better when it comes to working out? Or can exercise be harmful to our hair health?
In order to have an accurate conversation about stress it’s important to clarify that not all stress is bad. Acute stress, for example, is a short-term reaction that helps us to respond to a situation appropriately. After we respond to the acute situation our bodies should be able to return to a healthy, calm baseline.
On the other hand, chronic stress can be very harmful to our health. Having our nervous system constantly activated by an ongoing stressor is something that our bodies have not adapted for and it can lead to a host of health issues – including compromising our hair health.
Another example of how ‘not all stress is bad’ is physical exercise.
And, in case you’re wondering, the answer is ‘yes’. Exercise is a form of stress on our bodies.
If our body is equipped to recover from that stress and we give it enough time to return to healthy baseline then we can call that stressor (exercise) a positive and see lots of health benefits.
But, if the exercise that we expose our body to is too intense, too long, too frequent or if our body isn’t equipped to fully recover then that stress won’t be a positive and it can actually become the source of health issues for us. If someone falls into this category, we typically say that they are over-exercising or overtraining.
Wait, doesn’t exercise “burn” stress?
A lot of the clients that I have worked with have said that intense workouts help them “burn” stress. While this *feels* true for them, that’s not actually what’s happening on a physiological level.
Exercise produces feel good hormones called endorphins. These act as naturally pain killers and are what’s responsible for what we call a “runner’s high”. That “high” is what makes it feel like an intense workout is reducing stress, but it’s actually just dampening our perception of pain, stress, etc.
Longer the duration and higher intensity of exercise increases the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) that our body releases and that can lead to health consequences for people already struggling with chronic stress and inflammation.
So, to summarize: exercise is a form of stress and whether or not that is a “positive” depends on your unique level of inflammation.
(P.S. research also shows that the more competitive an exercise program is the more cortisol gets released.… side eyes at CrossFit).
How can you tell if you are overtraining?
First of all, what’s healthy for one person may not be for someone else. It doesn’t matter if so-and-so is able to workout harder or more frequently than you and still appear (operative word) healthy. You’re not them and vice-versa.
I strongly believe in taking a personalized, individual approach to health because we are all unique and deserve to have nutrition and lifestyle goals that meet our unique needs. If you feel the same, schedule an Introduction Consult with me and my team today!
Here are some key indicators I look at when working with clients where we suspect overtraining:
- Common signs and symptoms of overtraining
- stress, anxiety, and/or depression
- trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- brain fog, poor memory
- reactive hypotension (feeling lightheaded if you stand up too quickly)
- frequent illness
- strong sweet cravings
- caffeine dependency
- weight loss resistance
- low libido
- irregular or missing period
- frequent injury
- decreased strength or coordination
- poor workout recovery or excessive soreness
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a great metric that can help us understand how well the body is handling the current amount of stress that it is under. You can get HRV data from certain wearable fitness devices and use that information to make changes to your diet and lifestyle and help make sure that your stress levels and your overall resilience to stress are in balance.
I wrote a whole article about HRV and hair health (including the wearable that I prefer for HRV data) that you can read here: https://brittreuter.com/post/heart-rate-variability/
- Daily free cortisol + cortisone pattern
Our bodies cycle – and I don’t just mean a menstrual cycle for those of us with uteruses. Our bodies have a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle that syncs with our natural environment, taking cues from lightness (sun comes up) and darkness (sun goes down) to time many of our body’s most critical functions. This sleep-wake cycle is also called our diurnal cycle or circadian rhythm.
When our body is under excessive stress it can have a negative impact on our circadian rhythm and lead to something called Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation. You probably don’t want me to get more technical here than I already have, so let’s just say that overtraining can lead to issues with our circadian rhythm and HPA axis and can lead to a lot of those symptoms that I just listed above.
The way that I prefer to assess the effect that chronic stress (from overtraining or something else) is having on my client’s HPA axis and circadian rhythm is with the DUTCH Complete (Dried Urinary Test for Comprehensive Hormones). It let’s us assess the circadian rhythm by measuring the daily free cortisol and cortisone pattern and it can be an incredibly useful tool to functional practitioners such as myself.
Want to learn more about how insights from a DUTCH test can help you rebuild your health? Schedule a virtual consult with me and my team.
How to break the cycle of overtraining
Remember that overtraining occurs when the exercise that we expose our body to is too intense, too long, too frequent or if our body isn’t equipped to fully recover. Often when I work with clients, I am helping them to reduce the amount of stress that their body is under while also focusing on improving their overall resilience to stress.
For these clients, reflecting on their relationship with exercise and rethinking how they move their bodies is often the first (and, maybe the most important) step towards tackling chronic stress. For example, we may focus on less strenuous forms of exercise for a period of time and make sure that the body is getting adequate fuel and rest to recover fully from workouts.
Can you be addicted to exercise?
First of all, if you are concerned about your relationship to exercise or your body it is important to share this with your healthcare team (i.e., your doctor, therapist, nutritionist, etc.).
There is limited research on ‘exercise addiction’ and we don’t know for certain if it has a similar mechanism in our brain compared to other behaviors recognized as clinical addiction.
Our brains are wired to seek out sources of the feel-good hormone dopamine and that can play a big role in perpetuating addictive behaviors.
Seeking dopamine isn’t a problem. But, if we chase dopamine at the expense of our health, it can be. For example, someone might be exhibiting addictive behavior if they can’t stop the behavior even if it’s causing them harm.
Work with your healthcare team to find the right balance of exercise for you.