Stress, and especially chronic stress, can have a lot of different effects on both your mind and your body. If you’re trying to increase or maintain your muscle mass and you’re dealing with chronic stress, you might have noticed that it has become harder. So if you’ve been asking ‘can stress cause muscle loss?’ read on as we take a look at how and why that might be and what effect stress might be having on your muscle mass.
Stress and Muscle Loss: My Story
It was a day in the office that was like no other: I’d finally done it.
I’d faced my demons and I refused to back down.
This particular demon was the demon of passiveness. For all my working life I’d been a “yes man”. I’d appeased others to avoid confrontation and by doing so, had maneuvered myself into a career cul-de-sac.
If you recognise any of these traits within yourself, please keep reading…
You’re going to love how this story ends.
For years, I had compensated for being too yielding and too passive, by trying to build up my body.
It was as if I thought that by busting out of my work shirts, I could somehow compensate for the under-development of part of my character.
The muscles gave me a sense of security, but ultimately it was a false sense of security and the truth was that I was only deferring dealing with the crux of the problem, which was to be found somewhere within my psyche.
At a deep inner level I knew that something big was coming, because I’d noticed that my shirts were becoming baggy, whereas usually they’d pull tight across my chest and shoulders.
My appetite was dulled – not just in respect of my appetite for food – and I was irritable and struggling to think clearly. In fact my mind was in a constant state of brain fog.
This background level of unease caused by an ongoing situation at work which I felt was unfair, coupled with my inability to address it effectively, was literally gnawing away at me.
By the day of the confrontation, I had lost so much weight that I was barely recognizable when compared to how I looked 6 months earlier and I even had to puncture new holes in my belts in order to keep my trousers up!
But I’d reached that point in my life where I knew that I needed to deal with the problem head-on, and to be frank, big muscles simply weren’t a part of the solution.
And so, on that fateful day, I faced my demons from a place of physical weakness, but to my surprise, a new strength was emerging.
It turned out to be an awful meeting at work. My grievances were justified, but I can’t deny that I had been a part of the problem because of my passiveness. In raising these issues, it caused others to become defensive and hostile and there was simply no positive outcome to the meeting.
Other than this…
…in my heart, by the end of that meeting, I’d already quit the job…
…after 25 years of service.
Within two weeks, I had a job interview lined up.
It was a challenging role, but it offered more money and better prospects.
I went for it and I was practically offered the job during the interview.
Well, my anxiety levels had barely recovered from the earlier confrontation at work and now I faced the prospect of adapting to a completely new role within a larger, fast-paced and dynamic employer after working for a small firm for over two decades.
Then I got Covid and perhaps because of the fact I was pretty run down at this point anyway, it hit me much harder than I was expecting.
A week before my new role started, I was physically kaput!
My bodyweight had crashed to less than 140lbs whereas it’s usually 165lbs and I had to now resort to buying slimmer waist trousers as by this time, my belt was more holes than leather!
As I embarked on this new job role and set off on a 200-mile drive to undertake training at head office, I looked and felt like a wreck.
I had no muscle to prop up my self-esteem. I simply had to dig-in and get through by sheer determination (and faith).
It was a really rocky start: the job wasn’t as advertised and the training that was promised didn’t exist. But still, I’d done what I never thought I could: stand up for myself and push myself to try a new challenge. I’d truly left my comfort zone for the first time in my life.
As the weeks passed, I found my appetite returning along with some muscle mass.
There was a supplement that really helped (I’ll write about that another time) – and I wish I had known about it earlier, but I’m here to tell you that while chronic stress will DESTROY your gains, you can bounce back.
We’ll look at how we can cope with stressful times in our life in another article, but for now, let’s contemplate the question ‘can stress cause muscle loss?’ and take a deep dive into the answer.
What is stress?
We all know what it feels like when we’re stressed but you might not realize just how deeply stress can effect about every part of your body. To understand what stress is, we need to look into our evolutionary past. For early humans, everyday life was fraught with danger. At any moment, you might come across a predator who wanted to kill you. So our bodies evolved to give us the best possible chance of escaping a deadly situation with our lives. That response is stress.
When we sense a threat, hormones – notably cortisol – are released which tell our entire body to get ready to either defend ourselves from attack or to run away, the “fight or flight” response. These hormones cause a cascade of physiological changes that divert energy away from some processes that can wait for later and towards the parts of our bodies that will best help us to fight or run.
These changes can include:
- Increased blood flow to the brain
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Faster and deeper breathing
- Increased blood flow to large muscle groups
- Increased muscle tension
- Digestion slowing down
- Blood diverted away from the skin surface to the brain and large muscle groups
- Reduction in saliva
- Pupil dilation
With these changes, your body is primed and ready to react as quickly and efficiently as it can. And they are only supposed to be temporary changes. Once the threat has gone, your body releases a different set of hormones to bring your body back to normal.
This system worked very well when the threats we faced were immediate and temporary. Unfortunately, in the modern world, things can be quite different. Rather than stress being caused by a predator, it might be caused by a high-pressure job, financial worries, or being in a difficult living situation.
As you saw in my story, sometimes our own inability to deal effectively with any situation in life, can cause an ever-present sense of anxiety.
In these cases, the “threat” never goes away or comes back frequently, so we don’t get that secondary hormone response that tells our bodies to stop fight or flight. Being in this constant state of alertness (or “chronic stress”) can cause a wide range of unpleasant symptoms and even long-term and deadly health conditions, and one of its effects is on our muscle mass.
Can stress cause muscle loss?
One of the major ways in which stress hormones affect our body is their impact on our muscles. We experience increased blood flow to the large muscle groups as well as increased muscle tension. Again, this is a great situation to be in if we are about to get into a fight but being in this constant state of tension can have a negative effect over time.
Acute daily psychological stress is associated with muscle atrophy. This is caused by the near-constant state of muscle tension that we experience when we are stressed every day.
Skeletal muscle mass is also affected by hormones. Specifically, hormones affect the turnover of contractable muscle fibers, and these hormones are disrupted when we are in a stress response. Some of the stress hormones can also interfere with protein synthesis, which can lead to less protein available to create muscle fibers.
This leads to a loss of muscle mass because fewer new muscle fibers are created to replace damaged or atrophied muscle fibers.
So stress can cause muscle loss, through two different mechanisms. Not only will this make it more difficult for you to gain or maintain your muscle mass, but it can also affect your fitness in other ways.
The decrease in skeletal muscle mass and the change in fiber type that results from chronic stress can lead to a greater level of muscle fatigue and can leave you more prone to injury. This in and of itself can disrupt your fitness routine and make it more difficult for you to maintain your current fitness levels.
A decrease in muscle mass can also make it more likely for you to gain fat. This is due to its impact on your metabolism and specifically the mechanism through which glucose is released and stored. This can also increase your risk of obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes.
And those are just the ways in which the physiological changes that happen in your body in response to stress can directly affect your muscles. There are also indirect effects that can lead to a reduction in muscle mass. Chronic stress can leave you with insomnia and fatigue which can make it much more difficult for you to perform as well as you could in your training. It can also affect your immune system, which can mean you get ill more often. Stress hormones make it more likely for you to crave junk food, which can contribute to fat gain.
When you put all of these factors together, both those that directly affect your muscles and those that have an indirect effect, it becomes clear that chronic stress can cause muscle loss and make it more difficult for you to gain muscle.
And remember how I explained how I became sicker than I expected from Covid? Well it may not surprise you to learn that cortisol can also dampen down the immune system if levels are elevated, by affecting the immune system’s T-cell response, leaving the body more susceptible to viruses and infections.
What is Cortisol?
Whenever you find an article about stress, you’re going to read about cortisol.
This is because cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and in conjunction with your brain it controls your fear levels and other aspects of your mood.
It is produced within your adrenal glands which sit at the top of your kidneys and it plays an important role in your body. For instance, it controls how your body uses carbs, it lowers inflammation and influences your sleeping patterns – among other things.
One of its primary functions is to put the body into a state of high alert when danger is perceived. During this state of fear, cortisol can change or even shut down bodily symptoms that are considered non-essential during fight or flight situations.
The bodily systems that can be switched off or down regulated by cortisol include the immune, digestive and reproductive systems.
The result of a prolonged period of elevated cortisol can be devastating to health, with headaches, memory problems, digestive issues and insomnia being commonly reported by those with chronic anxiety.
Can stress ever have a beneficial effect on muscle growth?
Up until now, we have talked specifically about chronic stress and how that can lead to muscle loss. And it is very much true that chronic stress can have a detrimental impact on your ability to gain and retain muscle. But is stress always a bad thing when it comes to muscle building? Not necessarily.
Let’s go back to the reasons why our stress response exists. It is to give us a short-term burst of energy and strength so that we can perform at a higher level in response to a threat. Of course, we know now that when this stress response goes on for too long it has negative effects, but if we are in a short-term stressful situation the picture looks quite different.
Short-term psychological stress can be a positive thing in many situations. That extra blood going to the brain can increase cognitive performance in high-stress situations and the same can be true of physical performance. When athletes are under high levels of stress, there is increased blood flow to their large muscle groups and increased muscle tension, both of which can improve performance in the short term.
We have all observed examples of this. Think about the Olympic weightlifter who manages to beat their personal best and snatch the gold. The increased psychological stress of being in such a high-stakes competition is enough to push them past what they have ever been able to achieve before.
A case in point: Eddie Hall’s epic deadlift record.
But can this short-term increase help you to increase your muscle growth? Muscle tension is often considered the most important of the three “laws of muscle growth”, alongside metabolic stress and muscle damage. This is because muscle tension can be a driving force behind increasing the levels of the other two factors. The more tense your muscles are, the higher the metabolic stress they are under and the more muscle damage you do.
And we know that psychological stress will increase your muscle tension. So if you go to the gym while you are experiencing short-term stress, then your performance could well increase as could your muscle growth, due to increased muscle tension. Some people put themselves in a psychologically stressed state at the gym, sometimes without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. That heavy metal gym playlist is almost guaranteed to put you into a psychologically stressed state, for example.
So yes, psychological stress can have a beneficial effect on muscle growth, but with some important caveats. It only really works when the psychological stress is short-term. Chronic stress won’t help you increase your muscle growth, and is much more likely to result in muscle loss.
And the short-term benefits of psychological stress don’t work for all personality types.
The increase in performance is most often true for those who score highly on anxiety test scores, which might seem counter-intuitive but it makes sense. If you are the type of person who stays calm in any situation, increasing your psychological stress probably won’t have as great an impact on your performance as if you were a person who reacts strongly to stressful situations.
Some forms of stress can be beneficial. After all, there is a reason why we evolved to have a stress response. But in our modern lives, chronic stress is on the rise, and this type of stress can and does lead to muscle loss for many people. This is due to an interplay between the effects of stress hormones directly on muscles and muscle fibers and on the way our body stores fat as well as the indirect effects of stress on our lifestyle and our ability to perform.
The good news is that even if your stress levels have lead to a catastrophic amount of muscle loss – just as I experienced – it won’t last forever and may even drive you out of your comfort zone and into a new chapter of your life.
And once you settle into your new life, providing that you resume training, eat properly and supplement sensibly, you will find that your body rapidly rebuilds all that lost muscle.