How Stress Affects Muscle Growth And How To Fix It

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In modern life, stress is a constant. You might think that you’re relaxed because you spend time in the evening with your family, socialising, or relaxing at home with a glass of wine.

However, chronic stress might be one of the key players in your overall health, with profound effects both mentally and physically.

Stress is more than just emotional. It’s a complicated hormonal process that affects your body, from the cells all the way up to your behaviour.

With so much impact on your body, it isn’t crazy to think that you might need to reduce stress to develop muscle optimally.

The Science of Stress

Stress is the subject of a lot of cutting-edge research right now, primarily because of the many implications it has in muscle-building, mental health, immune function and countless other medical purposes.

Relieving stress is, therefore, an amazing way to improve some of the most common and serious health problems encountered in our society.

Stress operates primarily through the hormone cortisol. Often referred to as ‘the stress hormone’, cortisol is released in response to stress from both physical and psychological stimuli.

This means that stress about deadlines and physical stressors (like exercise) are registered in a similar way. Your body and brain respond to stress together, and you should consider both.

Elevated cortisol levels are normal in the short-term in response to these types of environmental stimuli.

However, chronic elevated cortisol levels have been linked to depression, catabolism (muscle-breakdown), poor immune health and an increased chance of serious illness.

Stress and Muscle Gains

Beyond the medical risks of stress, it has a negative impact on your ability to gain muscle.

Cortisol is the main catabolic hormone in the body and consistently elevated levels will interrupt the signalling of growth hormones such as testosterone, IGF-1 and human growth hormone.

By interrupting these processes, it reduces your ability to build muscle and strength during the recovery between workouts. This means less progress, even when you’re training hard and eating well.

Fixing Your Stress for Improved Muscle Growth

1. Sleep Better

Sleep is a key player in the regulation of many hormones, and stress is no exception. Your sleep pattern and quality have a profound effect on your ability to handle and mitigate stress.

A well-rested human is going to handle stress better and present better health markers than someone with poor sleep-quality.

Improving growth hormones and muscle-growth is as simple as making sure that you get 8 hours of sleep a night. Getting just an hour less sleep a night can result in a testosterone reduction of as much as 15%.

2. Active Relaxation

Somewhere between being fully alert and being asleep, relaxation is a key process for improving your hormonal profile and reducing stress. 

It can affect biological signals to produce muscle, but it doesn’t receive much attention because it isn’t as glamorous or eye-catching as hard training.

If you’re going to spend dozens of hours a week in the gym, you must give your body and mind the appropriate down-time they need to rebuild the tissues you’ve damaged through exercise.

This is one of the most overlooked factors in the development of a great physique. Your relaxation time needs to be intentional.

Whether this is an hour of yoga a few times a week or dim lighting, mellow music, and a good book, setting aside time to actively relax will make a world of difference to your head and your muscles.

3. Improved Diet

Your diet is intimately linked to your experience of health and stress. Diet modulates stress by affecting your hormones and the fuel that you’re providing your body and brain.

If you’re eating poor-quality foods, you’re likely to be inadequately fuelling yourself and you will see the difference. Try to eat the best high quality foods you can every day.

There also are various vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are linked to the way that you process cortisol in the body.

Deficiencies are varied, and we can’t discuss the details of them all in this article, but a diet that’s rich in fish (or organ meats), fruit, and vegetables will go a long way towards reducing stress levels.

It can also be beneficial to supplement with some of the following key compounds.

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    Omega-3 Fatty acids (especially EPA and DHA)
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    Vitamin B
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    Vitamin D
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4. Green Tea + NO Modulators

Green tea has long been heralded as a way of de-stressing and improving mental health. It has a variety of effects on the way that your body deals with both stress and the development of muscle.

GABA is a key ingredient in green tea which has been noted in scientific literature to have positive effects on relaxation and hormone balance.

Increased GABA concentration in the brain has been associated with improved mood, strength, and the clearance rate of elevated cortisol.

The uptake of GABA to the brain is problematic because of the difficulties of crossing the blood-brain barrier, but this compound also has a double-effect, with a positive effect on the development of muscle mass.

GABA from green tea is especially important in the presence of increased nitric oxide levels (such as those brought about with the use of L-Citrulline), which increases both the uptake of GABA and its effectiveness in the development of muscles.

Each cup of green tea will contribute to improved results and is a great way of improving nutrient intake without extra calories.

5. Overtraining

Your training routine could be the source of stress that’s reducing your ability to build muscle and improve your performance.

If you’re training intensely several times a week and haven’t had a low-intensity ‘deload’ week in the past few months, it might be time to ease off the gas to allow your body to recuperate and progress.

Excessive training stress can have a negative long-term effect on muscle mass and strength.

Short-term stress should be just enough to improve performance, followed by rest, but a chronic build-up of training stress boosts cortisol levels and reduces muscle gains.

6. Alcohol and Muscle: Clearing Up

Alcohol and exercise is a contentious subject. There have been many scientific studies and anecdotal blogs written on the subject with widely-varying conclusions.

The reality is that alcohol consumption is a key driver of cortisol build-up and the lowering of testosterone and growth hormone is associated with a marked reduction in muscle mass and training performance.

There might be disagreement on the topic, but the science is consistent. Alcohol is going to reduce your performance across many fields, including muscle growth and recovery.

A Checklist for Improving your
Long-Term Muscle Growth

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    Sleep more – and better!
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    Cut out alcohol and spend some time cleaning up your diet: more vitamins and minerals is the goal.
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    Reduce your training load every 4-8 weeks to allow yourself to recover after intense training.
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    Commit some of your time to yoga or other relaxing activities, which allow you to recover and rest.
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    Add Green Tea and Citrulline to your routine to improve relaxation and contribute to muscle building.

Final Key Points...

If you’re looking to build maximum muscle, you need to consider all your variables.

Stress is a key player that can’t be overlooked, and a few simple adjustments to your lifestyle can rapidly improve your health (both physical and mental) and your long-term muscle gains.

     Sean Ward     

Founder of Naturally Boost Testosterone, a men’s health blog dedicated to providing natural ways for men to boost hormone levels. Check out to learn more about Sean and his work. You can also find him on Twitter.