Competitive bodybuilding is an ironic sport. Athletes hit the stage representing the ideal model of physical fitness, when in reality competitors are far from pictures of health. The process of contest prep is often defined by hunger, fatigue, missed periods, and mood swings that would make Mr. Hyde himself recoil in terror. Despite this, the entire process can be incredibly empowering and offers an opportunity for personal growth that lasts a lifetime.
But does that lifetime suddenly become apparent on your face? If you compete, are you going to come out of it looking like your Great Grandma Doris?
Very few studies have been conducted on natural bodybuilders, and those that have primarily look at basic physiological effects that contest prep has on the human body. Not one considers how or if it expedites the process of aging, which doesn’t seem all that important until you look in a mirror months after a show and realize the person looking back reminds you of the Crypt Keeper.
So in the spirit of full disclosure, I am admitting there is no scientific evidence that proves that contest prep ages you.
However, there have been plenty of studies on how stress impacts the body, with premature aging being among the findings. Considering that contest prep involves not just weeks, but months of controlled starvation, extensive training, unnaturally low body fat levels, mental burnout, and (many times) lack of support, I think it’s fair to conclude that contest prep qualifies as a stressful event.
And yes, it may be aging you.
Cortisol: The Body’s Warrior…Until it’s Not
You may know cortisol by its more popular name of the “stress hormone,” and for good reason. That’s because one of its primary functions is to prepare the body when a perceived threat is present. When activated, cortisol prepares the body for “fight or flight” by increasing the availability of stored glucose and anti-inflammatory agents. At the same time, cortisol suppresses less important functions like digestion, reproduction, and immunity since they aren’t essential components for immediate survival.
This is why in the event you are being chased by a bear you don’t feel like eating or having sex. I’m sure everyone’s experienced this exact scenario and are having an “ah ha!” moment right now. You’re welcome.
Anyway, cortisol is absolutely essential in keeping humans safe, but as is the case with pretty much everything – chocolate, Netflix, boxed wine – you can get too much of a good thing.
Cortisol is meant to be an acute reaction, meaning its effects on the body are short-lived before all systems go back to normal. However, in times of chronic stress the body perceives the threat is ongoing and continues to release cortisol in response. This is where trouble begins.
Cortisol: When it Overstays its Welcome
I mentioned earlier, cortisol not only signals the body to increase available glucose for energy, but it also has anti-inflammatory properties. These are both great things when you are fighting or flighting, but what happens when a threat is perceived yet you aren’t throwing punches or running for your life? What happens to all of this weaponry our body has loaded us with?
Nothing. In fact, while the cortisol just hangs around waiting for the fight to begin, our bodies begin to react to its ongoing presence in negative ways.
Studies show that when cortisol levels are elevated for long periods of time, its effective properties become ineffective and even dangerous. Chronic high blood glucose levels risks insulin resistance. The body’s continuing to be on high alert can interfere with digestion, sleep, and even reproduction. And the constant presence of cortisol makes cells less receptive to its anti-inflammatory properties, instead having the reverse effect and allowing inflammation to run rampant.
And inflammation has been linked to premature aging.
Inflammation: A Quick Summary
As you know, inflammation is what happens when you bump your head and get a goose egg or develop a bunch of red bumps after an unfortunate rendezvous with a cheap razor. But inflammation happens internally too.
When infection or illness is present in the body, white blood cells are our first responders. Consider them security guards ready to fight off foreign invaders. Once they locate these intruders, they destroy them using a variety of different mechanisms, one being the use of something called free radicals.
You may have heard of free radicals, which have a pretty bad reputation out there. Despite their role as helpful defenders, there’s not a whole lotta love for them going ‘round. Here’s why.
Free radicals are like rabid dogs, unleashed by white blood cells to go on the attack. However, they can get so consumed with destroying the enemy that they begin to attack anything and everything surrounding it. Including healthy tissue.
The body now senses healthy tissue in distress, so it releases more white blood cells to join in the battle, not realizing that white blood cells are what caused the problem in the first place.
These free radicals gone wild are what we call chronic inflammation. And it’s responsible for a whole bunch of health problems.
Chronic Inflammation’s Link to Aging
Aging is the result of slowly deteriorating cell components, though the speed at which this happens, the specific reasons why it happens, and if we can do anything to prevent it are still under investigation. Studies believe genetics is one factor that plays a role in how we age.
Chronic inflammation is another.
That’s because of the cellular damage caused by free radicals. While they are not the root cause for a cell’s deterioration as part of the body’s natural processes, when added to the mix they are responsible for intensifying the destruction of a cell’s DNA.
And this can speed up the process of aging.
So I think it’s fair to say that the chronic stress associated with contest prep, and the cortisol and inflammation that likely goes along with it, does indeed put you at risk for becoming a real life white walker.
How to Manage Cortisol Levels When in Prep
The fact is there’s not really a way to avoid the chronic stress associated with contest prep. This is why competitive bodybuilding is considered by some to be one of the most difficult sports due to the extreme nature of its dieting and training. However, though you can’t completely eliminate the physiological implications of stress involved, there are things you can do to minimize the chances of premature aging. They are:
- Try to eliminate stress where you can. While you can’t do much in terms of the physical stress your body is under, you can try to control other stressful events in your life by avoiding negative influences, surrounding yourself with a supportive community, practicing yoga, or pursuing relaxing activities like message or meditation.
- Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Not getting enough sleep increases cortisol levels, so make shut eye a priority. (Also check out how sleep affects your metabolism in the post 4 Ways to Avoid Blue Light and Boost Metabolism).
- Work with a nutrition coach who is experienced in providing guidance on how to set up your contest prep properly with off season planning and enough time to diet slowly for a prep to minimize a harsh dieting and too much cardio. Your knowledgeable coach will also provide you with adequate macronutrient breakdowns that minimize the negative effects of cortisol. Again, you can’t completely avoid the toll a calorie deficit takes on the body and psyche, but an experienced trainer can make sure you are eating enough and enough of the right carbs, protein, and fat to fuel the body at optimal levels under the circumstances.
- Speaking of nutrition, be sure to include lots of fruits and veggies in your diet plan. This is because these foods are loaded with antioxidants, which actually neutralize the negative effects of free radicals. Antioxidants are sort of the equivalent of giving a rabid dog a meaty bone so it stops attacking everyone and is now satisfied. The good news is, as a contest gets closer and calories become less, many athletes find themselves naturally adding far more fruits and veggies in their diet than ever before (because they are not calorie dense, so you can eat a lot of them!). Check out this link for a list of the 20 most common foods with the highest antioxidant properties.
- If you feel like you are overdoing it in the gym, don’t be afraid to give your body a break. Over-training is a cortisol response just waiting to happen.
- Don’t put on a significant amount of body fat in the off season if you plan to compete in the near future. The more weight you have to lose, the more stress your body undergoes when leaning out. (See more in this article on Reverse Dieting.)
- Taking supplements to help decrease stress and inflammation such as curcumin, adrenal complex, catecholacalm, magnesium (discount code 232708 for aforementioned supps), CBD oil, and L-theanine, to name a few.
- Don’t have a short prep. Unless you are already significantly lean, trying to get into contest shape within a month or two is extremely taxing on the body. The longer you stretch contest prep out, the more gradual the process of leaning out will be (and the less stress on your body). So take your time! Your body will thank you for it.
Do you want to compete, but are afraid you have no idea how to do so? I can help! Simply contact me and we can talk about how you can rock that stage not only successfully, but healthfully…healthily?…healthiestly? Never mind, you get what I mean!