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Muscle Part 3: Stress, Mood, and Sleep

Muscle Part 3: Stress, Mood, and Sleep

Mood swings and your muscles: Your mood, stress levels, and the amount of sleep you get can affect your muscles  as well as your likelihood of exercising and eating healthfully for those muscles.

Chronic stress affects heart health: Chronic stress contributes to long term problems  for your heart, arteries, and veins by overworking and demanding that they do more work over longer periods.

Sleep deprivation hurts muscles: In one 2017 study on sleep and strength, researchers from China measured the handgrip strength of more than 10,000 university students and compared their strength to their sleep habits (they completed a questionnaire on sleep). Better sleep habits support better muscle strength and endurance.

Muscles probably don’t make you think about stress, your mood, or how you sleep, but they do affect each other in ways you may not have considered before. In the past two articles, we’ve discussed better nutrition for your muscles and the best sorts of activities for your muscles. This article will cover the relationship that stress, emotions, and sleep have on your muscles.

First, a quick review: There are three types of muscle  in the human body: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal muscle. Cardiac muscles are those found only in your heart, smooth muscle fibers are found in your organs, and skeletal muscles are those attached to bones and other structures in the body (these are the muscles that allow you to move).

Once upon a time, humans didn’t think about exercise, fitness, or maintaining muscles because just existing provided all the physical activity required to live. Primitive humans didn’t hoist weights (or rocks) to build big biceps, and they were too busy surviving to be concerned about emotional balance or sleep. Hunting, gathering, finding shelter, building shelter, moving in nomadic tribes over hundreds of miles—these were the tasks of daily life. If you didn’t move, you didn’t survive. Today, most of us spend a large part of our time sitting—in cars, at desks, clicking on keypads, watching TV—you get the pic- ture. All this sitting leaves a lot of built-up tension that has nowhere to go.

Understanding Stress: 

In and of itself, stress is not a bad thing. We all need stress. It’s what gives you the drive and energy to react quickly in an emergency. Stress becomes a problem  when it is triggered excessively, continuous- ly, and unnecessarily (as if you thought a lion was nearby and waiting to chase you—always). You can imagine how this state of chronic stress  causes all your muscles (including your heart and brain) to stay guarded and ready for that nonexistent cat. Over time, high levels of stress will wear you out psycho- logically and physically. Stress also weakens your immune system making you more susceptible to illness and disease. The point is that keeping stress in line (not too much, not too little) isn’t just good for your head, it helps your entire body as well.

The good news: There are many things you can implement in your life that will help keep worry and stress in check. Research shows that you can decrease worry and anxiety by having and maintaining social support. It’s important to have friends and/or family you can talk to in good and challenging times. Making sure you have a regular workout schedule also helps lower stress. And then there’s sleep. Sleep is essential for managing stress, and it also plays a significant role in growing healthy muscles.

Muscles and Chronic Stress: 

Your muscles respond to stress by tensing up. In an emergency, this is good. Stress serves your mus- cles by triggering them, so they are ready for action and prepared to guard your body against injury. Long-term, low-grade stress keeps muscles at a higher state of tension over long periods of time, which increases the risk of chronic pain, muscle spasms, heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and back, neck, and shoulder pain.

The Heart and Stress: 

Your heart  works harder in response to stress. Under attack, being stuck in traffic, quickly swerving the car to avoid an accident, getting in a fight with your spouse, or having a deadline all cause the same reaction in your heart. Acute stress, the kind that happens in the moment and is short term, causes your heart to flood with stress hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These chemical mes- sengers tell your heart to pump harder and faster, which elevates blood pressure. Once the deadline, accident, or argument has passed, your heart returns to normal. Chronic stress contributes to long term problems  for your heart, arteries, and veins by demanding that they do more work over longer periods of time than they are designed to do. Chronic stress increases the risk of heart attack, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.

Sleep and Stress: 

Since stress is your body’s way of alerting you to a threat, it makes sense that it is harder to sleep when you are stressed out. Tense muscles, a pounding heart, and stress hormones that are meant to keep your body awake make it nearly impossible to relax enough to slumber. What you may not realize is that sleep deprivation weakens your muscles.

Your body releases a hormone called growth hormone when you sleep that is designed to help muscles recover and repair during sleep. In one 2017 study on sleep and strength, researchers from China mea- sured the handgrip strength of more than 10,000 university students and compared their strength to their sleep habits (they completed a questionnaire on sleep). The students who reported poor sleep quality and duration (less than six hours of sleep) were weaker on a hand-grip test than those who slept for seven to eight hours. Also, in a 2018 review published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Australian researchers reviewed 17 studies on sleep and its effect on strength and found that lack of sleep impaired muscle strength. The takeaway? Get your Zzz’s, and don’t be afraid to make up for extra time on a day off. Indulging in a nap, or two, to make up for lost sleep will help.

Strategies for helping your mood and muscles: 

So, if you want to be strong enough to meet the demands of your daily life, you need to mind your muscles by consciously thinking about, scheduling, and doing your workouts. Research  shows that doing strength training exercises improves your mood, focus, and clarity while decreasing depression and anxiety. You can help reduce chronic stress and muscle tension by practicing relaxation techniques such as slow breathing, meditation, guided imagery practices, and mind-body exercises such as yoga and tai chi. These techniques are also shown to improve mood and sleep.