Black Women and Cortisol: How Chronic Stress Affects Your Fitness

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Chronic stress means living in a constant state of fight or flight. So what does that mean for Black women’s health and fitness?

When it comes to fitness and wellness, the advice is usually simple and the same: eat less, eat right, work out. However, that generalized, one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work for everyone — especially Black women.

In our bodies, other factors at work may block our goals. One of the biggest factors is stress.

Recognizing an ever-present obstacle

Considering the effects of systemic racism, it’s no wonder that Black women live with chronic stress.

For Black people, stress is a constant due to race-based trauma and fear. But it’s important to note that it’s not just trauma that leads to elevated stress levels. In fact, perpetual microaggressions may have a more profound effect on stress than isolated incidents of trauma (1).

What’s more, epigenetics research has found that cultural stress and the trauma response can be passed down through generations of DNA (2).

This means that Black families are not only dealing with stress from their own lived experiences but also those of their ancestors.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “how the brain and body respond to any demand.” It further explains, “Any type of challenge, such as performance at work or school, a significant life change, or a traumatic event, can be stressful (3).”

Our bodies process stress through hormones. One of the main stress hormones is cortisol.

Cortisol can be activated and released over an extended period of time for a multitude of reasons, such as pressure associated with an impending deadline, thinking over an issue, or responding to race-based triggers that induce fear.

Dr. Jameta Nicole Barlow, a community health psychologist and scholar in residence for the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI), says there’s a difference between stress and distress.

“People are literally carrying stress that they don’t need to carry. It’s not serving them in any way, but when you look at the root of that, it’s fear,” Barlow says.

Race-based fear is something that Black women experience at heightened levels because of their intersectionality as a double minority (4).

As a result, Black women also tend to have heightened cortisol levels, which can lead to chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, among other health implications (5).

What does this mean for fitness?

For Black women who are embarking on a fitness journey to manage stress, lose weight, or prevent and manage chronic disease, the journey is not just about diet and exercise.

It’s just as much about addressing underlying hormonal issues that not only can prevent weight loss but also send us to an early grave. Proof can be seen in our DNA.

“At the end of our DNA are telomeres,” Barlow explains. “These telomeres tell us how old we are, biologically.” Research has shown that Black women have significantly shorter telomeres than white women, which means they age faster (6).

Barlow goes on to say, “[Researchers] have compared Black people’s telomeres with other people’s — mostly white people — and found that we’re literally [in] this weathering process of stress.

“This ongoing fear is contributing to our aging. DNA evidence tells us that systems of racism are changing our DNA, contributing to hormone imbalances, and contributing to years lost.”

Fitness is more than diet and exercise

Barlow said Black women who are experiencing blocks in their fitness journey need to be treated for a hormone imbalance in addition to continuing to work out and eat right.

“Complementary alternative medicine actually helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in decreasing cortisol.”

These alternative practices include yoga, acupuncture, mindful meditation, and sleeping. However, it should be noted that the quality of sleep is what’s most important.

There’s a distinct difference between sleep and rest, and you can absolutely go to sleep without your body truly shutting down to rest.

“If your brain never really goes into [deep sleep], there are some things that your organs just aren’t doing,” Barlow says.

During deep sleep our bodies reboot, much like a computer. The brain slows down and refreshes, while the liver and pancreas go to work to rid the body of toxins. Important hormones are released during deep sleep, and we recharge for waking hours (7).

All of that happens during the most restful period of sleep, but if you never enter deep sleep, these critical functions don’t take place, and you wake up from your sleep cycle tired and lethargic.

Barlow practices restorative yoga, which brings your body to the edge of sleep and allows it to rest even though you may still technically be awake. She recommends the practice for every Black person so they can establish a new normal of how they’re supposed to feel.

She says, “We’ve been taught for so long you have to push, push, push or you can sleep when you’re dead, and it’s like, no — actually you can [sleep and still] have an abundant life.”

Designing a customized fitness plan

For Black women, the road to this abundant life as it pertains to our fitness means making sure we attend to our rest and recovery needs. We need to do high impact workouts, as well as engage in more mindful practices like meditation and yoga.

In fact, if we don’t, we may notice our efforts backfiring, as too much high intensity exercise can further elevate cortisol levels. The best thing we can do for ourselves is listen to what our unique bodies need. For us, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Barlow said, “I think too often we want to say, ‘If you do A, B, and C, you can lose weight.’ It’s not that simple because we don’t have A, B, and C experiences as individuals. We all have different stressors, different lifestyles, so it’s about finding the right program for you [and] working with the right people.”

Finding the right team includes a doctor to determine whether you have a hormone imbalance and possibly a nutritionist to make sure you’re eating well. If you’re doing all those things correctly and still feel like you’re hitting a wall, the next step is to improve your quality of sleep.

For Black women, hitting specific fitness goals doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s an integrated process that requires looking at the totality of our lives and managing each area for overall wellness.

So, if you wish to embark on a fitness journey that leads you to wellness, wholeness, and most importantly, an abundant life with minimal stress, where do you begin? Start with an assessment of your life as it is.

Identify your stressors and set boundaries for yourself and others, including those related to screen time and toxic relationships. If you’re new to fitness and wellness, small steps still count, like walking, adding more vegetables to your diet, and eating less dessert.

Prioritize sleep, and sis — whatever you do, relax your shoulders, unlock your jaw and your tongue from the roof of your mouth, and breathe. It is necessary.

Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award winning news producer and award winning author. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended Florida State University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication: Mass Media Studies and Honors English Creative Writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full-time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications including VOX, Very Smart Brothas, and Shadow and Act. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but you can always find her online at contact@newwrites.com, or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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