How does our “fight or flight” hormone impact the way we exercise and can we use it to our advantage while working out?
If you’ve ever felt your pulse quicken while watching a scary film or felt sweat start to pepper your forehead while speaking in front of a group of people, it’s adrenaline that’s partly to blame.
In fact, adrenaline plays a huge part in how we operate every day, affecting both our mental and physical health. But, despite us frequently using terms like ‘adrenaline junky’ and ‘adrenaline spike’, there is a lot of misinformation about our famous “fight or flight” hormone and how it impacts our wellbeing.
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When it comes to exercise, adrenaline can be exceptionally helpful in making our bodies work as efficiently as possible and can also spur us on to reach our personal bests. Here, we take a look at what exactly the hormone is and how we can use it to our advantage in reaching our fitness goals.
What is adrenaline?
Adrenaline is a hormone, commonly known as our fight or flight hormone. It’s released by the adrenal gland, which is found at the top of each kidney and is controlled by the pituitary gland.
“Your adrenal glands release adrenaline as a natural response when you encounter something that is exciting, dangerous or stressful,” Dr Hussain Abdeh, clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, tells Stylist. “Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and increases the flow of blood to the brain and muscles. Also, it makes the body produce more sugar, which is then used as fuel.”
The phrase “adrenaline rush” that we use so often refers to a spike in adrenaline levels. “This occurs when you are in a situation you believe to be stressful or dangerous,” says Dr Abdeh. This information is passed to the amygdala section of the brain, which helps us to compute emotion. The amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that communicates with the rest of the body.
When adrenaline is in the bloodstream, it stimulates the heart’s cells to make it beat faster, explains Dr Abdeh. It also binds to the liver cell receptors to break down glycogen so that your muscles are energised. It binds to the lungs’ muscle receptors so that you breathe quicker.
Adrenaline also causes the muscle cells to contract below the skin’s surface, which is what makes you sweat.
How is adrenaline different to cortisol?
Cortisol, like adrenaline, is produced by the adrenal glands; however, they are very different.
“Cortisol is the primary hormone released specifically in response to stress. It is a steroidal hormone that triggers the fight or flight response. It is released to prepare your body to survive a stressful situation, in particular the threat of physical harm,” explains Dr Abdeh.
All cells in the human body have receptors for cortisol, which works to shut down everything that is unnecessary for you to survive. This means it increases your blood pressure and heart rate and also suppressed digestion.
“Cortisol can cause health issues if you are constantly stressed,” adds Dr Abdeh. “For instance, cortisol suppresses the immune system, which means you may be more vulnerable to illness. You are also at a greater risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases.”
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What impact does adrenaline have on exercise?
Adrenaline and exercise are closely related. If you’ve ever pushed yourself to go that little bit faster while running to achieve a personal best or managed a few extra reps than while strength training, you’ve probably used adrenaline to get you there.
Our adrenaline levels rise when we exercise, especially if we are doing a new activity or pushing ourselves further. This rise in adrenaline triggers the heart to beat faster, which in turn makes capillaries in the muscles open wider, increasing the flow of blood around the body.
The presence of the hormone also expands our air passages supplying our muscles with more oxygen.
In fact, as we go about our day, our adrenaline levels are continually building up thanks to stresses and stimulations from our work and personal lives. If this adrenaline stagnates it can cause stress and anxiety.
This is where exercise plays an important part in using up this adrenaline. Despite adrenaline levels rising during the act of exercise, working out actually helps to lower our adrenaline levels as we recover, according to Harvard Medical School.
This is a huge part of the reason exercise is widely known to make us feel happier and more relaxed. The more we exercise, the lower our adrenaline levels become when we’re at rest and we have less intense reactions to adrenaline rushes when they arise.
How can we use adrenaline to work out better?
Maintaining your adrenaline levels throughout a workout helps us sustain energy better. By expending energy gradually, for example by building up to heavier weights or working up to a faster running pace, we retain adrenaline that we can use up at the end of a workout to push ourselves further.
Cool down properly
As with all workouts, making sure you cool down properly afterwards is essential. The endorphins released through exercise will help your body overcome the rise it’s experienced in adrenaline. While simple stretching movements or a slow walk will help your body’s adrenaline levels settle back down to normal levels.
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