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How Stress and High Sugar Intake Impacts Fascia

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

It’s no mystery that stress causes physical pain and dysfunction. Here’s the short story of how stress physically presents in the body.

Stress causes the adrenal glands to release high levels of cortisol into the bloodstream. Cortisol causes the liver to start breaking down glycogen stores and converting it into glucose which raises blood sugar levels in the body. High blood sugar levels directly stiffen and damage fascia, making it less elastic. This friction within the fascial sheaths (which literally cover every soft tissue, organ, blood vessel, bone, and nerve in the body) leaves you more prone to muscular aches and pains, injuries, spasms and alignment issues. When fascia gets stiff and rigid, it also slows down the flow of the lymphatic system-which in turn-weakens the immune system.

Something that I’ve personally experienced again and again in the treatment room, as a massage therapist, is the effect that stress has on the body. It doesn’t matter how often I see a client for deep tissue massage/sports massage, if their stress levels remain off the charts. Not only is it frustrating for the client receiving this work, but it can feel frustrating for me-as the practitioner-as well. I strive endlessly to show up and give 100% of my effort and energy to each client that I work with, and I know that it can feel very defeating for both parties when none of the work feels like it is progressing week after week. One thing that I’ve been trying to do more of lately, if this is something I’m recognizing with a client, is to steer the conversation towards a recognition of the level of continuous stress that the client is experiencing in their day to day life. Sometimes, the stress is even subconscious until it is talked about or brought to awareness. I’m not suggesting that a manual therapy session be somehow transformed into a version of talk-therapy, but I believe that they cannot be held in separate regards.

If you are a ‘heavy hitting, high achiever’, as I like to refer to most of my clientele, I can relate. There’s no better feeling than pushing your limits in a workout or a competition, and completing a goal. You feel empowered…you feel capable…you feel indestructible. I’ll speak for myself, but know that this sentiment is echoed by a lot of the people that end up on my table, I have come from a past history of body shaming myself and over-exercising or over-performing to feel ‘worthy’. Not only does this way of ‘performance’ physically stress the muscles and connective tissues by the sheer work your body is doing, but the mental stress that you can put on yourself just exacerbates the overall tension that you’re carrying around. Speaking for myself again, I’ve been that client too…laying on the table for a 60 minute deep tissue session…having to had hobbled in because I did a double workout the day before, when I was already feeling like I should take a rest day. I’ll just get this work on my legs, and then I’ll be good to go again for a hike or hiit workout at the gym later. Simply just laying there and anticipating all of the responsibility and effort that i’m going to put on myself later to ‘perform’ again, when in reality I should be taking an entire rest day off, just keeps me from ever really activating my parasympathetic nervous system at all. The stress cycle in the brain/body stays activated and, in turn, keeps the fascia rigid and tight. Nothing and no-one can break through to the tissues within.

A study of the effects of fascial release on the suboccipitals in cortisol

levels (done on clothing industry workers) LINKED HERE showed a greater significance of reduced salivary cortisol levels after the treatment was performed. This is a fantastic technique I like to use to start to activate the parasympathetic nervous system with my clients. A lot of you have experienced this: You take a deep breath in, while lying supine on your back, and I cradle the head, while giving you significant pressure in the back of the skull. There is a decompression of the cervical spine, as well as the fascial release of the suboccipital region (base of the skull where it meets the neck) of the head. Manual therapy can have a profound effect on more than just the physical stress that we put on our bodies. The psychological and physical bodies are one and the same, after all. Also, even though you are JUST getting a sports massage or deep tissue massage and placing focus on the physical aspects of how you feel...know that you are getting much much more!

Another major player in the cortisol ‘waterfall’, is high sugar intake in the diet. I’m far from a nutritionist, but I’ve definitely experienced the negative side effects of too much sugar in my life. Basically, when a high level of fructose is consumed, it is metabolized by subcutaneous adipocytes. This process results in a rapid inflammation of those cells as they are working hard to metabolize the fructose. The result of this inflammation, is then a release of intracellular cortisol, in an effort to lessen the inflammation in the subcutaneous adipocytes. IT’S ALL CONNECTED. Read more HERE.

Our American society doesn’t lend well to low stress and low sugar lifestyles, as we grind and perform our way through (powered on Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks of course). However, the simple act of bringing awareness and mindfulness to the forefront of how we move through our day to day can lend itself to a very big difference in our physical response and therefore our physical ability. Maybe giving ourselves a little help from time to time through mindfulness practices, massage therapy, talk-therapy, etc, could be good too. Hope to see you back on the table soon, and in the meantime-remember to slow down and take time to rest and recover (the mind is included in that too).

With endless gratitude,


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