What is the HPA axis and why you should care

by | Apr 11, 2019 | Mind

electricity arcing out of a sphere

It’s a bit of a mouthful, I know, but the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is basically a feedback system connecting your brain to your adrenal glands. These small but vital little glands sit above your kidneys and secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol in response to how you are experiencing your everyday world. But what does that mean exactly?

Stress physiology 101 

Put simply, if you perceive a threat in your environment, then chemical messages are first sent from an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is the area of your brain involved with memory, so the perceived ‘threat’ is based upon some previously remembered experience – whether that’s consciously or unconsciously. The hypothalamic signals are then picked up by the pituitary gland (also in your brain), which responds by sending its own set of chemical messages to your adrenal glands above your kidneys.

The adrenals then release the ‘alarm messengers’ adrenaline and noradrenaline – making your heart speed up, your breathing rate increase, and blood race to fuel your muscles. All this so you can physically either ‘fight or take flight’ (sometimes ‘freeze’) from whatever the threat is. Your adrenals also secrete the stress hormone cortisol for several hours following a stressor, and it’s this latter hormone at sufficient blood concentrations that your hypothalamus then picks up on and knows when to moderate its signal to switch the ‘alarm’ off again. Hence the HPA axis is a feedback loop.

Introducing the modern-day tiger

So you see, this is an essential system that helps keep you safe and able to run away when you encounter a tiger, for example. But it’s a system that also responds in a similar way if you feel you will get into trouble for running late to work or a meeting, or you have an assignment due tomorrow you haven’t completed, your boss is a bully and you dread encountering him or her, you see your credit card bill and it’s higher than you can afford to repay easily, you have an argument with someone, you feel vulnerable in some way, you feel your work lacks purpose, or any and all of the modern-day stressors unique to your situation you are encountering — they are the new ‘threats’ and unfortunately your brain doesn’t know these are not life-threatening (unlike the tiger); it signals the alarm each time, anyway.

Now that’s all very interesting, you may think — but what do I do with that information? Well, knowing this happens physiologically it may make more sense why talk of ‘stress busters’, becoming more mindful, the increased interest in yoga, or the myriad of advertisements for ‘relaxing breaks’ have become more and more mainstream in the past 5 to 10 years. They were always there. But the global wellness industry has grown and ‘how to relieve stress’ articles are more common now because we now acknowledge the impact of stress is a real issue affecting all people in the modern world.

…and how this relates to you

Maybe you are thinking ‘I don’t feel stressed’, and you could, of course, be correct. But the effects of stress are insidious and don’t have to reveal themselves as feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, or ‘I cannot cope’ (though they might). Instead, the impact of these chemical messages on your body over time reveal themselves as fatigue, nonrestorative sleep, a mind that never seems to stop racing; perhaps it’s a feeling of ‘not being quite right’ — as though you get through the day but don’t exactly have the energy levels you’d love to enjoy.

If this is you, or someone you know, then it’s wise to take heed as this ongoing pressure on your body, though subtle, over time can raise blood pressure, which affects your heart and eventually your kidneys; stress can also lead to less than ideal eating and exercising patterns, is associated with increased weight, mood changes, menstrual irregularities, poor digestion… the list goes on.

Reframing the word ‘stress’

As I mentioned in my previous post, stress is not a dirty word – it’s simply the name given to your natural physiological response to a perceived threat – but the threats have changed over more recent decades. The effects of these new stressors are something we all need to own and respond to in new ways, as our busy lives are unlikely to change anytime soon. This may mean changing your schedule to help prioritise more sleep or regular exercise. Or refusing to be a slave to food marketing, and pollute your body any longer with refined, processed convenience foods — instead, investing in more natural wholefoods that can support positive mood and health. You may also need some applied nutrition and/or herbal supplementation tailored to your needs and situation if correcting these foundations of health have helped but not resolved the sleep/energy/digestive/mood or other imbalance you may be experiencing, to your satisfaction.

Wellbeing in progress

This is not just talk as I practice many of these things myself, even when it’s difficult. I know I’m busy and under pressure frequently, so I choose to offset this reality with spending each day balancing life’s expectations of me with choices that help build resilience. I have a daily yoga and/or meditation practice, though it takes time and schedule juggling. I choose the foods I eat carefully (not perfectly 100% of the time, but at least mindfully). I also hike regularly, prioritise 7-8 hours sleep every day, am conscious of the need for a social network for support, and use a personalised herbal tonic along with a few nutrients that optimise my energy production. It works for me most of the time, but wellbeing is a work in progress, so every day I also choose to reflect on how I’m feeling, and make even better choices sometimes to not only feel well, but also stay well.

What you can do for yourself

Wellbeing is something that everyone can continue to optimise little by little, so if there are areas you feel you could improve regarding general wellness and building more resilience against everyday stressors — start with the basics. These are all the things you may already know (but perhaps have let slide) including daily (or at least every other day) exercise outside and swapping refined, processed energy-draining foods for more nourishing wholefoods. But besides this, you can also speak to your herbalist or naturopath about what tonifying formula is indicated for your situation, to give you that additional boost or support temporarily. Most people I meet want to live well and with more vitality, so if this is you then begin with being mindful of how you perceive your world, but also take whatever steps you feel you need to manage the physical impact of any stressors you may face either now or in the future.

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