The term ‘HPA axis dysfunction’ is a bit of a mouthful, an easier way of describing it is that it’s a condition whereby chronic stress has quite simply taken its toll on health and mental wellbeing. The HPA axis refers to three key glands in the body and their functions within the central nervous system and the endocrine (hormone) system:
How do these glands work together to maintain health?
All three glands are deeply interconnected and work in unison to regulate many of the body’s vital processes such as metabolism, mood, energy, immunity and most importantly, our stress response. When everything is working well, the HPA axis functions via a biofeedback mechanism. This means that the hormones are regulated naturally via the hypothalamus’ receptors (message receivers), that pick up on external stressors, as well as internal levels of hormones, to prevent overproduction.
This incredibly sophisticated mechanism served us very well when we had minimal exposure to stress thousands of years ago and our nervous system was able to recalibrate and return back to a normal, relaxed state. However, in today’s society, we are continuously exposed to stress, which can lead to a dysfunction in this normally, very fine tuned axis.
For example, when we are under stress, our hypothalamus perceives this and releases corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), which tells your pituitary gland to release another substance called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then goes on to stimulate cortisol release from the adrenal glands. The production of cortisol leads to an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar so that your body is well-equipped to survive the stress. For our Stone Age ancestors, this mechanism was crucial in the face of a short-term threat to life. It helped us to survive and escape quickly from whatever was attacking us, however, what happens when this system is continually activated like it is in the modern world?
Why does chronic stress lead to HPA axis dysfunction?
Factors such as work pressure, sleep deprivation, processed food, sugar and toxins can all stimulate the HPA axis in the same way that a threat to our life would have done years ago. The problem is that this intelligent system isn’t built to deal with continuous stress, which is why symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, insomnia and mood imbalances are all so common in today’s society. The continuous output of cortisol, which is stimulated by stress, can eventually have a negative impact on the HPA axis, meaning that the body becomes less resilient to stress.
The NHS says that 45% of the visits that GPs and hospitals receive on a daily basis present with unexplained medical symptoms that they do not have a drug for and cannot treat. Based on statistics provided by the Mental Health Foundation, this is most likely related to stress – the largest known study in the UK showed that 75% have felt so stressed that they are unable to cope. Furthermore research reviews have shown how stress is one of the most influential modifiable risk factors of many of today’s most common diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
How can nutrition protect the body from chronic stress?
In order to protect us from the effects of a chronically activated HPA axis, in addition to regulating the stress response by engaging in practices such as mindfulness, CBT therapy and mindbody movements like yoga, nutrition can also play an important preventative role. Here are some key tips to keep in mind: