Stressssss…. We’ve all heard of it and we’ve all experienced it, but what is actually going on in our bodies when we feel “stressed”?
When we’re exposed to stress, in any form, be that the stress we feel when someone cuts us off in traffic, to the adrenaline invoking high we experience when we jump out of a plane, or that deep belly-dropping dread that may occur when we have to speak in front of all our colleagues at the weekly work meeting, in all of these situations the same biological pathway is being activated, working to process the “stressful’ experience at hand and help our bodies eventually regain equilibrium after the stress has passed.
The HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis is a genius pathway the body uses to process stress and keep us adaptable. Basically, this is how your brain talks to your adrenal glands, the little guys sitting on top of your kidneys that control your stress hormones.
The word axis is used to describe the communication pathway that exists between the organs and glands of the endocrine and nervous systems. When these systems communicate with each other, a cascade of chemical messaging occurs across the entire body via the bloodstream, with messages cruising back and forth (think hormone call and response).
The letters in HPA stand for:
H - Hypothalamus - located in the brain, this organ is responsible for maintaining homeostasis (balance) within the body, governing things like body temperature, appetite, sleep cycles, circadian rhythms and energy levels.
P - Pituitary - this gland is connected to the hypothalamus and serves as a link between the nervous and endocrine systems via that organ, working to balance the body’s hormonal levels among many other functions.
A - Adrenals - these glands are perched above the kidneys and produce our sex hormones, as well as our stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which are involved in the “fight or flight’ response.
When we’re exposed to a stressor the HPA axis is triggered. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland via the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone, the pituitary then responds by secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), this prompts the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).
Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose into bloodstream, equipping the body with available energy to fuel the anticipated ‘fight-or-flight’ response that follows. Adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate and we’re given the boost our bodies need to overcome the stressor and survive.
In an ordinary situation (e.g. running away from a predator or saving someone from danger) this chemical cascade continues until sufficient hormone levels, namely cortisol, are reached to cope with the stressful situation. Once this occurs these chemical interactions begin to automatically switch off as part of the body’s inbuilt negative feedback loop. Once the situation is done and dusted, everything goes back to normal until next time.
So where does “adrenal fatigue” fit into all of this and what’s actually happening with this pathway when we are chronically stressed?
When we’re consistently exposed to prolonged stress, the negative feedback loop mentioned above starts to diminish in action. The organs and glands of the HPA axis fail to receive the signals to switch off the pathway and the environment of the body becomes one of constant stress.
In these circumstances the adrenals continue to pump out adrenaline and cortisol, and like any overworked muscle, they eventually end up taxed and unable to perform at their innate capacity. As a result, the rest of body also becomes depleted; foundational energy reserves wane and adaptability declines.
For many of us our daily schedule is one of go, go, go, output, output, output, we’re generally expending so much energy throughout our daily routine that rarely are we taking the time or creating the space to replenish the stores we are exhausting.
Here’s a few things we can do to ensure we are replenishing our foundational energy stores:
So there you have it folks, nurture your body, love up your organs with good food, good company, clean air and water, rest, play, stillness, get out in nature whenever you can and feel your body, mind and spirit come back online. Oh yeah and don’t forget to take your JING!
Hechtman, L 2012, Clinical Naturopathic Medicine - E-Book, Rev. ed, Churchill Livingstone, Chatswood, NSW
Welch, C, 2011, Balance Your Hormones. Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness Through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Medicine, 1st ed, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA